Mark Rowley

Social media giants have made no counter-terrorist referrals to police, top officer reveals

Image credit: Met Police

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the most senior UK police officer in charge of stopping Islamist, extreme right-wing and Irish Republican attacks, has castigated web firms for spurning law enforcement.

The UK’s top counter-terrorism officer used his last major speech to castigate “very wealthy” web corporations for failing to report to police users who abuse web platforms and infrastructure to plan and inspire Islamist and extreme right wing terror plots.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who has won praise from policing and government insiders for doubling counter-terrorist arrests during his tenure, was speaking in his final week in the job at a security event in London today.

He told delegates at the World Counter-Terror Congress that he was not reassured by the low “level of proactivity and commitment” shown by communications service providers, adding that he was “disappointed” social media companies had not ever made a single direct referral to UK police over suspected terrorist material on their platforms.

Rowley contrasted this with the stance taken by financial institutions which, he said, are open about the fact that they will report any criminality and work with the police to prosecute offenders.

He added: Internet companies should, in my view, respond in the same manner.

While the internet is a project borne out of high social and ethical principles, bringing positive benefits for the billions of us around the world who use it, it has also enabled those who wish to undermine those same principles to further their own extremist ideology. Those extremists who utilise and occupy cyberspace have proved highly influential and dangerous actors.

“They have successfully encouraged, enabled and promoted terrorist attacks with the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen. The online extremists who are able to act with impunity occupy places owned and managed by legitimate and very wealthy corporations. They are effectively private tenants to their communication service provider landlords. In the real world, if a landlord knew their property was being used to plan or inspire terrorist attacks, you would expect them to show responsibility by informing the authorities.”

Rowley will be succeeded in the counter-terrorism post by Neil Basu, another longstanding member of the Met’s high command.

He stressed that while much of the media focus has been on Islamist terrorism, the threat from the extreme right-wing white supremacists and British neo-Nazis was also significant. Last year's fatal van attack outside a north London mosque was one of several 2017 incidents classified as terrorism. The perpetrator, Darren Osborne, is known to have become rapidly radicalised by anti-Muslim material online.

Rowley told the audience at the event at Kensington Olympia: “It cannot be right that a person can be radicalised online by viewing illegal content on the internet, where he can talk freely [with co-conspirators] using encrypted communications, where he can research potential targets online without leaving a trace, and where he can purchase bomb-making material from online retailers and download instructions about how to assemble a detonating device.”

The Met currently has over 600 live counter-terrorist investigations into both Islamist and extreme right wing-related cases.

These jointly comprise more than 3,000 subjects of interest. The Met also oversees a “legacy” watch list of over 20,000 individuals who have previously been part of MI5 and police investigations. The list is understood to also include persons of interest in investigations into Irish Republican terrorism.

Rowley said police were seeking to “improve the capability, especially in terms of data analytics  to spot behavioural escalation in that very large cohort of former subjects of interest and beyond”.

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