Terrorists are now more likely to be radicalised online, a new report has revealed – while separate data has warned children and young under the age of 20 now account for one-third of all suspects. Academics were asked to look at the role the internet played in the radicalising 437 convicted extremist offenders in England and Wales, concluding that the internet was “increasingly prominent” in the process.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) study, released yesterday, coincided with the publication of Home Office figures, published separately on Thursday, showing children and young adults aged 20 and under now account for a third of terror suspects arrested.
Meanwhile, the proportion of terrorist prisoners holding Islamist-extremist views has dropped to its lowest level on record – while those categorised as having an extreme right-wing ideology have risen to their highest level in the last year, the statistics also reveal.
A third of the sample of criminals considered in the MoJ research had mental health problems or personality disorders.
Frequently reported conditions included Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and depression, with these “most common” among those mainly radicalised online, the findings indicated.
Analysis of specialist reports from 2010 to the end of 2021 also suggested there has been a sharp increase in online radicalisation when it came to female offenders and people aged over 25.
The report said: “Findings suggest that the internet has become increasingly prominent in radicalisation pathways and offending over time for convicted extremists in England and Wales.
“Technological advances have led to changes in the types of applications/platforms used over time.
“Mental health issues, neurodivergence and personality disorder/difficulties were relevant for a sizeable proportion of the sample, with ASC, depression and personality disorder/difficulties recorded as the most common types of disorders, particularly for those who have primarily radicalised online.”
For attackers specifically, people “exposed to online influences in their radicalisation pathway” were more likely to use the online domain to plan attacks, the report explained.
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It added: “Those attackers reported as being 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 research was carried out by Nottingham Trent (NTU) and Bournemouth universities with the Prison and Probation Service and follows on from a similar report published last year.
The study provided a “contemporary picture” of the online activities of convicted extremists in England and Wales until the end of 2021, said lead author Dr Jonathan Kenyon, who found “marked differences” in behaviour and offending between those who were radicalised on the internet, in person or a mixture of both.
This highlights the importance of taking these factors into account when “assessing risk” and considering how to tackle terrorism, Dr Kenyon said.
Dr Jens Binder, associate professor of psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said mainstream websites and apps were “routinely” used, “sometimes to reach out to the many users there and to lead some of them to more secluded online locations” which is “likely to require a more pro-active and transparent approach from tech companies” so radical content was reported.
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Dr Christopher Baker-Beall, Bournemouth University Disaster Management Centre’s senior lecturer in crisis and disaster management, emphasised the findings were “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 re-offend or commit further acts of terrorism”.
The MoJ said the views expressed in the report were those of the authors and “are not necessarily shared” by the department, adding: “Nor do they represent Government policy”.
Last month MI5 director general Ken McCallum described extreme right-wing terrorism as now a “diffuse online threat”, adding: “From the comfort of their bedrooms, individuals are easily able to access right-wing extremist spaces, network with each other and move towards a radical mindset.”
Earlier this week, 25 far-right extremists were arrested in Germany after police swooped in on addresses in 11 federal states, including Thuringia, Hesse and Lower Saxony.