Experts Express Doubt Over New Europol Anti-ISIS Social Media Unit

Isis on social media
According to a new report from the Brookings Institute in Washington, there could be up to 90,000 Isis linked accounts on social media Twitter

Counter-extremism experts have described Europol's new unit created to tackle social media accounts linked to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (Isis) as unlikely to be effective due to the breadth of support and variety of platforms used by supporters.

A new pan-European police unit is being set up to track and shut down prominent Isis-linked accounts which spread propaganda online to radicalise people in the West and persuade them to travel to Syria.

The new unit, set up by the European police agency, Europol, will begin work on 1 July and aim to block accounts within two hours of them being set up by extremists based anywhere in Europe.

The new unit, which is yet to announce how many officers from each European country will be involved, will seek to track down approximately 46,000 key Isis propagandist accounts tweeting and posting up to up to 100,000 messages a day, on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.

Europol estimates that at least 5,000 foreign fighters have been radicalised and travelled from Europe to Isis-controlled territory across Syria and Iraq since the group's sweep across Syria and Iraq brought them to prominence last summer - most recently three women from Bradford, England, along with their nine children.

But experts in online radicalisation say that whilst the new project is well intended, the authorities could risk ignoring the most important drivers of Isis recruitment if they focus too much of their time tracing and blocking endless short-lived accounts online.

Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank in London, says that whilst the introduction of Europol's new team is "well intentioned", there are many other platforms and arenas for recruitment than just online."

Whilst radicalisation does indeed happen online, "recruitment doesn't happen on open source social media, most of recruitment goes on on peer to peer platforms on Kik or Whatsapp, or in person," Winter said.

Blocking accounts is a very reactive measure, says Winter, the real issue "is not what is going on on social media, the real issue is that the ideology is still appealing in the first place".

Nick Kaderbhai, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) who focuses on the impact of the internet on radicalisation and recruitment to Isis says that countering radicalisation and recruitment is less about taking out the big players and more about silencing the general voices of support for Isis online.

Europol director, Rob Wainwright, told the BBC that the new unit would target online 'ringleaders' and close them down. However, Kaderbhai questions this tactic. Europol can block account after account, he says, but "they will never get rid of the constant noise going on in the background coming from Isis supporters". There is a middle space on the internet, where low profile people inspire others to go and join in their own way, he adds. "High profile Isis supporters are careful, they won't - and don't often - directly call on people to travel."

Both Winter and Kaderbhai also point out that online radicalisation is only part of the problem. Kaderbhai explains that, whilst online propaganda has a major role to play in spreading the violent message of Isis effectively, most of the physical recruitment happens offline where there is an element of trust and friendship, emphasising that Isis recruiters "can only get so far online".

David Cameron last week said Isis was using the internet to lure western youngsters to its cause. He said: "It may be medieval in its outlook, but it is modern in its tactics, with the internet as the main tool to spread its warped worldview."

Both Winter and Kaderbhai agree that whilst the new team, which begins work in July, will be of some help to stopping online propaganda and online networks continuing to expand, it won't "dramatically change the state of play," nor completely prevent people from being lured out to Isis heartlands to fight.