Talha Asmal left the UK in March (Image: Rex Shutterstock)
Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. That is how the name Talha Asmal was introduced to the public last week. It’s believed that Asmal, 17, blew himself up as part of a bombing linked to Islamic State (ISIS) at an Iraqi oil refinery. The attack killed 11 people. Now crime analytics software is being used to track the people being targeted by radical groups like ISIS in an effort to stop them being recruited.
Asmal was from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and had travelled from the UK to Syria in March to join ISIS. The tally ofis growing. More than 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the group, surpassing the Afghanistan conflict of the 1980s.
The race is on to stop people, especially young people,. Looking at activity online has been suggested as a way of spotting who is intending to join up.
Spreading the net
One firm that has developed a way to do this is Wynyard, whichIt claims its Advanced Crime Analytics software can spot foreign fighters before they flee.
Wynyard demonstrated the software at an event in London earlier this month. It is designed to expose and disrupt connections between foreign fighters, recruiters and those they are targeting, says the company.
It sifts through millions of online, open-source records such as, blog posts and shared content, and investigators can include data recovered from legally obtained email accounts, phones and computers.
Phrases and names are analysed by an algorithm that processes natural language, which generates a graphical representation of a network of suspected radicalisers and targets. User accounts associated with or sharing extremist material are prioritised.
Intelligence officers are subsequently able to zoom in on any node on the network to examine persons of interest more closely: possible terrorists, recruiters or recruitment targets.
“If you have a particular terrorist or user that has actually radicalised people, you can update the police on a previous set of activities,” says Mike O’Keeffe, product director at Wynyard.
Wynyard says it is not able to reveal which organisations are currently using its software and a raft of agencies, including GCHQ, MI5 and the FBI declined to comment. Adam French, a spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, says that a range of technologies are being used by police to help them investigate networks of radicalisation.
In the past 12 months, there have been 157 arrests in the UK related to Syrian travel plans. French says police may also use community liaison officers, who work closely with local communities, to intervene. “The process of radicalisation can be extremely quick and it’s getting those warning signs picked up and flagged to police – that’s the key part of it,” he says.
Software may be able to speed up such interventions, but it is not a perfect solution, says Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer at thecounter-terrorism think tank. “It doesn’t challenge why people want to go. So while I am supportive of these things,” he says, “I’m quick to caution that we don’t drop other, counter-narrative based strategies.”
Another approach that has been used to tackle radicalisation is the removal of web content. The UK Home Office states that more than 90,000 pieces of terrorist-related material have been scrubbed off the web since 2011, but Russell is sceptical that this will work.
“There’s one particular jihadist that we follow on Twitter who is on his 140th Twitter account,” he says. “It seems that when these negative measures are taken, [the website or radicaliser] just pops up in another form anyway.”
Radicalisation rarely happens solely through online channels, says Raffaello Pantucci of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute think tank, but those channels can reveal changes in behaviour.
“There are a lot of radicalised people fighting in Syria and Iraq who are on the internet quite a bit. Facebook, social media, other sites – collecting all their data and analysing it is a very big challenge,” he says, and that information isn’t always accurate or representative.
“A lot of people are online just saying stuff with no real-world intention behind it – how do you separate those out from the ones who are genuine?” he says. “That problem remains.”
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