A new study has found that radicalisation is now more likely to take place online rather than in person – but is also more likely to lead to a conviction for a non-violent extremist offence. Plots devised over the internet are also the most likely to be foiled.

Researchers from Bournemouth University, Nottingham Trent University and His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service looked into the role the internet played in the radicalisation of 437 convicted extremist offenders in England and Wales. Their report has  been published by the Ministry of Justice.

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

The internet was 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.

Those attackers who reported they were mainly radicalised online were the least successful in plotting attacks, most seeing their plots foiled at the planning stage.

The websites used have also 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.

The research team 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”.

Dr Jonathan Kenyon, lead author of the study and working for HMPPS Interventions Services, said: “This study provides a contemporary picture of the online activities of convicted extremists in England and Wales 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.”

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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