The Frontline is Online – my piece in the Daily Mirror

by Liam Byrne | 06.10.15 | in: Foreign Policy, Hodge Hill, National news, Philosophy, Police, Westminster


Whatsapp is a “disaster for the police” – how we are losing the fight against the digital Jihadis


David Cameron should think again about air strikes against Syria and focus on the real threat to British security: the use of social media to pervert young minds. Labour MP Liam Byrne warns that apps such as Whatsapp, Viber and Snapchat are being used by extremists to groom recruits for ISIS and the police are struggling to stop them


The case of Boy S, the 15 year old Blackburn teenager convicted of inciting terrorism, reveals the new truth in the battle against extremism.

The front line is online. Now the Prime Minister looks poised to halt his expensive bombing plans for Syria, I’ve know a better place to put the money earmarked for Tornados and Brimstone missiles: the digital battle-front, where the case of Boy S proves, we’re being hopelessly out-generaled.

In a shocking testimony, the police laid bare the crucial role of social media through which Boy S was first groomed, and through which he planned mayhem.

It’s a change in tactics signalled in a little discussed manual written by Al Queda in Iraq – the group which became ISIS.

A Course in the Art of Recruiting’ was recovered by US forces in 2009 and sets out step by step the methods deployed by Isis groomers on instant messenger apps like Whatsapp, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, Viber and a host of apps few parents have ever heard of.

Today these apps are being used to pervert angry young minds with propaganda produced like pop videos, iconic images of the Knights of Lone Jihad and twisted snippets from the Quran, used to justify murder. And we’re not fighting back.

In my patch of East Birmingham, police, parents and teachers are worried. ‘Whatsapp’ is a disaster for the Police’ one intelligence expert told me. ‘We think 80-90% of our problem is the online world’.

It means the government needs to think again about it’s plans for counter-radicalisation coming to parliament this winter.

In the summer, David Cameron heralded new laws to restrict free speech – and take a tougher line on mosques. But the idea risks back-firing badly when the problem is not radical preachers in back-rooms – but chat rooms.

Before we start supporting military intervention in Syria – we should start supporting parents’ intervention at home.

Lobbing a few Brimstone missiles around in Syria costs around £1 million a mission. Frankly the money would be better spent with charities like Jan Trust’s Web Guardians, which teaches parents to spot the warning signs in their child’s online habits.

Why? Because in Birmingham police were shocked to discover at a community event recently that just 10% of mums knew how to log on – never mind check what their kids were surfing online.
Second, in a world where smart phones can be weapons, why don’t we at least have digital safety locks for under 18s – that prevent young people accessing things they shouldn’t. It’s surely not beyond the nation that cracked the Enigma ciphers to invent one.

Third, we need a huge campaign to flood social media with the counter arguments – theological and otherwise – to rebut the perverted arguments of the digital jihadis – arguments which have barely moved on since the last will and testaments of the 7/7 bombers, but which are now produced to world class standards, often by Brits abroad.

Fourth, it’s time to get tougher with digital giants, to force the rapid shut of what is frankly treason and fifth.

We need new laws to create a safe, supervised, judicial process for targeted intelligence gathering online – now mission critical in keeping us safe.

It is said the Prime Minister sees the war against extremism as a generational struggle. He’s right. But as Boy S proves, the prime minister is in danger of fighting the last war – not the digital battle now at hand.


Liam Byrne is the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill


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