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Perfect Timing: Think Tank Claims UK is Europe's 'Extremist Content' Hotspot

© REUTERS / Dado RuvicA 3D plastic representation of the Twitter and Youtube logo is seen in front of a displayed ISIS flag in this photo illustration in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016
A 3D plastic representation of the Twitter and Youtube logo is seen in front of a displayed ISIS flag in this photo illustration in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016 - Sputnik International
A report issued by UK think tank Policy Exchange - a group with an at-times questionable research record - has suggested Britain is Europe's biggest market for extremist propaganda, and calls for restrictions on social media content as a result.

The UK population is the world's fifth biggest audience for extremist content in the world (and the largest in Europe) after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, a study — "The New Netwar" — issued by British think tank Policy Exchange has said.

​The 130-page report found Daesh produced over 100 new articles, videos and newspapers per week, despite being in retreat in Iraq and Syria, indicating suggestions the group is declining in influence were "significantly overstated."

This propaganda is disseminated across a "vast ecosystem" of platforms, including file-sharing services, encrypted messaging platforms and social media websites, as well as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

In the report's foreword, General David Petraeus said efforts to combat online extremism were "inadequate."

"[The Parsons Green bombing] merely underscores once again the ever-present nature of this threat. There is no doubting the urgency of this matter. The status quo clearly is unacceptable," the disgraced former US military chief wrote.

Furthermore, the report suggested new laws should criminalize "aggravated possession and/or persistent consumption" of extremist ideology, noting images of child abuse were approached in a similar way, with tougher penalties for the most serious cases. Under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offense to possess information that could assist a terrorist, but not material that glorifies terrorism.

​In a survey of over 2,000 adults in the UK, Policy Exchange found 74 percent of people supported such proposals.

​The report's publication could not be more opportune for the UK government, as it coincides with a renewed push by Prime Minister Theresa May to compel internet companies to block "extremist content" being shared on social media and other web platforms. In particular, the government wishes to target "disseminators" — platforms such as Twitter, via which content is shared; "content stores" such as YouTube; and "aggregators" such as WordPress.

An unloaded Twitter website is seen on a phone without an internet connection, in front of a displayed ISIS flag in this photo illustration in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016 - Sputnik International
50 Percent of UK Terrorists Have Been Radicalized Online - Henry Jackson Society

Happy Coincidence?

Whether serendipitous or not, it's inarguable Policy Exchange has an established track record of indirectly supporting government policy — and questionable investigations into Islamic extremism.

While branding itself as an independent think tank, the organization thoroughly connected to the UK political establishment, and has frequently been accused of acting as a legitimizing mouthpiece for government policy. The organization's first director was Nick Boles, a former member of Westminster City Council considered part of the "Notting Hill Set" — an informal group of reformist Conservatives connected to former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Boles' connections to the modern Conservative party don't end there — he once shared a flat with former Education Secretary Michael Gove, and is a signatory to the statement of principles of the Henry Jackson Society, a UK neoconservative organization which counts many Conservative parliamentarians old and new among its members.

Upon his resignation in 2007, Boles reflected on his time at Policy Exchange, which he called his "biggest achievement" in politics. In particular, he boasted that "many" of the group's ideas had been adopted by David Cameron's government, and of exposing the activities of Islamic extremists in mosques in the UK — although given subsequent revelations, Boles may have wished he was more circumspect on the latter point.

Undercover Sting, Fabricated Evidence?

In October that year, Policy Exchange published The Hijacking of British Islam, which claimed to be the "most comprehensive academic survey" of extremist literature ever produced in the UK.

The think tank dispatched four undercover teams to around 100 mosques across Britain, and claimed to have found radical material for sale at 25 percent of the institutions surveyed. The report recommended British authorities end their relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Foundation and the Muslim Safety Forum. 

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The report's findings were widely covered in the UK mainstream media, and the BBC's flagship political show Newsnight had intended to run an exclusive package on the findings. However, Newsnight journalists did not have to dig deeply before concluding the report was based at least in part on fabricated evidence.

Specifically, BBC staff raised concerns about five receipts, said to relate to the purchase of extremist literature from separate mosques.

In all five cases the mosques involved said the receipts were not theirs, and expert analysis showed all five had been printed on an inkjet printer, suggesting they were created on a PC.

Moreover, there was strong evidence two of the receipts were written by the same person, and one of the receipts had been written out while resting on another receipt, said to be from a mosque 40 miles away.

Policy Exchange subsequently removed the report from its website, and issued a public apology to some of the mosques it had implicated.

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