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Top anti-extremism campaigner linked to UK 'covert propaganda' firm

Book project suggests connections between Sara Khan, one of UK's most influential counter-extremism voices, and company linked to Home Office
Sara Khan [L] and Theresa May at launch of the Making a Stand campaign in 2014. She maintains her organisation is independent from the government (www.gov.uk)

The high profile head of a leading British counter-extremism organisation which claims to be independent from government has close links to a media company being used by the Home Office to covertly create grassroots counter-extremism campaigns aimed at British Muslims, Middle East Eye can reveal.

A forthcoming book by Sara Khan, the co-director of Inspire and considered one of the most influential Muslim women in the UK, is co-authored by Tony McMahon, a consultant working with Breakthrough Media, which has orchestrated a “secret propaganda programme” in collaboration with the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU).

Publicity material describes The Battle for British Islam, which is due to be published in September by Saqi Books, as an “urgent and courageous book” that will “uncover how [Islamic State] has lured British teenagers from all walks of life and allow us to hear directly from the young men and women who have been radicalised”.

It describes Khan as a “brave, selfless campaigner” who has spent the last 20 years campaigning for tolerance and equal rights within Muslim communities, and is "now fighting one of the key fronts in the battle against Islamist inspired extremism – the war of ideas.”

Sources within Muslim organisations told MEE that much of the work relating to gender equality in which Inspire had been involved was “very good”, such as confidence building for women in mosques.

But they questioned the transparency of its relationship with government and said it was “dangerous territory” if the government was co-opting that work as part of a covert campaign that aimed to shape a British Muslim identity.

Khan has been widely feted in the British media for her counter-extremism work. In 2015, the BBC’s Woman’s Hour radio programme named her as one of the 10 most influential women in the UK.

A profile of Khan in the Guardian newspaper last year described an open letter she had written to schools after three teenaged girls from East London absconded to Syria as offering “something rare and valuable in the propaganda war against Isis [IS]: authenticity. Khan was addressing British Muslims in a voice that marked her out as one of their own, that spoke of shared experiences, of mutual respect.”

Inspire describes itself as a "counter-extremism and human rights organisation which seeks to address inequalities facing British Muslim women".

But critics suggest that Khan and Inspire are more closely aligned with the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy than they have publicly acknowledged.

Khan has regularly shared platforms with Home Secretary Theresa May, such as at an event in 2014 to launch the #MakingAStand campaign that called on Muslim women to “unite” against IS and to “take the lead in combating extremism”.

In October 2015 she was among a group of "important Muslim and non-Muslim figures" who attended a meeting of Prime Minister David Cameron's Community Engagement Forum set up to discuss ways of tackling extremism, while her work was cited in a Downing Street press release a few days later announcing a £5m ($7.3m) fund to build a "national coalition against extremism".

She has also featured in Prevent training videos produced for school teachers who under law now have a statutory duty to monitor and report students deemed to be “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”, while Inspire has delivered training to headteachers and school leaders.

At an appearance in front of parliament's home affairs select committee last year, Keith Vaz, the committee chairman, described her as "a great supporter of the Prevent programme".

But Inspire has strenuously maintained that it is independent of government.

In written evidence subsequently submitted to the committee in January responding to questions about its funding, Inspire said it was an “independent non-governmental civil society organisation”.

“All decisions in relation to Inspire’s remit and work are made solely by the directors; all projects and activities are led and carried out by the Inspire team,” it said.

“This has been the case since our inception. We therefore refute the suggestion that Inspire is not independent. The proposition that because government has recognised our work cannot mean we are independent is not a reasonable argument.”

The evidence also hit out at what it called a “regressive discourse about Prevent and counter-extremism issues” which it said had resulted in organisations which accepted government funding “experiencing disproportionate attacks and abuse”.

But in a written response to that evidence, Naz Shah, a Labour Party MP and then-member of the home affairs committee, said there were “serious “questions” about the organisation's claims of independence.

She said that a previous comment she had made to the media describing Inspire as “amongst the most loathed organisations within Muslim communities” was based on first-hand encounters with many British Muslims.

Shah also pointed out a possible conflict of interest over Khan’s alleged links with the Home Office where her sister, Sabin Khan, is deputy chief of RICU.

"There are concerns that will inevitably rise about nepotism, transparency and independence when an organisation receiving financial support from the Home Office and championed by the Home Secretary has a close family member employed in that same government department," Shah wrote.

Shah has subsequently been suspended by the Labour Party over allegations of anti-Semitism and on Tuesday stepped down from the home affairs select committee after it launched its own inquiry into anti-Semitism.

Relationship 'extremely close'

A report published this week by Cage, the Muslim-focused campaign group, revealed how the Home Office had employed Breakthrough Media to orchestrate ostensibly grassroots counter-extremism campaigns, such as last year’s Fightback Starts Here which was also backed by Inspire.

In some cases, the charities and organisations which fronted the campaigns were not aware of Breakthrough Media's close links to the Home Office, while a now-deleted blog post by a Breakthough Media employee suggested that staff were required to sign the Official Secrets Act in order to conceal that relationship, the report says.

Ben Hayes, a counter-terrorism consultant and a co-author of the report, told MEE: "Inspire were actually among the first group of organisations that piqued our interest in RICU. We believe the relationship is extremely close and fully expect further disclosures to this effect. Inspire now acknowledge that the Home Office funded their 'Making a Stand' campaign and it would be a huge surprise if Breakthrough Media were not behind the production.”

MEE called Breakthrough Media several times and asked to speak to Tony McMahon but was told that he was not at his desk or was not in the office.

An entry dated 2015 on an online professional networking site lists McMahon as an "Editorial Director" at Breakthrough Media.

A spokesperson later clarified that McMahon was not an employee but a consultant with whom they "worked to help civil society groups develop their communication campaigns".

"Breakthrough Media is enormously proud to be able to provide a wide range of community groups with the help and support they need to tell their stories, confront extremism in all its forms and build stronger, safer communities,” the spokesperson said.

Saqi Books told MEE in a statement that McMahon was an independent consultant who had worked with the Home Office on projects that had involved Breakthrough Media and other contracted suppliers.

He had met Khan through his work with community groups around youth safeguarding and community cohesion, the statement said, and the book project evolved out of their shared concern over why young British Muslims were going to Syria.

The Battle for British Islam is an important and timely work that will spark debate and open up dialogue. As co-founder of Inspire, Sara Khan has played a key role in empowering young Muslims, in particular young women, to find their voice in the face of extremism,” it said.

Inspire had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

A Home Office spokesperson referred MEE to a previous statement sent in response to queries concerning its relationship with Breakthrough Media.

"We are very proud of the support RICU has provided to organisations working on the frontline to challenge the warped ideology of groups such as Daesh [IS], and to protect communities," it said.

"This work can involve sensitive issues, vulnerable communities and hard-to-reach audiences and it has been important to build relationships out of the media glare. We respect the bravery of individuals and organisations who choose to speak out against violence and extremism and it is right that we support, empower and protect them.

"Our guiding principle has to be whether or not any organisation we work with is itself happy to talk publicly about what they do. At the same time we are as open as possible about RICU’s operating model, and have referenced the role of RICU in a number of publications and in Parliament.”