back to top

UK's Counter-Terror Response Is Undermined By "Confrontational" Language, Report Warns

A report has said that appeals to British Muslim communities may be failing because of the overly "emotive" language used by politicians.

Posted on

The "emotive" and "confrontational" language that UK politicians use when talking about terrorism could be hindering the country's counter-terror response and even encouraging extremists, a report has warned.

A protester holds a slogan at a rally against ISIS organised by the local Muslim community in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Danny Lawson / PA WIRE

A protester holds a slogan at a rally against ISIS organised by the local Muslim community in Edinburgh, Scotland.

As part of the government's Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, authorities across the UK have attempted to speak to Muslims to explain the dangers of young people travelling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS or other similar groups.

But a paper from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released last week warned that past attempts at appealing to British Muslims may have been "counterproductive".

"Unfortunately, this outreach has been undermined by the use of emotive language to characterise the threat as well as counterproductive accusations that communities are failing to respond to a threat within," wrote Raffaello Pantucci, one of the report's authors.

Pantucci argued that British Muslims who are actively opposed to the British government and see it as anti-Muslim are "a minority who speak for few".

"Ultimately, many in these communities enjoy living in the UK's free and multicultural society and do not want their fellow citizens to die alongside ISIS. Garnering their support is something that will only be possible in an environment where the government uses less confrontational language," he said.

The report also warned that government officials risked "breathing life" into right-wing narratives that paint Muslims as being opposed to a peaceful British way of life.

David Cameron devoted a lengthy portion of his keynote speech at the Conservative party conference in Manchester on Wednesday to tackling domestic extremism.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

He said the UK should "tear up the narrative that says Muslims are persecuted and the West deserves what it gets", adding that "this diseased view of the world" was an epidemic that had "infected minds from the mosques of Mogadishu to the bedrooms of Birmingham".

Referring to the estimated 700 British-born volunteers who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS and other jihadist groups, he said: "When I read what some young people born and brought up in this country are doing, it makes me feel sick to my stomach."

"We have to stop it at the start – stop this seed of hatred even being planted in people's minds, let alone allowing it to grow," he said.

Cameron warned that at some madrasahs, Islamic schools, children were having their "heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate". He said that new measures would be introduced to force religious schools to register with a local authority so they can be inspected.

British Muslim organisations have criticised these proposals.

At least 700 Britons are thought to have travelled to the Middle East to support or fight for ISIS and other jihadi groups.

Around 300 are though to have returned and around 70 have been killed, according to government figures.

The RUSI report also examined the varied reasons people are inspired to join ISIS, which include disenfranchisement, a desire for a new identity and, for some, supposed financial incentives.

The report argued that ISIS's sophisticated propaganda – including online videos, internet meme-style social media posts, and even official-looking online magazines, all spread via an army of online supporters – has been in key in attracting young men and women to its cause.

The use of GoPro cameras and slick editing techniques gives its videos – which have portrayed brutal executions on several occasions – a level of professionalism not normally seen from terrorist organisations.

This helps portrays ISIS as a "ruthless, successful military organisation willing to do anything for its cause, however violent and seemingly repugnant," the report said.

As well as posting videos of beheadings and prisoners being burned alive, ISIS propagandists also post images of children wearing ISIS gear and "cats of the jihad". The report alleges that ISIS has a distinct and separate social media strategy aimed at attracting women.

However, the report warned that the internet and social media cannot solely be blamed for the large numbers of Western ISIS recruits.

"In many ways, the increasing reliance of ISIS on the internet and social media does represent an opportunity: once networks are known and understood, they can be penetrated and potentially disrupted," the report says.

"However, it should be borne in mind that the internet and social media are merely tools for terrorist groups, rather than root causes of radicalisation. While monitoring and gaining access to such communication can assist in the disruption of individual plots, this will not eliminate the problem."

Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Patrick Smith at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.