Estimating network size and tracking information dissemination amongst Islamic blogs

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This article is part of the Counter-Terrorism Portal project of Spinwatch.

Estimating network size and tracking information dissemination amongst Islamic blogs is a report published by the Research, Information and Communications Unit of the Home Office in March 2010 based on research completed in April 2008 by the University of Nottingham academic Dr. David Stevens.


The report was the product of a £27,666 Economic and Social Research Council grant given to Dr David Stevens to study 'radical blogs'. The project was titled Communications Streams and Radicalisation and was conducted from January to March 2008, in collaboration with the UK Government's 'counter terrorism' group the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU). The description of the grant given on ESRC's website stated:

The purpose of the placement is to conduct a study of radical weblogs (‘Blogs’) over the period of the placement, as well as to provide more general advice and assistance on RICU business. The nature of this study is somewhat sensitive. Consequently, the exact aims and outcomes of the project will not be publicised.[1]

It is clear from this description that the interest is in 'radical' blogs and the title of the project includes the term 'radicalisation'. This is of course what RICU was interested in. However, when the research came to be published the title referred only to 'Islamic' blogs. The lack of differentiation between 'radical' and Islamic' is carried all the way through the report.

’Radical’ or ‘Islamic’ blogs

At the heart of the difficulties of the report is the failure to distinguish between ‘Islamic’ and ‘radical’ blogs. ‘The purpose of this project’, writes Stevens, ‘is to study the link patterns and discussions of Islamic bloggers with particular reference to the UK’. ‘Islamic’ bloggers, as opposed to ‘Islamist’ or ‘radical’. The confusion runs all the way through the report. Table One[2] indicates the use of language throughout the report

Front page of ESRC briefing on the research project run by David Stevens of the University of Nottingham in which he examined 'Islamic' blogs after a placement at the Home Office counter-terrorism Research, Information and Communications Unit. Note the picture of a praying Muslim male, indicating the difficulty of distinguishing between ordinary Muslims and 'terrorists'.

Mentions of ‘Islam’ or similar Mentions of ‘radical’ or similar
‘a community of Islamic political authors’ p. 2 ‘use of the internet by (radical) religious groups’ p. 2
‘Islamic sects’ p. 2 ‘radical religious messages, in particular Islamic messages’ p.2
‘Islamic blogs’ p. 3 ‘The research project was primarily concerned with radical Islamic messages… within the UK’ p. 4
‘broadly pro-Islamic leaning political blog URLs’ p. 5 ‘those with a radical, perhaps violent, message’ p. 5
‘pro-Islamic blog posts’ p. 5 ‘part of the recruitment, dissemination and indoctrination process of religiously motivated groups requires the existence of a public face’ p. 5
‘Islamic blogs’ p.5 -
‘pro-Islamic URLs’ p. 5 -
‘the top 20 ‘pro-leaning Islamic blogs’, p. 8 -
‘Islamic-leaning blogs’ p. 9
‘Islamic bloggers’, p. 12 -
‘community of Islamic (pro-leaning) bloggers’ p. 14 -
‘network of Islamic bloggers’ p. 14 -

The confusion between Islam in general and ‘radicalisation’ specifically was carried over into the promotion of the report by the funding agency the Economic and Social Research Council which published a two page glossy leaflet as part of its Knowledge Transfer work. This featured a picture of a bearded Muslim man at prayer on the first page, next to the headline containing the word ‘radicalisation’.[3] The ESRC had commissioned the summary from an outside contractor. Freedom of Information disclosures from the Council show that the typesetting company had specifically queried the use of the image in an email to the Council: ‘I’m not sure if the left-hand image on the front might be a bit contentious – see what you think and let me know’.[4] The Council responded: ‘this is fine’ and publication went ahead. [5]

Radical? Islamic?.... Atheist?

The report published a list of the top 20 ‘Islamic’ blogs with the inference that these were in some senses ‘radical’ or perhaps supportive in some way of ‘Jihad’ or ‘terrorism’. Among those on the list were a number of blogs which can only be described as 'radical', as ‘Islamic’ or even as 'blogs' tenuously or by distortion. The Guardian noted a number of examples:

the man identified in the report as Britain's third most influential "pro-Islamic" blogger is actually an atheist based in the United States. As'ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University who blogs as The Angry Arab is furious about it. "How ignorant are the researchers of the Home Office?" he writes. "How many times does one have to espouse atheist, anarchist, and secular principles before they realise that their categorisation is screwed up?"
He suspects that his blog was included because of its name. He rarely talks about religion on his blog, except when mocking the fatwas issued by reactionary clerics.
Top spot in the league table of Britain's most influential "pro-Islamic" bloggers goes to Ali Eteraz, a Cif contributor. Back in 2007, he wrote a series of articles for Cif, from a liberal perspective, about reforming Islam.
Islam in Europe, listed as the second most influential blog, is not what many people would think of as a proper blog. It's basically a collection of news reports from the mainstream media about – well, Islam in Europe.
Another Cif contributor, Yahya Birt, is included in the list at number six. [6]

Al Jazeera provided more details on Eteraz:

The first blog on the list is that of Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani lawyer and novelist, whose book made it to Oprah’s gilded book list. He has contributed online for Jewcy, a website which The Guardian called "a cultural icon at the forefront of a new wave of Jewish culture and pride", and the Huffington Post.
Edip Yuksel, a leader in the American Islamic reform movement, says Eteraz is the last man to be associated with terrorism. "Listing Ali's name in a research to track terrorists is a travesty of truth. Muslim intellectuals like Ali are our best hope for global peace, justice and progress," Yuksel said.[7]

We can also note that number 8 in the top 20 is the blog ‘Rolled up Trousers’. This is the personal blog of Osama Saeed, the Scottish National Party candidate for the constituency of Glasgow Central in the 2010 General Election. He is outspoken in his condemnations of ‘Islamist’ and other kinds of ‘terrorism’ as well as being a leading Scottish anti-war campaigner and anti-racst activist.[8] He is a ‘muslim’ but to describe his blog as ‘in some way related to 'radicalisation' suggests yet more muddle and a sleight of hand which smears opponents of UK government foreign policy as being somehow supporters of terrorism.

So at least five of the top tem 'Islamic' blogs are questionable. In addition the link patterns that were discovered from these allegedly 'radical' blogs were predominantly to the mainstream media:

One of Dr Stevens' discoveries was that the bloggers in question mostly link not to militant websites but to articles in the New York Times, al-Akhbar (a Lebanese Arabic-language newspaper), the Guardian, the BBC and the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz.
You may be wondering what al-Akhbar is doing here and why seems to be so popular. The explanation is simple: The Angry Arab writes for al-Akhbar and his blog links to it constantly. Since he sometimes posts as many as 10-12 one-paragraph items on his blog in a single day, al-Akhbar scored 95 mentions during the study period, compared with 88 for the Guardian and 80 for the BBC.[6]

The difficulty seems to have been the lack of 'Islamist' blogs. Even including the loosely defined 'Islamic' blogs yields a very low number of blogs and links. As the report notes 'anti-Islamic' blogs were present 'in much larger numbers'. The number of 'Islamic' blog URLs collected in the sample in February and March 2008 was 140. 'compared with other political blogging communities this is not terribly high' the report notes on p. 5.[9]




  1. Economic and Social Research Council, Communications Streams and Radicalisation, accessed 11 March 2016.
  2. Table compiled by selecting all uses of language to describe the nature of the blogs and their contents which relates to their ideology or politics. There were two other uses of terminology to refer to critics of the blogs these were the only instance of the word ‘Islamist’ to refer to the ‘former Islamist Ed Husain’, (p. 12) and one reference to ‘anti-Islamic blogs’ (p. 5) This usage too is problematic in the sense that many of the blogs being referred to here would claim that they are not anti ‘Islamic’ but anti ‘Islamist’.
  3. ESRC Examining What Role Blogs May Play in Radicalisation
  4. Rebecca Knight to Lesley Lilley, Re: Making a Difference – blogs, 12 May 2009, Email exchange released by the ESRC under the Freedom of Information Act relating to the grant given to Dr David Stevens titled Communications Streams and Radicalisation FOI 0206 Response – David Miller Letter from Cormac Connolly, Head of Information Environment, ESRC, 24 August 2009
  5. Lesley Lilley to Rebecca Knight, Re: Making a Difference – blogs, 21 May 2009, Email exchange released by the ESRC under the Freedom of Information Act relating to the grant given to Dr David Stevens titled Communications Streams and Radicalisation FOI 0206 Response – David Miller Letter from Cormac Connolly, Head of Information Environment, ESRC, 24 August 2009
  6. 6.0 6.1 Brian Whitaker Not much blog for your buck Home Office research has thrown up some blindingly obvious insights into the Muslim blogosphere. Why did they bother?, The Guardian, Thursday 25 March 2010, 12.30 GMT
  7. Jillian C York 'UK study on Islamic blogs 'flawed' Experts and academics lambast a Home Office report identifying pro-Islamic websites', Al Jazeera Last Modified: 01 Apr 2010 20:57 GMT
  8. Osama Saeed Biography, ‘’rolled-Up Trousers’’ accessed 4 December 2010
  9. David Stevens, Estimating network size and tracking information dissemination amongst Islamic blogs, March 2010 (Research completed April 2008), Research, Information and Communications Unit, Home Office. ISBN 978-1-84987-162-4