How Whitehall Secretly Weaponises 'Inspirational' Online Content for Counter-Terror Purposes

SuperSisters, a “global platform for young Muslims in East London to share and create inspiring and empowering content”, has been exposed as a covert government counter-extremism project funded by the Home Office’s controversial Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT) programme.

The site’s true nature was revealed after Sabah Ismail resigned her post as project and social media manager at SuperSisters in August after six months, and began publicising her adverse experiences working for the enterprise.

“In my naivety, I thought through this ‘opportunity’ I really could help to make real change, pushing forward a different narrative from Muslim women themselves, showing we are empowered and multi-faceted…I realise now with the Home Office funding the project at the root, there was no way I could do this, regardless of the content I was pushing out,” she told The Observer 15th September

SuperSisters was created in 2015 by J-Go Media, which styles itself as a “regeneration and training agency working as a social enterprise" with a “long history of engaging with Muslim communities in East London”. The firm boasts among its clients a number of government departments, local councils and state-funded initiatives – although the Home Office and BSBT programme are conspicuously absent. 

​Sabah feels she was “used” as “a female Muslim puppet” to legitimise the project - when she joined in February this year, there were no Muslim women on the site’s editorial or creative teams, and moreover most of the team were “far removed” from the principles of Islam, “some even disagreeing outrightly with our beliefs”. For instance, a producer she worked under – and who’d run SuperSisters for two years - tweeted “I can handle religion if you’re not involving me in it and it’s not causing world wars, terrorist attacks or homocides. Oh wait…” prior to joining the project.

In her final month at SuperSisters, Sabah was given a managerial role on the site despite only receiving the London Living Wage (£10.55 per hour) as remuneration. Some of the content she produced during this period included quotes from the Prophet Muhammad - one day she arrived at work to find all overtly Islamic material had been removed from the site, with bosses informing her they wished to “do away” with religious posts altogether.

Fire Fighting

The site has remained dormant since Sabah’s acrimonious departure, the most recent post – a review of documentary film One Night in Al-Aqsa – published 7th August, although its ‘About’ section has been updated with an official statement from J-Go’s directors Jon Hems and Jan Bros addressing the “completely false rumours” that “middle-aged white men are behind the content of the SuperSisters platform”.

They allege the site was launched by a Muslim woman employed by J-GO, after speaking to residents of Tower Hamlets and asking them “what they wanted to see as a response” to the actions of Shamima Begum, a British-born Muslim who fled the UK with two friends in February 2015, aged 15, to join Daesh in Syria. A common answer, Hems and Bros claim, was the creation of a website and blog featuring “positive stories representing their community and successful Muslim women within it”.

“We're very proud with the limited staff we've had to see the project grow to the extent it has…We've had from the very start Muslim women involved…The directors of J-Go have never had any creative or editorial control of the platform…We see ourselves as facilitators, who created a platform for Muslim women to come and speak about issues on their own terms. Where we acknowledge we went wrong, and we apologise for it, is not more clearly stating the source of funding on the SuperSisters Instagram and blog,” they explained.

While failing to acknowledge BSBT’s role in bankrolling the project may stem from mere innocent oversight, SuperSisters’ creators would have good reason for consciously concealing their true funding sources. Since launch in 2015, BSBT has awarded almost £10 million to a total of 233 organisations and projects - including multi-faith bridge-building initiatives, youth centres, health spas and a table tennis club, among many others – that “counter extremism and build stronger communities”.

Such objectives are arguably benign in theory, but since inception BSBT has been dogged with allegations its activities predicated on the notion Muslims are predisposed to violence and extremism. In July, six writers withdrew from the Bradford Literature festival in protest after it was revealed BSBT helped subsidise the event. Among those who pulled out was activist and poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan – in response to the revelation SuperSisters also received funds from the programme, she published a blistering statement via Instagram, slamming the “racism” at the heart of the project, and its “Orwellian” nature.

“Who and what are we supposed to trust for information or opinion or insight when our identities and experiences are being violently coopted and repackaged in the name of ‘protecting’ us? At every level of every institution the idea Muslims are all at risk of perpetrating violence has been enshrined in the name of security and is causing mass surveillance and targeting of us across the board. Educate yourselves…organise to resist,” she fulminated.

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Please read all of these screenshots - sparked by this great article into @thisiswoke being a home office funded platform bound up with counter terrorism and Prevent. It has opened up a new avenue for inquiry into what other seemingly innocuous platforms are actually government funded initiatives targeting Muslims as a problem population of potential criminals and always subjects to be deradicalised and coopted into a depoliticised national identity! • @thebookslamist asked if Breakthrough media are also behind @supersistersmag and we got info from those who have previously worked there that it is and at points has only had one Muslim woman working for them and majority middle aged white men writing content pretending to be “sisters”. This is abhorrent and almost satirical. • Why does this matter? Because not only our public institutions but our media platforms, arts and culture events (see bradford lit fest taking building a stronger Britain together funding this year), civic life and social lives are being targeted at every level because we are Muslim. THIS is what decimates trust. Who and what are we supposed to trust for information or opinion or insight when our identities and experiences are being violently coopted and repackaged to us in the name of “protecting” us? It’s all very well having a review into Prevent but Prevent has already been repackaged and rebranded across the board and it’s logics are at work way beyond the scope of what we thought previously. • At every level of every institution the commonsensical idea that Muslims are all at risk of perpetrating violence has been enshrined in the name of security and is causing the mass surveillance and targeting of us across the board. • This is Orwellian. If you care at all about racism in anyway or free speech or state violence this is URGENT. We are living it NOW. Educate yourselves, read up, reveal, disrupt and let’s listen to those already doing the work, organise to resist. • #prevent #counterterrorism #undercoverpolicing #preventitivepolicingisracism

A post shared by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (@thebrownhijabi) on

On top of maintaining a blog and social media presence, SuperSisters has also convened a number of events aimed at Muslim girls in East London, the most recent being a workshop for 11-16 year olds girls “to learn video creation skills, from storyboarding right through to shooting and editing” on 20th August, and a ‘Big Eid Party’ on 6th June, which featured “food, henna, poetry, performers and a bazaar” – the organisers keenly underlined the events were free to attend in both instances.  

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Highlights of SuperSisters Big Eid Event 2019 #supersisters #bigeid #eidmubarak #happyeid

A post shared by SuperSisters (@supersistersmag) on

Attendees were obliged to fill in forms and hand over potentially sensitive personal information, such as their address and names of family members - but J-Go’s directors claim this is required under safeguarding policies in case of emergencies, and in no way a “data capturing operation”, with the firm lacking “the resources, motivation or requirement to do that”.

It’s unknown whether surveillance is part of BSBT’s remit, although its counterpart Prevent – an even more controversial government counter-extremism strategy – explicitly aims to identify and monitor potentially ‘at-risk’ individuals. Launched in 2006, it’s one of four strands within the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy – the others being Pursue, Protect and Prepare – and aims to prevent individuals becoming radicalised and/or supporting terrorism at home and abroad.

In July 2015, legal requirements for social workers, teachers, health professionals and council staff, among others were introduced, obliging them to report anyone they suspected of harbouring extremist sympathies to authorities. Furthermore, the barriers for ‘intervention’ were also drastically reduced, leading to a nursery child in Luton being referred to Prevent after he mispronounced the word cucumber as “cooker bomb”.

Armed police officers walk near Borough Market after an attack left 7 people dead and dozens injured in London, Britain, June 4, 2017 - Sputnik International
Calls for Overhaul of UK Counterterror 'Prevent' Strategy After London Attack

Strikingly, in their statement on the SuperSisters site, Hems and Bros acknowledge the project received “some early funding” from Prevent, although they allege the initiative “was not deemed suitable for Prevent funding”, so it duly ended.

Stay Woke

In a sense, that the UK government has sought to exploit the digital realm in this manner is hardly surprising. Indeed, it would be amazing if the seemingly ever-increasing popularity of lifestyle content had gone unnoticed by those in power. Charities, think tanks NGOs and ‘grassroots’ movements have long-been surreptitiously coopted if not outright created by the state in order to surreptitiously perpetuate wider policy agendas – online platforms are an obvious next step.

Moreover though, SuperSisters was exposed as an effective state operation mere days after another social news platform aimed at young people was revealed by Middle East Eye to likewise be a secret state counter-terrorism operation. 

Launched in May 2018, This Is Woke – a reference to the phrase “stay woke” popularised by the Black Lives Matter movement, an entreaty for people to remain cognisant of sociopolitical issues – pledges to keep its followers “in the know about issues which matter the most”, and has attracted 69,410 ‘likes’ on Facebook as of 18th September. There’s no indication it was created at the behest of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) by multimedia agency Zinc Network (formerly Breakthrough Media), the contractor of choice for Whitehall’s shadowy Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which operates out of the same offices as OSCT.

The page’s feed offers a steady stream of ‘inspirational’ clickbait videos – some of which have racked up millions of views – covering ‘hot button’ topics such as mental health, endangered species and the environment, and memes bearing quotes from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other prominent figures.

It also features brief clips of panel discussions, in which groups of spritely, handsome hipsters discuss issues, including veganism, gender and dating apps. Given the page’s own clandestine origins and manipulative intent, it’s extremely ironic one such conversation centres on the issue of ‘fake news’ – in it, a participant notes it’s often difficult if not impossible to know the ultimate source of information on the internet.

The only clue This Is Woke may have an underlying political agenda is the Islam-centric content it intermittently publishes – videos clearly targeted at believers and non-believers alike present an extremely friendly face of Muslims in Britain, while preaching unity, community cohesion and non-violence. 

Again, these are entirely recommendable and benign messages in theory, but in practice the operation clearly serves a more insidious purpose – namely, ignoring and/or discrediting other explanations for radicalisation, such as discrimination and disenfranchisement at home and the British state’s military adventurism abroad, in favour of the Whitehall-approved narrative that extremism is a perverse aberration without comprehensible motivations.

Furthermore, other ‘astroturf’ projects crafted by Zinc Network have demonstrably served much darker objectives, and had potentially grave real-world consequences. For example, in 2013 the agency produced a two-part documentary, Return to Somalia, on behalf of the Anti-Tribalism Movement (ATM), an NGO “aimed at educating and raising awareness about the effects of tribalism within communities”. 

The documentary aimed to depict Somalia as a place of “opportunities and optimism, attracting thousands of Somalis to return home”. The first part follows two young Somali men living in North West London who return to Mogadishu with the aim of setting up an NGO to counter inter-tribal discrimination in Somalia and across the world – in the second, a Somali woman who for some years has been living in the US and working as a hip-hop music manager leaves behind her liberal, carefree life in Washington, DC to embrace a new identity in a mostly conservative society. The episodes were viewed by over 200,000 people worldwide, aired by many international TV stations - including Kenya National TV, Islamic Channel and Universal TV – watched by Somalis.

Return to Somalia’s funding source isn’t entirely certain, but it’s known RICU specifically selected ATM for a project designed to make Somali refugees go ‘home’, following then-Prime Minister David Cameron stating in 2011 the political situation in Somalia “directly threatens British interests”, and earmarking £250 million in security and development funding for the country over the next four years.

In 2012 and 2013, the British government hosted international donor conferences on Somalia in an attempt to garner “international support for the Government of Somalia as they rebuild their country after two decades of conflict”. In advance of the 2013 London Conference, RICU circulated a list of talking points for representatives of the UK government, directing ministers to talk-up the improving political situation in the country and downplay the impact of the government’s ongoing, brutal conflict with the Al-Shabaab terror group.

“Al Shabaab has been expelled from many of Somalia’s major towns and cities. Confidence is increasing and the diaspora is returning. The changes in Somalia over the last year offer a unique opportunity to build stability and security in the country,” the briefing note stated.

Not long after the release of Return to Somalia, the UK Home Office declared the country safe for the return of Somali refugees, meaning they could be deported back home legally. The ruling was extremely controversial and widely disputed, and in contravention of a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the UK would be in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights if Somali asylum seekers were sent back to Mogadishu.

More chillingly still, in August 2013, just two months before the UK declared Somalia to be ‘safe’, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) retreated from the country after 22 years of operation due to “extreme attacks on its staff” and “an environment where armed groups and civilian leaders increasingly support, tolerate, or condone the killing, assaulting, and abducting of humanitarian aid workers”. Nonetheless, the Home Office duly began forcibly expelling Somalis towards the end of 2013.

“Deporting people to conflict zones in Somalia shows a total disregard for their rights and their safety,” Human Rights Watch stated in response.

​The full extent of Zinc Network’s activities are unknown, not least because the overwhelming majority of its work is conducted under the draconian auspices of the UK Official Secrets Act – although it’s known the firm has also been assisting RICU with projects aimed at Muslims in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

It’s also a key player in the recently launched Open Information Partnership (OIP) – while officially presented as a European collective of “NGOs, charities, academics, thinktanks, journalists, factcheckers and activists” committed to “open, independent, fact-based reporting”, in July I comprehensively exposed how the network is in fact a “disinformation factory” seeking to influence domestic politics in countries “of particular interest” to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Still, OIP’s true nature should be obvious from Zinc Network’s involvement alone – for they are surely the absolute last organisation a government would employ to promote the values of openness, democracy and truth. In future reports, I’ll delve far deeper into the murky panoply of sinister activities the agency is embroiled in the world over.

The views and opinions expressed in this articles do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik

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