How to stop online radicalization

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Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, part of the Tony Blair Institute. His research areas include counterextremism policymaking, theories in Quranic translation and modern trends in Islam. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)There was an unwelcome sense of déjà vu as British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the nation the morning after Saturday night's attack. She has found herself in that position three times in as many months.

In discussing the pressing need to clamp down on spaces where this poisonous ideology flourishes, May singled out the Internet as a breeding ground for extremism.
The actual role of the Internet in this attack is still unknown. There have been no details about whether the attackers were radicalized online or where they planned their attack.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister was clear that something must be done.

    The evolving microphone of ISIS

    ISIS has changed the face of global jihadi communication. By packaging its warped ideology in slick magazines and Hollywood-esque propaganda videos, ISIS has used the Internet to spread its message aggressively.
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    Calling for ramming vehicles into crowds and knife attacks is something featured prominently in recent editions of ISIS' Rumiyah magazine.
    Furthermore, terrorists have illustrated on multiple occasions that jihadis are flexible. Recent crackdowns saw extremists ditch mainstream platforms in favor of encrypted messaging services.
    Just as we must challenge the Islamist extremist ideology offline -- in our schools, universities, workplaces and mosques -- we must do so online, too.

    Tackle extremist online content

    Hackathons and media marketing campaigns are not going to stop radicalization. Those curious about extremist ideas are not turning to their local imams. Instead, they are, just as the rest of us do, going online for information.
    Where there is clear legislation and definitions in place, tech companies have shown themselves to be proactive in removing material deemed illegal. The same cannot be said for extremist content.
    Research published last year by the organization for which I work, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, discovered that there were more than 50,000 searches returning extremist content in the UK alone each month, and that accessing ISIS and al Qaeda propaganda magazines was no more than a click away.
    This is why defining what is terrorist and extremist material cannot be left to tech companies -- it must be laid out in black and white by governments.
    Of course, finding a solution to any of these problems is not easy. Terrorist attacks are an attack on our values, our way of life and our liberal democratic system. Yet it is the freedoms and liberties that characterize our system that extremists are exploiting.
    Freedom of expression, the right to privacy and net neutrality -- all are twisted by extremists, and used against us.
    But removal and censorship cannot, and should not, be the only weapon in our arsenal.

    Be proactive rather than reactive

    There must be greater efforts from government, civil society and religious groups to ensure the condemnations, refutations and alternatives to terrorism are sufficiently present and accessible online.
    Tech companies, big and small, must play a proactive role, not just a reactive one, by engaging in the promotion of genuine, credible content as a means of stemming the impact of extremist content.
    Many of the young people who have bought into ISIS' worldview, traveling halfway across the world to join its so-called caliphate, did so after being radicalized online.
    From the safety of their bedrooms, young men and women were groomed and recruited to travel to Iraq and Syria.
    Today, with the so-called caliphate crumbling, the risk is now that bedroom radicals may seek to pursue action at home.
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    Terrorist attacks will not be foiled by increased regulation alone. But by ensuring there are sufficient efforts challenging the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism and that it has less room to operate in, we can address the common thread that underpins the violence.
    This means we all need to work to prevent young people becoming attracted to these ideas in the first place.
    We must challenge the extremist ideas online just as we do offline. We must dismantle its very foundations so the choice between right and wrong, good and evil, becomes clear.
    There should be no safe spaces for extremism. The Internet is but one of the battlegrounds where information exchange takes place.
    Theresa May is right that online extremism must addressed. But we cannot pretend that regulation alone is going to be enough.
    To win this fight, we need to treat the Internet as we would any other space where radicalization can breed.