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REVEALED: How UK counter-terror unit uses rap, graffiti to target Middle Eastern youth

Home Office propaganda unit working on campaigns in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon aimed at people deemed vulnerable to violent extremism
A screengrab from a rap video used during the 2017 Ala Khatrek Tounsi campaign (YouTube)

A secretive British government counter-terrorism propaganda unit is working on campaigns aimed at changing the behaviour and attitudes of young people in the Middle East and North Africa considered to be at risk of becoming violent extremists, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The campaigns, which have so far run in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, use rap music, graffiti, filmmaking, social media and sports to bolster their credibility and “deliver messages about alternative pathways to vulnerable youth”.

The work is led by the British Council, a public body that promotes the UK abroad and is part-funded by the British Foreign Office, through a programme called “Strengthening Resilience in MENA” which has been funded by the European Union since 2016.

But the British government’s Research, Communications and Information Unit (RICU), which is based within the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), also plays a key - but less visible - role in the campaign.

Its participation is mentioned in a British Council-commissioned assessment report of the programme, seen online by MEE but subsequently removed from the British Council’s website.

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RICU has faced scrutiny in the UK over its role in creating ostensibly “grassroots” Muslim civil society organisations and Muslim-targeted counter-extremism campaigns promoting a “reconciled British Muslim identity”. In some cases, organisations and individuals used in campaigns were not aware that RICU was behind them.

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The assessment report suggests that those methods are now being exported abroad and taught to governments in the Middle East and North Africa. The European Union is also looking to extend the programme to Algeria and Jordan by 2021.

The campaigns are fronted by favoured civil society actors and organisations, with government ministries, the British Council and RICU providing “behind the scenes” support including training, resources and funding.

'Buffer organisations'

The report, written by management consultancy firm IOD Parc, also describes local civil society organisations being used as “buffer organisations”.

A director at one of those organisations told MEE that they were not aware of any links between the programme they were involved in and counter-extremism policies.

It concludes that one outcome of the programme is that the governments of the targeted countries are now better able to “plan and deliver” their own strategic communications campaigns.

The report also says that the partnership between the British Council and RICU had been a successful one “due to the British Council’s experience of engaging civil society and RICU’s ability to engage the national governments as a peer”.

“The British Council, working in partnership with RICU, have succeeded in creating a platform where government and civil society can communicate more effectively to strengthen resilience and reduce radicalisation and recruitment by violent extremists in the three target countries of Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco,” it said.

Children play in the streets of Ettadhamen, an impoverished area of Greater Tunis (AFP)

One project cited in IOD Parc’s assessment as one of the successes of the programme was “Ala Khatrek Tounsi” (Because You Are Tunisian), a social media-driven campaign celebrating Tunisian identity that ran during Ramadan in 2016 and 2017.

The campaign encouraged people to post videos and photos on a website and on YouTube and Facebook conveying their pride in being Tunisian. It also promoted music videos by rap artists and ran television adverts depicting positive images of Tunisian society.

According to the assessment, Tunisia was the country that had seen the “greatest level of activity and associated results”, and the design of Ala Khatrek Tounsi (AKT) had been “informed” by a Tunisian government-commissioned focus group exploring “youth aspirations and values”.

The assessment also cited AKT as an example of how the Tunisian government was better able to plan and deliver campaigns as a result of a RICU-hosted study visit to London.

'Behind the scenes' guidance

The event was attended by officials from the Alternative Narrative Platform, a strategic communications unit set up within Tunisia’s Ministry of Constitutional Affairs, Civil Society and Human Rights.

The campaign was the result of a communications strategy developed by the Strengthening Resilience team which aimed, it said, to replace failing “top-down” government narratives with “an alternative narrative that placed citizens and civil society at the centre of the messaging strategy”.

“The Ala Khatrek Tounsi campaigns were a partnership initiative, with the team working with government and CSO stakeholders to get it up and running… The campaign is now owned by these stakeholders, with the British Council guiding it from behind the scenes,” the assessment said.

But both Amina el-Abed, who was described in media reports as the founder of Ala Khatrek Tounsi, and the British Council denied that the campaign had been “planned and delivered” by the Tunisian government and the British Council.

Abed said she was not aware of the assessment report until it was shared with her by MEE, and had not been approached by the authors of the report. She said it exaggerated the role of both the Tunisian government and the British Council in planning and implementing the campaign.

She said she and friends had come up with the idea for Ala Khatrek Tounsi before the launch of the Strengthening Resilience programme, but did not have any funding for the project at that time.

She said she had been hired by the British Council to promote another Strengthening Resilience project called Obroz, a communications training workshop for civil society organisations, and pitched the idea of Ala Khatrek Tounsi after noticing “synergies” with the programme.

“I was the one who went to them with the idea,” said Abed. “It ticked a few boxes for SR [Strengthening Resilience]. The British Council decided to fund it and then I went with it to the Tunisian government.”

Graffiti and rap lyrics

Abed also said examples in the assessment of how the British Council and the Tunisian government had supported the campaign from behind the scenes were inaccurate.

The report said: “The government demonstrated its support for the campaign in several ways, both directly and indirectly.

“For example, British Council commissioned graffiti artists to paint the campaign slogan on (publicly-owned) walls were discreetly protected by police.

“The commissioned rap artist wrote lyrics that, while supporting the campaign message, were heavily critical of government; the government approved the lyrics because it understood the broader intent. The government also requested the national broadcaster to air hundreds of Ala Khatrek Tounsi spots at the state’s expense.”

But Abed denied that graffiti artists were widely used in the campaign. She said the AKT team had applied for authorisation for a rapper, Djappa Man, to spray the AKT logo on a wall as part of a music video for his song promoting the campaign.

“[Djappa Man] has such a great following, especially with kids in the targeted areas for SR, people who are marginalised, and he was the perfect person to do this so having him do this on a wall was a way to get them excited,” she said.

A spokesperson for the British Council confirmed to MEE that “police authorisation was sought for the filming of the graffiti artist in question. This is a legal requirement in Tunisia when filming in public places”.

Abed also denied that the lyrics of Djappa Man’s song, in which he refers to police officers as "bastards" in Tunisian slang, had been approved by the Tunisian government, although she said she had played the song to officials when she met them to seek their support for the campaign.

Djappa Man told MEE that he was a street artist who didn’t like “media, politics, terrorism and bad cops”.

'No one can tell me what I say'

He said he had been approached by Abed to record the song and that AKT had paid for the studio.

“There is no one can tell me what I say in my music… I’m talking about how I live and what I feel and what I see,” he said.

There is no one can tell me what I say in my music… I’m talking about how I live and what I feel and what I see

- Djappa Man

Abed said that the Tunisian government had suggested some themes for the second phase of the AKT campaign last year, including talking about racism, kindness and helping the elderly.

She said she had also met with RICU officials and was aware of their role in the Strengthening Resilience programme.

“As far as AKT’s strategy and delivery, they supported it, the way that I presented it. They didn’t have any significant input. As far as I am concerned it was them who got to learn a couple of things about how to do these kinds of campaigns,” she said.

In a statement, the British Council told MEE that the assessment report on Strengthening Resilience had been uploaded to its website in error. It was subsequently removed because it contained “some inaccuracies and sensitive information”.

“The report content was inaccurate regarding the British Council role in the Ala Khatrek Tounsi campaign, suggesting it was ‘planned and delivered’ by the British Council. AKT was planned and delivered by Tunisian civil society activists, with funding and some practical support provided by the Strengthening Resilience programme team,” it said.

IOD Parc confirmed that it had produced the report for the British Council but said that it could not comment because of a confidentiality agreement.

The British Council continues to cite the IOD Parc report favourably in another report, “Contributing to Security and Stability in MENA”, which describes Strengthening Resilience as a “British Council flagship programme”.

“Given its focus on strategic communication, it… led to increased capacity among governments to plan and deliver communication campaigns aimed at engaging citizens at risk of radicalisation,” it said.

“At the same time, CSOs were strengthened to deliver campaigns aimed at promoting the positive pathways available to vulnerable youth.”

The strategy for phase two of the campaign included the “design of targeted interventions in recruitment ‘hotspots’ that enable collective action between young people, local government and civil society”, it added.

Tunisia a 'priority country'

Last year, Ala Khatrek Tounsi was also cited by Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator, as an example of a successful communications strategy developed by the Tunisian government with RICU and British Council support.

“Tunisia is also a priority country of the ‘Strategic Communication’ project (‘Strengthening Resilience in MENA’), implemented by the British Home Office / Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU),” De Kerchove wrote in an article for the European Institute of the Mediterranean.

“The project helped the Tunisian government to develop a communications strategy aimed at dissuading vulnerable youths from joining terrorist groups ('Ala Khatrek Tounsi' campaign during Ramadan).”

RICU's ongoing role in Strengthening Resilience is highlighted in job adverts placed by the British Council ahead of the launch of the programme’s second phase.

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Key relationships for a Lebanon-based project director include with “FCO and RICU colleagues”, according to one advert.

“In Lebanon, SRII will target Tripoli and the surrounding areas,” it said. Another job advert for a project officer based in Tangiers, Morocco, said the programme there would target the Tanger-Tetouan-Al hoceima region.

The EU's European External Action Service has so far provided €11 million ($12.5m) for the second phase, with an average of $4.15m expected to be spent in Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon. The sum represents a significant increase on the first phase of the project, when average spending in each country was €1,101,372 ($1.25m).

An EU official told MEE: “The EU supports genuine grass-roots movements that are deeply rooted within their local communities. As a partner to the British Council, and with the background of its UK experience, RICU puts capacity building support at the disposal of civil society stakeholders and governments to work together and communicate about what matters most to them,” the official said.

Graffiti 'a form of artistic expression'

Asked whether the EU considered graffitiing walls to be an effective use of its funds, the official said: “As part of the project, young Tunisians have chosen to use graffiti as a form of artistic expression that resonates with themselves and their generation.”

The British government has worked closely with the Tunisian government on counter-terrorism since 2015, when 30 British citizens were among 38 people killed by a gunman in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group in the beach resort of Sousse.

A member of Tunisia's special forces patrols the beachfront in Sousse in 2015 (Reuters)

Tunisia is also among the countries with the highest number of foreign fighters who joined IS in Syria and Iraq, according to the United Nations.

Another Tunisian project run through Strengthening Resilience was the British Council’s Active Citizens scheme, a social leadership training programme for young people that was run in partnership with a local organisation, the Jasmine Foundation, according to the final assessment.

“Their network was very helpful, giving the British Council access to its wide network of marginalised youth in remote and isolated communities with a high incidence of violent extremism. It also served as a buffer organisation between the British Council (a foreign organisation that may be viewed with suspicion in conservative milieus) and marginalised communities,” the report said.

Tasnim Chirchi, director for the Jasmine Foundation, told MEE that Active Citizens was a "great training programme that develops young people as social leaders who contribute actively to the development of their local communities".

Participants in marginalised neighbourhoods in Tunis and Bizerte had launched social action projects including setting up a mobile library, campaigns addressing violence in schools, and renovating a disused local park, she said.

But she said: "We would like to clarify that we have no knowledge of the report you are referring to or any links between the Active Citizens programme and countering violent extremism policies."

Mapping 'hotspots'

In Lebanon, Strengthening Resilience projects have included a sports programme for teenagers in Tripoli and an online safety campaign.

But civil society organisations complained that they were being used as “an implementing agent as opposed to a strategic partner”.

“This often resulted in a drop in the willingness of civil society organisations to participate in the project,” the assessment report noted.

In Morocco, young filmmakers were supported to create films “to increase awareness of violent extremism”. The Strengthening Resilience team also carried out a mapping exercise of youth centres in violent extremism hotspots was undertaken, but “little progress was made with the government itself”.

Much of RICU's work, which it describes as "strategic communications", is secret and references to its work in the public domain are rare.

Former officials who were involved in setting up the unit in 2007 have told MEE that it was inspired in part by a history book about how propaganda was used as a cultural weapon by the British and US governments during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

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A description of the unit's work in an update to the UK's national security strategy published in 2009 said: "Internationally, we continue to promote our values of freedom, tolerance, justice and human rights. Active international outreach, for example through the work of the British Council, is an important strand of this approach."

In 2016, MEE reported on how RICU was involved in producing grassroots campaigns targeting Muslim communities in the UK.

They include #MakingAStand, an anti-Islamic State group social media campaign which was fronted by Inspire, a women’s rights organisation then led by Sara Khan, who earlier this year was appointed by the Home Office to lead a new Commission for Countering Extremism.

Another campaign, Help for Syria, which appeared to be a charity-run initiative to raise awareness about the plight of Syrians affected by the country's war, was in fact a RICU-backed project which aimed to dissuade young British Muslims from travelling to Syria.

#MakingAStand, Help for Syria and other RICU-backed projects have been produced by Breakthrough Media, a PR company with close links to the Home Office.

A screengrab from a Breakthrough Media PowerPoint presentation showcasing the Help for Syria campaign

In 2016, Breakthrough Media posted a job advert for a project director and training manager to be based in a new Tunis office.

“This project comprises of a number of key activity strands, including the development and delivery of an online contemporary youth culture magazine, the design and development of training resource packs to support workers in youth centres and social media training for youth,” the advert said.

Breakthrough is proud of the work we deliver across the world for a range of clients, helping to promote positive social change

- Breakthrough Media

Breakthrough Media told MEE: "Breakthrough has worked with UK government departments on a range of projects, including in the Middle East and North Africa region. This includes projects which seek to build positive relationships between governments and civil society.

"Breakthrough is proud of the work we deliver across the world for a range of clients, helping to promote positive social change."

RICU has also been involved in a separate UK-funded project that aims to “provide support to the Tunisian government to develop its strategic communications capability” as part of a broader security programme.

Expected results of the project include “an improvement in contesting extremism, preventing radicalisation and positively affecting attitudinal change by the Tunisian government,” according to a programme summary published by the UK’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

RICU is named as an implementing organisation along with the UN Development Programme and the UK's Ministry of Defence.

Mohammed Fadel Mahfouz, who was appointed as Tunisia's minister of constitutional affairs, civil society and human rights in a government reshuffle earlier this month, told MEE he was not aware of the Strengthening Resilience programme.

Mehdi Ben Gharbia, his predecessor, did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the Home Office told MEE that RICU worked with international partners to share some of the lessons learnt from its work in the UK.

“The Home Office’s Research, Information, and Communications Unit (RICU) supports the British Council-led Strengthening Resilience Programme in Morocco, Lebanon and Tunisia," the spokesperson said.

"This programme helps to tackle extremist narratives by supporting the communities most directly targeted by violent extremists, and by enabling those communities and their governments to build stronger relationships with each other.”

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

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