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UK propaganda unit has secret plans to target French Muslims

Government contract requirements seen by Middle East Eye show that France is among countries targeted by Home Office unit
A man reads the Quran in a mosque in Le Havre, northern France, in May 2018 (AFP)
By Ian Cobain in London and Hassina Mechaï

A shadowy UK government propaganda unit that privately declares that it works to “effect behavioural and attitudinal change” among British Muslims has drawn up plans to begin operating in France.

The Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which is based at the Home Office in London, generates films, social media, websites, leaflets and news stories that are intended to influence public opinion while concealing the British government's role in their creation.

Now, documents seen by Middle East Eye show that RICU has awarded a contract to a consortium of communication companies which has demonstrated its ability to operate in France.

French Muslims pray in Nice in September 2011 (AFP) ​

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The contract makes clear that while these companies are expected to be able to influence Muslim public opinion in France as part of a covert counter-extremism programme, the ultimate aim of the programme would be to encourage the French authorities to develop their own propaganda initiatives, based on the RICU model. “RICU-I [RICU International] expects to see evidence of increased political will to tackle terrorism, and a recognition and willingness to act on UK priorities,” the documents say.

It is unclear from the documents whether RICU operations in France have actually begun, or whether the programme is being developed in the hope of securing French co-operation in the future.

The documents do, however, shed further light on other countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia where RICU is already working. Last year, MEE reported that the unit was involved in projects which used rap music and graffiti to attempt to influence the thinking and behaviour of youths in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon.

By the end of 2018, the documents show, RICU operations were underway in Jordan, Algeria and Pakistan. The unit has also organised events in Finland and the Netherlands.

The papers also show that the consortium which won the contract was expected to demonstrate an ability to operate in at least four other countries in addition to France: Belgium, Kenya, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The documents do not disclose the details of the operations being planned for each country. But they do state that the work would involve the development of social media strategies, video production, web development, writing blogs, “paid promotion on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat”, leafletting of schools and “maintaining a stream of communications, products and materials”.

Lead role

The lead role played by RICU in several European Union-level strategic communications projects is already known.

Last year, MEE established that RICU was working with the British Council on a European Union-funded project which used what were termed “buffer organisations” to drive Ala Khatrek Tounsi ("Because You Are Tunisian"), a social media and rap music campaign to promote a sense of national identity among the North African country's youth.

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The EU funds RICU work in Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco through a counter-extremism programme called “Strengthening Resilience”. The unit's involvement in EU-level counter-extremism work was also revealed in 2017 by Hans Das, the head of the European Commission’s Terrorism and Radicalisation Unit, who told a conference in London that the unit was running a strategic communications network providing “support and consultancy to other member states”.

In recent years RICU has said privately that its work in the UK is conducted "at an industrial scale and pace". Covert projects that have previously come to light include:

* Setting up an organisation that held face-to-face talks with university students without disclosing that it represented the government.

* Posting short films and images on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with no acknowledgement of UK government involvement.

* Leafletting 760,000 homes in areas of the UK with large Muslim populations, without any of the recipients being informed that they had been published and distributed on behalf of the government.

* Establishing a public relations agency to push news stories to journalists, without disclosing in any way that the agency was being operated and funded in accordance with a government contract.

Some of the communications are made public through civil society groups: however, RICU says privately that it always retains editorial control.

RICU was established in 2007 as part of the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism at the UK Home Office. A number of people involved in its creation and management say it was inspired by a Cold War-era British propaganda unit, the Information Research Department.

Earlier this year it fought a successful court battle to prevent it being obliged under freedom of information law to disclose how it seeks to influence the arts in Britain.

While RICU helps to deliver the UK government's controversial counter-radicalisation programme, known as Prevent, its messaging is aimed not just at individuals thought to be at risk of being drawn into extremism, but at the country's Muslim population.

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Other documents seen by MEE show that RICU uses the terms “primary target audience” or “Prevent audiences”, which it defines as Muslims aged 15-39, particularly males. The papers were written by a small team of civil servants with the assistance of a former British army officer who specialised in military “information operations” in Afghanistan.

One document contains claims that RICU is the most advanced strategic communications unit in the world. “No other country currently has capabilities as well developed as those of RICU," it states.

Together, the papers make clear that RICU is not only running propaganda operations outside the UK, but also wants to persuade the UK allies that they should be more engaged in such operations themselves.

One document says that the principle object for the private sector contractor carrying out the work “is providing RICU International with the delivery architecture and capability to build the capacity of our partners to deliver strategic communications, in the UK and overseas”.

It adds: “The key objective of delivering these communications activities is increasing the will, confidence and capacity of our partners to deliver these communications independently.”

While RICU’s methods were developed for use in the UK, and “designed iteratively over several years”, the Home Office “considers the approach to be based on a set of core strategic principles which can be applied in other contexts”.

The RICU documents also shed further expectaions, including that the contractor will be able to “build networks of civil society organisations” in the countries where they operate, sharing information about countering violence and extremism. Those organisations, it says, should  “focus on working with diaspora communities in each country which have most impact/influence on the UK”.

The ultimate aim of RICU’s overseas operations appears to be to bolster its work within the UK. Private sector contractors have been told that their operations are expected to “deliver impact in UK priority areas”.

'A fig leaf for the causes of extremism'

Several activists working with Muslim communities in France told MEE that they were surprised to learn of British government plans for counter-radicalisation campaigns in France. They were concerned that such initiatives could serve to further alienate communities already subjected to scrutiny and suspicion.

Fateh Kimouche, the editor of Al-Kanz, a website that reports on issues affecting French Muslims, questioned the effectiveness of counter-radicalisation campaigns, compared them to efforts made in France during the 1980s and 1990s to integrate Muslim communities via community youth centres known as Maisons des Jeunes et de la Culture (MJC).

“If a person becomes radicalised, will graffiti and rap suffice?” Kimouche told MEE. “We should be asking questions about the foreign policies of Western countries. Rather than this type of initiative, why not stop weapons in Saudi Arabia?”

Muslims Against Terrorism campaign
Participants in a "Muslims Against Terrorism" campaign rally in 2017 to mark two years since Islamic State bombers and gunmen attacked Paris (AFP)

Houria Bouteldja, a French-Algerian activist, said that Muslims in France had long been the target of state policies that sought to shape and create a "moderate" French version of Islam.

Bouteldja, who is a spokesperson for the Indigenous Party of the Republic (PIR), which campaigns on anti-racism issues, said that one consequence of counter-radicalisation campaigns was the creation of “behaviours of guilt and self-criticism” in targeted communities.

“The fact that this is now becoming a transnational programme is concerning. The fight against radicalisation has become a fig leaf for the real causes of extremism,” she told MEE. “We will spend our time criticising ourselves rather than states and their policies.”

'Diaspora communities' targeted

The contract to run RICU’s operations in France, Belgium, the Middle East and North Africa was won by a consortium headed by Adam Smith International (ASI), a London-based foreign aid contractor.

Two years ago, the founders of ASI were compelled to stand down when the British government froze future contracts after it discovered that the contractor was using leaked official documents for commercial advantage. ASI was subsequently accused of allowing British aid money to be paid to militant groups in Syria, a claim that it has denied.

The overseas contract is understood to have been one of three contracts issued late last year. A second was for further RICU operations in the UK, while the third was for a programme of evaluation.

Grand Mosque, Paris
Paris's Grand Mosque, photographed on 22 March, 2019 (AFP)

MEE understands that one member of the consortium led by ASI is Breakthrough Media, a London communications company which has worked closely with RICU for several years.

Last year Breakthrough Media faced criticism in Australia for running a number of campaigns without making clear it was funded by the federal government. Subsequently, the company began operating in Australia under a new name, Zinc Network, which it has since also adopted in the UK.

The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for a comment.

The UK Home Office confirmed that the contract had been awarded to ASI, but declined to explain what work RICU was doing in France, or may be doing in the future. In a brief statement, the department said: “We work with many international partners to share lessons and experiences in support of the aims of the Home Office.”

ASI said only that it was "setting systems in place", but said that under the terms of its contract with RICU it could not elaborate on what it was doing, or where it was operating.

Zinc Network did not respond to requests for a comment.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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