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Study shows radicalisation is now more likely to take place online – but internet plots are more likely to fail

Research which analysed the offending pathways of 437 individuals convicted under the UK Terrorism Act and related offences in England and Wales has 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.

Silhouette of back of a man in the dark looking at computer screen
Attackers who reported they were primarily radicalised online were found to be the least successful in plotting attacks

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. 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.

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 Ministry of Justice. The work 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.

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, said: “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, highlighting 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.

The full report can be read online.

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with nearly 39,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked 4th most sustainable university in the world and 1st in the UK for sustainability-themed Education and Research in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 8 December 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences