Countering Radicalization Softly

Measures and tools of counter radicalization are more reliable now than they were a few years back, thanks to RAN and other organizations. However, the application depends on the individuals and groups in question and on the context. Concerning applicability, not everything that works fine for the majority of potentially radicalized, or in most cases, will work for everybody, or in any circumstance. We need a holistic but tailored approach.

If we treat people according to the same, unitary scheme, we risk making mistakes, even if the scheme is slightly amended over the years. It is not only about technicalities, it is also about the people applying measures and their preferences.

We need better training and better staffing. Notably, we need to assign the right people. This does not mean escalating things by the numbers and in severity, it means being smarter. Cost is a factor. But if we discard non-mainstream measures without testing them longer-term, especially with an emphasis on soft measures (where appropriate), we risk doing a job that is far from perfect. Notwithstanding arrests, deportations and other results deemed to be successes. We need incentives, perspectives of inclusion for those who will stay, and of course clear limitations.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
July 2019

Negative Traits in Counter-Terrorism

Here are a number of unhelpful traits which may surface in counter-terrorism (German terms in some cases added):

  • actionism instead of careful consideration
  • anticipatory justice or vorauseilende Gerechtigkeit
  • exaggeration leading up to aggravation or Verschlimmbesserung
  • carelessness
  • superficial treatment
  • conclusions and generalizations based on single leads
  • wrong combinations of algorithmic items prompting wrong assumptions
  • lack of actualization and assumption ‘hangover’
  • no double-checking
  • forgetfulness of mitigating circumstances
  • over-reliance on schematic, extreme variables and manifestations
  • non-individual casing
  • ignoring of contextual givens
  • over-estimation of specific institutional regulations
  • over-emphasis of temporal external aspects
  • losing perspective or Verlust der Perspektive
  • individual preferences of officials put upon their targets
  • securitarian tribalism
  • over-fraternizing in partnering
  • securitarian rivalries and hubris detrimental to objectivity
  • partiality
  • objectification of human beings or Verdinglichung
  • unjustified summary treatment or grundlose Gruppenhaftung
  • over- or under-empathic attitudes
  • wrong conclusions due to a lack of skills
  • wrong combinations of skill sets

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
July 2019

Before 9/11, Muslims in Germany Warned About a “Major Event”

Before 9/11 and probably related to the subsequent, terrible events, I overheard a conversation amounting to a warning between two Muslims at a place of worship I went to as a guest, al-Nur Mosque, in Mainz, Germany. I conveyed the information to a member of the German executive. However, to my knowledge, nothing was done after I had given a full account of what I knew. Though what information I had could not have been very detailed, I had every reason to take what I heard from the two persons (by the way unknown to me) very seriously.

In a nutshell, the two Muslims, whom sat directly in front of as I turned around and they greeted me briefly and cautiously, rather firmly stated that “something major and terrible is going to happen.” They did not name any specific group of people targeted, however by nodding, the person behind me to my right side confirmed what the person behind me on the left had said. Shortly afterwards, 9/11 took place in the USA. Aside from the words I cited, the statement contained not much further relevant information.

There are two options to interpret the said conversation:

1) the two Muslims intended to warn the German authorities, through me, of a major event, probably a terrorist event, since I was considered a non-hardliner and mere guest of the place of worship, and not among the usual Mosque attendents who pray among their congregation regularly. This prompted some of the latter to consider me a police informer, which I was not.

2) the two Muslims may have been part of a group of people spreading information, possibly with a true background, but in a way that was unspecific enough to “immunize” the authorities via the repeated occurrence of the information, and lower the authorities’ alarmism before a terrorist event. They could have been sympathizers of terrorists, with inside knowledge either directly or indirectly. If one is not to be considered naive, one has to take into account this second explanation, equally probable to the first one.

(A third explanation would be that the sentence uttered by the person behind me, on my left, was meant as a warning that something terrible was going to happen to me, however the tone was too reserved, which had me exclude that possibility as theoretical.)

In any case, the person I shared the information with about the warning that “something major and terrible” was, in my words “probably” or “possibly,” about to happen, then functionary at a German higher state institution on the federal level, apparently did not follow up on my account. If it were different, I would have read a reference in news reports on 9/11, as well as the official 9/11 report.

To repeat, I made all information which had, though the info could not have been very detailed, available, via this one functionary, to the German executive. Albeit, in spite of me having given all the essential information, when I used the search engine paperball and other news crawlers, so shocked was I when 9/11 happened, I never found any reference as to my account, neither with my name nor unspecific.

What I did read at the time in at least one news report was that a few unnamed foreign nationals conveyed warnings to the German executive and that these warnings were said not to have been believed. Hence the “immunization” hypothesis under 1).

I am writing this in full mental capacity, shortly after re-recalling the warning I heard at al-Nur Mosque before 9/11 and, again, drawing the conclusion that the, now-former, state functionary must face my criticism of neglect of his duties as a federal servant and citizen, following my firm account. I, on the contrary, did everything necessary, taking the opportunity to convey my knowledge of the warning to the German authorities, at a restaurant in the Bad Kreuznach district, Germany, which I visited in my professional capacity as a journalist, via the functionary present. And this after the above-mentioned conversation, in Mainz, between the two persons had taken place, notably before the most tragic events of 9/11 took place.

The high German functionary, F**, a theologian, was initially reluctant to hear my account. He at one point compared the Jewish community to “pharisees,” which I considered antisemitic.

In closing, let me state that I never encountered the two men who conveyed the warning again.

More warnings in Germany

After 9/11, I used news crawlers paperball and paperboy, searching for background information on the terrorist attacks. I found one or two newspaper articles stating that there were warnings and information by foreigners in Germany and one outside of Germany, dating from before the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon. These accounts were said to have been insufficiently reliable. I do not happen to have retrieved the articles again, and the data does not figure in the official 9/11 report nor elsewhere, maybe for diplomatic reasons.

However, judging from the warning by two Muslims I personally heard before 9/11 about a major, terrible event which was about to take place, at least one German high ministerial official gravely misjudged the information, failing to do everything in his power to prevent the tragic, terrorist act of 9/11 from taking place.

The lesson is this: whenever there are warnings about terrorist events, be it few, be it many warnings, the information must be followed up on and treated with the highest degree of scrutiny. In other words, such information must be taken as seriously as possible, not simply be set aside. 9/11 might have been possible to prevent and nothing of the sort must ever happen again!

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
Thursday, May to June 2019

Addendum: Personal threat

Personal addendum I (June, 20019): I had stated in an earlier post that there were pre-9/11 warnings. I became witness of one such warning by two Muslims, but my account given to a high German ministerial official was obviously not followed up on.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks had occurred, I was invited to an anniversary at the home of a policeman (Polizei Rheinland-Pfalz) in the city of Mainz. It was an event unrelated to the terrorist attacks and the warning I had witnessed, but the policeman did allude to my account. It seemed somewhat odd.

Having had tea and snacks in the afternoon, I stepped through one of the policeman’s doors, touched the doorframe, felt electrified and found myself laying on the floor. The policeman came, asked me if I was alive and okay and then demanded whether I required to be defibrillated, a procedure reserved for people whose heart has stopped beating. I said no to such a procedure, as I took the latter demand as a threat.

As it happens, the policeman, whom I visited in his private home when he was off duty, was very close to the high ministerial official who obviously neglected his duty and allowed 9/11 to happen.

Addendum: Marginalization in Rheinland-Pfalz

Personal addendum II (July, 2019): Since October, after talking about a pre-9/11 warning by two Muslims in Germany, I applied for new employment. I got three theoretical job opportunities fitting my profile from the German-state job agency. A mere three, all others in the wrong slots. I applied for two of the jobs, but my applications were disregarded, apparently from the outset.

I then applied for twenty complete matches in private – all I got was refusals. I was finally proposed to report on family matters and to provide input on an irrelevant subject. All in all, two to three tasks did come in, on my own initiative. I did not follow up on these, too awkward were they.

I also tried entrepreneurship, however, ad revenue is close to zero, and there is no crowd funding despite requests on four platforms. All of this keeps me from executing my job as a journalist and social scientist.

Balancing Free Speech and Customer Satisfaction

How to put the value of free speech and the different understandings of customer satisfaction on social media platforms in line? Via moderation by standard rules for any platform, and by placing counter-narrative content in secluded spaces.

As we know, some groups of people, for one reason or another, will wish to publish content deemed by others as radical, while these others will wish to see the same, “appaling” content taken down from the internet spaces. Tech companies have been reluctant, in the beginning, to impose strict regimes, preferring to uphold the value of free speech. But they cannot be everybody’s darling.

Content Moderation Is Central

There is always the phase of market observation, of trial and error. But the issue of problematic content is not new to tech sites any more. In recent months and years, there has been public outcry, media criticism and calles from politics to impose stricter governing rules. Companies have to set up clear benchmarks and rules, the application of which will be more or less transparent, given technical restraints and limited provision of financial resources.

While it is true that the companies ought to employ more moderators, the human factor, in a positive sense, being crucial in moderation, we can hope that the implementation of company regimes will become more consistent through the years.

Rising Scrutiny, Standard Rules

For the more critical among us, this may mean that some low-level content will remain, dissatisfactory as this may be. For others, it will mean that their contestable contributions will be subject to moderation and taken down. Company scrutiny will probably rise as departments and instances are being built and enlarged which are responsible for moderation within the tech companies. These departments and instances are not alibi blocks, they are tasked with fulfilling an important role.

On the other hand, there is a tendency to create more secluded spaces within social media platforms. Within these, two or more people meet, as is the case with instant messaging already.

Securing Private Spaces

The trend of more secluded spaces will bring about a higher amount of user experience and ease on some platforms, less broad discussion, and it will create more so-called filter bubbles, inaccessible to the public, wherein accountability is lower. This is worrysome, as communication within those filter bubbles will, all in all, trickle down manifestly into society. While private conversation is legitimate, group discussions, especially in the shadows, with problematic subjects are proven to reinforce stereotypes, simplification and, possibly, falsehoods.

My proposition would be that the enhancement of user experience by facebook and others shall be such, among other things, that counter-narrative ads and news with content from reliable sources be distributed anonymously, balancing the stereotypes within the filter bubbles to some degree. Public discussion should still be encouraged via more convenient spheres where whole groups of people can meet. These spaces are accessible to everybody and should be and remain more attractive. Reported, indexed or known violations of laws must be sanctioned in secluded spaces as in public spaces. No double standard.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
June 2019

A Watchdog For P/CVE Content?

Regulation scares many. Despite this, we will ask the question: is there a need for a watchdog when it comes to documents on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE)?

The question is of much importance. After all, something positive can in many cases be turned to something negative. Specifically, research output on P/CVE is often technical in nature. The findings, in the wrong hands, can be used in a multitude of ways, for good and for worse.

Luckily enough, extremists are a minority. While it is surmisable that information extracted from P/CVE research reports goes viral, possibly undetected or hardly recognized, we must come to the realization that content is socially produced, and this plays to our advantage. Let me state two hypotheses, in this context:

1) terrorist cells and organizations lack manpower and expertise in comparison with official and semi-official institutions.

2) C/PVE documents can influence and corrode the morale and ideas of terrorists and terrorist organizations.

While some of the publications and videos of extremists and terrorists are suprisingly professional and bear a certain appeal with reference to their evil following, extremists and terrorists are not in a position to stage a counter-operation rivaling the abilities of civilised institutions such as states or supranatinoal organisations, in scale, scope or quality.

How best to ensure that the terrorists are not empowered but their morale and ideas are contested? First, there is no reason to embargo P/CVE material in general. A plentitude of documents is is out in the open, has been for years and has proven valuable for researchers and practitioners. The downsides of this practice of publication are minor, according to all appearance. Were the material to be classified or censored, terrorists could, instead of consulting P/CVE documents, take university lessons and learn from literary studies or marketing textbooks to enhance their propaganda efforts, just to name a few examples.

But how to achieve that the second hypothesis stated above proves to be correct? One ought to always contextualize and position oneself as a researcher. One might, then, ask: why am I to justify myself? The answer is simple: because information and communication is a contested terrain, particularly when it comes to counter-extremism. In recent years, we have seen communication bubbles popping up, with groups of terrorists consuming only or mainly information which has been rewritten with radical notions in mind, be it technical information or religious texts.

With respect to P/CVE documents, we need to try and create dissonance in the mind of the extremists who read our texts (at the same time confirming the world view of readers with good and peaceful intentions). We can then expect the benefit of the doubt to persist, to a certain degree, and hope to shatter the deviance within the minds of the extremists. While this does not mean that we can destroy whole organizations, we can do our share in weakening them by targeting their chains of textual consumption.

Hence, P/CVE documents, scientific as they are, should become more opinionated and persuasive overall. It might be a start to include generic referrals and emotive designations opposing terrorism, however, even manuals can and should be value-based, originally crafted narratives instead of impartial, relativist science.

With a proper sense of responsibility and fulfilling the role of gate-keepers, there may be no need to instore watchdogs for P/CVE material after all. In any event, P/CVE researchers and practitioners should take care to let their anti-terrorist positions shine through while drafting papers and other research documents, in a sophisticated manner, in order to guarantee that their texts bring about the desired and necessary result, not just in application, but already during the reception and exposure phase of their texts: to counter terrorism.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
March 2019

Ethical Issues Related to Communication and CT

Communication efforts within operations of counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism (CT) are crucial for the success of approaches chosen by a government body, private or civil society organisation. However, ethical questions may arise.

We will lay out some key issues which are more or less likely to cause concerns:

  • arbitrary goals and objectives
  • excessive or inadequate measures (substantially, structurally and in time)
  • disproportionate leveraging
  • unwarranted misgivens in mitigation and through delegation
  • misappropriations of operational leads
  • intransparencies
  • nepotism
  • corruption
  • spreading in trying to limit ripple effects (expansionism)
  • perceived irreversibility (due to erroneous determinism)
  • monism and binary thinking
  • maintenance of ops or associated, underlying assumptions
  • irrational group effects, reinforced by a lack of good leadership
  • gaps in practitioner training

There have certainly been tendencies towards inappropriate scale, scope, and intransparencies. They can, but need not, be due to hidden agendas.

Highly questionable is alleged irreversibility, even after errs, leading up to a continuation of unethical operations, which may be condoned by op leaders. (I hint to the fact that psychological operations are linked to sustenance.) There can, hence, be tendencies toward continuations of patterns of actions by agents (clinging, possibly due to bandwagonism), whereas an op is no longer legitimimizable. Agents may have previously misconstrued, or still consider themselves to be tasked.

All of the above calls for diligent planning, execution, mechanisms of control and oversight.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
January 2019

How the 9/11 and 7/7 Terror Attacks Have Hurt UK Muslims

Islamophobia existed prior to 9/11, but levels of discrimination and violence rose after the violent events. In reaction, implicit racism remained considerable long afterwards. Similarly, after the 7/7 attacks, faith-hate crime augmented significantly, and the negative depictions of Muslims were disproportionate.

A large majority of Muslims rejected political aggression and terrorism after the occurrences of violent extremism, although a few displayed some empathy with the tribulations of the attackers. Most UK Muslims keep identifying strongly with Britain.

Among steps to counter terrorism, the Prevent programme stresses social interaction on the community level. Its measures are supported by the greater part of Muslim communities in the UK.

For the full contribution by Thorsten Koch, MA (April 2017), read or download the PDF hosted by academia:

Positive and Negative Measures of Anti-Terrorism

ARC Europe (Anti-Radicalisation Centres Initiative) embraces soft anti-terrorism and passive strategic means in the domestic fight of European countries against terrorism. What ARC Europe does not condone is unethical tactics. Below, we provide a non-exhaustive list of methods we tend to support and such which are generally unsupported by our NGO.

Efforts which should be held as sustainable:

  • use of positive influencing from family and friends
  • positive incentives and empowerment through education and work
  • use of tendentially harmless PR techniques
  • lawful information gathering
  • below-threshold warnings and referrals to legal provisions
  • use of discourse such as one-by-one dialog (e.g. with social workers)
  • financial controls
  • removal of criminal content from the internet
  • judicial measures such punitive fines, community service and detainment

Measures which are unsustainable:

  • fully-fledged psychological attacks
  • use of psychoactive drugs
  • unlawful use of kinetic weapons
  • use of unconventional weapons
  • overreaching application of information technology
  • capital punishment
  • unlawful, pseudo-judicial measures to attain particularist political ends
  • other applications leading to different kinds of individual and societal dysfunction

As always, an over-reliance, in this case on anti-terrorist utilities, bears the tendency of yielding unwarranted, negative effects. Foreseeably (especially irreparable) damage to the physical integrity of a person and to the integrity of society is, indeed, absolutely reprehensible. Measures causing physical and psychological harm have partly been banned by international conventions already.

A note to political decision-makers: he who has the means and tools of anti-terrorism at his disposal risks excess in the application of measures up to so-called extreme measures. The idea of a guided society is an enticement which has to be prevented at all cost. It runs against the principles of religion and humanism. Using a range of policing and psychological tools and measures systematically can breach the principles of human rights, and at the advent of mass-use of artificial intelligence, can either negatively enhance the capabilities of terrorists or stride to the level of the above-mentioned dystopia of a guided society, which we advocate against.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
December 2018