Most convicted terrorists in Britain have been turned to internet extremism, with half of people radicalized online having mental health issues, personality disorders, depression or autism, study finds the most authoritative of its kind.
The study for the Department of Justice, which was published on Thursday, looked at the official risk assessments of every terrorist convicted in prison since 2010 in England and Wales. The majority have become at least partly radicalized online – an explosion caused by technology and the tactics of groups such as the Islamic State.
While those incited to perpetrate or support online violence now make up the majority of terrorists, their plots, the study finds, are less likely to succeed.
The research challenges the conventional wisdom that the growth of internet radicalization by Islamists and the far-right is allowing terrorism to fester out of the sight of security services and police.
Researchers from the Prison and Probation Service, as well as Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth Universities, were given access to Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ forms. These are written for prison and probation services and assess engagement in terrorism, as well as the danger posed by convicted terrorists. The ERG 22s include counter-terrorism police equipment.
For all the terrorists convicted in prison from 2010 to 2021, 490 files were recovered and 437 studied in detail. Nine out of 10 terrorist prisoners were male, 44% were aged 25 or younger at the time of their conviction and seven out of 10 were born in the UK. The study reveals that 4% have been convicted of violent extremism in favor of animal rights, 18% for far-right terrorist offenses and 72% for offenses inciting Islamism.
The study reveals the growing importance of the Internet in its current dominance of radicalization. Between 2013 and 2015, 43% of people imprisoned for terrorism were radicalized in whole or in part online. This figure increased to 84% in 2016-2018, and between 2019-2021, 92% of those convicted. This latter figure may have been further inflated by the Covid lockdowns.
Beginning in 2015, IS launched an intense online propaganda war, with the far right emulating its strategy as it tried to win over recruits.
Of those radicalized online between 2010 and 2021, 28% had previous convictions for any crime, and 15% of them for violent offences. None had a history of terrorism convictions, 4% had previous convictions for a terrorism-related offence, 42% had a “high presence” of mental health issues, neurodivergence and personality disorders, and 9 % had them partially present.
By contrast, one in six adults in England are estimated to have a common mental disorder and one in eight people aged 16 or over test positive for any type of personality disorder.
The study focused on those convicted of terrorism, and its findings are echoed by other work on mental health and terrorism. The growing importance of mental health as a factor has also been seen by the Prevent programme, which tries to prevent people from becoming radicalized in the first place.
Last year, the Guardian revealed that up to seven in 10 people referred to the program may suffer from mental health issues or other vulnerabilities that could make them susceptible to falling for violent extremist propaganda. Those involved with Prevent believe that these psychological issues are much more of a potential factor than first thought.
Among the terrorists whose cases were reviewed for the study are Roshonara Choudhry, convicted in 2010 of the attempted murder of Labor MP Stephen Timms. The student wanted to be martyred after watching more than 100 hours of extremist video sermons on YouTube. He also studied the ERG of Darren Osborne, convicted of the 2017 attack on worshipers leaving Finsbury Park Mosque, who self-radicalized within three weeks.
In the study published today, among those radicalized on the Internet, 84% had been convicted of offenses other than attacks, such as spreading propaganda or fundraising; 16% for offenses conspiring to violence; 85% were solo actors; 7% had suffered a head or brain injury; 75% were convicted for offenses supporting the Islamist cause and 25% for other ideologies, the most important of which is fueled by far-right beliefs.
For people radicalized mainly face-to-face, half had previous convictions, more than a third for violence and 5% had previous convictions for terrorism. 19% had a mental health problem or vulnerability, and 51% of these offenders were convicted for planning attacks. Only 6% were lone actors, 58% were Islamists and 42% other ideologies.
The report states: “For those who were primarily radicalized online, the most common types of conspiracies included the use of an improvised explosive device (IED, 65%), a stabbing weapon (24%) or a vehicle (12%).
“Only a minority of plots moved from the planning stage to the execution stage (29%), with 18% of plots successfully completed. For this path group, all foiled plots were disrupted by police or security services (100%), suggesting that the online traces of those who were primarily radicalized online make it more difficult for them to make substantial progress in their attacks and bring them to the attention of the police or security services more easily.
“This interpretation is also supported by the finding that attackers who primarily radicalized online were the most likely to signal their attack intent compared to other pathway groups. These findings also run counter to the popular notion that the Internet helps create an undetectable threat from lone actors.
Those radicalized online were less committed to the ideological cause and deemed less capable than those recruited face-to-face.
The three main types of radicalization are online, in the real world and a mixture of the two. The report finds recruits for far-right ideologies, using online forums like Iron March and Fascist Forge. An app originally designed for gamers called Discord was also sometimes used. The report notes that some incited to support Islamist terrorism have been radicalized by games like Call of Duty.
The Justice Department said the views expressed in the report are those of the authors and “are not necessarily shared” by the department, adding, “Nor do they represent government policy.”