Internet 'increasingly prominent' in radicalisation of extremists, research finds

Radicalisation is now more likely to take place online, but plots devised on the internet are often “foiled at the planning stage”, new research suggests.

Dec 9, 2022
By Paul Jacques

Academics analysed the offending pathways of 437 offenders convicted under the UK Terrorism Act and related offences in England and Wales in a study published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

It found that radicalisation is now more likely to take place online rather than in person – but is also more likely to result in a conviction for non-violent extremist offences.

Significantly, plots devised via the internet were least likely to have progressed beyond the planning stage and most likely to have been foiled, the findings indicated.

It comes as Home Office figures, published on Thursday (December 8), show children and young adults aged 20 and under now account for a third of terror suspects arrested.

The proportion of terrorist prisoners holding Islamist-extremist views has fallen to its lowest level on record while those categorised as having an extreme right-wing ideology has risen to its highest level in the past year, the statistics also reveal.

An analysis of specialist reports from 2010 to the end of 2021 revealed that the biggest increase in online radicalisation over time was among convicted women and those aged above 25.

The internet was also increasingly prominent among Islamist extremists, those affiliated with the extreme right-wing and other political groups. Animal rights activists were the exception, with in-person contact remaining a key feature of their radicalisation over time, said the study.

“In recent years, radicalisation predominantly by online means has started to outnumber not only in-person radicalisation, but also mixed forms of online and offline interactions, a mode of radicalisation previously thought to be the norm,” said the report.

The study by Nottingham Trent University (NTU), His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and Bournemouth University has been published in a parliamentary report by the MoJ.

It provides an update to a previous report produced in 2021, which was the first to use ‘closed source data of this kind’ for investigating the role of the internet in radicalisation processes.

Analyses focused on those offenders who could be classed as “radicalised extremists” and on those reports that provided in-depth information on radicalisation journeys up to committing the offence.

“Professional risk assessments put those who primarily radicalised online at the lowest levels. Specifically, they showed the least engagement with an ideological cause or supportive group, the lowest level of intent for committing further offences and the lowest levels of capability for doing so,” said the study.

“They were also most likely to have committed a solely online, non-violent offence. Further, they were unlikely to be socially connected in the context of the offence, in line with their overall lower levels of engagement with an extremist group or cause.”

Those attackers who reported they were primarily radicalised online were found to be the least successful in plotting attacks and most likely to see their plots foiled at the planning stage.

The websites used were also seen to have changed over time, moving from specific extremist websites and standard communication applications to an increased use of forums, chatrooms, open social media platforms and encrypted applications.

Dr Jonathan Kenyon, lead author of the study and working for HMPPS Counter Terrorism – Assessment and Rehabilitation Centre, said: “This study provides a contemporary picture of the online activities of convicted extremists in England and Wales sentenced up to the end of 2021.

“As in our previous study, including convicted extremists sentenced up to 2017, marked differences were found between those who either radicalised online, offline or across both domains in terms of their internet behaviours, profiles and offending patterns.

“Once again, this highlights the importance of accounting for different pathways in respect of internet use when assessing risk and in the development and implementation of counter-terrorism interventions.”

Dr Jens Binder, Associate Professor of Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, added: “The platforms used for online radicalisation and extremism are changing and expanding due to technological advances.

“At the same time, we find that mainstream platforms and apps are routinely utilised, sometimes to reach out to the many users there and to lead some of them to more secluded online locations.

“This means that multi-platform responses are needed to counter the terrorism threat from online radicalisation. This is also likely to require a more pro-active and transparent approach from tech companies such as specific mechanisms and incentives for reporting content of a radical nature.”

The report also found that more than a third of the individuals convicted of extremist offences displayed some type of mental health issue, which it says highlights the need for better mental health support for this group of offenders.

Dr Christopher Baker-Beall, senior lecturer in crisis and disaster management at the Bournemouth University Disaster Management Centre, said: “To be clear, in line with previous academic research, the report is not suggesting that those with mental illness represent a community from which terrorists are more likely to originate.

“Nor does the report suggest that mental illness be viewed as a predictor of terrorist intent. Instead, it highlights the importance of providing mental health support to those convicted of extremist offences to ensure they do not go on to reoffend or commit further acts of terrorism”.

Due to the low levels of violence and engagement with extremist causes shown among those radicalised online, the report urges caution against automatic jail sentences.

It instead recommends consideration of an individual’s personal circumstances and suggests that those vulnerable to online radicalisation are better supported during transitional periods in their life – such as relocation or change in cultural environment, losses or separation, changes to employment or work life, conflicts with others or traumatic events – to prevent offending.

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