The UK government is running a secret propaganda campaign to stop young Muslims from joining Islamic State (Isis), according to a report. A strategic communications unit set up by the Home Office in 2007, called the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu), is reported to be running an operation at an "industrial pace and scale" to counter the online propaganda of IS (Daesh).
The campaign, inspired by a similar scheme established during the Cold War, spreads counter-extremist messages to a wide audience by organising events at schools and universities and working with Muslim organisations.
Ricu outsources much of its work to a London PR company, which has produced dozens of websites, leaflets, videos, social media pages and online radio content to push through its message.
One campaign called Help for Syria, for instance, had distributed leaflets to 760,000 homes without the recipients realising they were government communications.
According to revelations made by the Guardian newspaper, the messages are primarily targeted at Muslim males between the ages of 15 and 39. As of February 2015, Ricu had run 13 national campaigns, producing about 950 physical and online products.
Some fear the clandestine nature of the operations could undermine the confidence of Muslims in the government.
Imran Khan, a human rights lawyer, told the Guardian: "If the government wants its Muslim citizens to listen to it, it needs to be trusted. And to be trusted, it needs to be honest. What is happening here is not honest, it's deeply deceptive.
"Furthermore, this government needs to stop thinking of young British Muslims as some sort of fifth column that it needs to deal with."
However, one senior Home Office official defended the programme, saying: "All we're trying to do is stop people becoming suicide bombers." At least 800 people have travelled from the UK to fight for jihadists in Syria, according to the government, with about half of those believed to be still inside the country.