A new (8 December 2022) HMPPS report presents findings from a quantitative study exploring the role of the Internet in radicalisation and offending of 437 convicted extremists in England and Wales. The report: “The Internet and radicalisation pathways: technological advances, relevance of mental health and role of attackers” is authored by Jonathan Kenyon from HMPPS, Jens Binder from Nottingham Trent University and Christopher Baker-Beall from Bournemouth University. Specific considerations of the report include technological advances and changes in online activities, exploring the relevance of mental health including specific types of difficulties and disorders, and focusing on the sub-group of convicted extremist offenders identified as attackers.
The study identified ten key findings, with the headline conclusion that the Internet continues to play in increasingly prominent role in the radicalisation process. Radicalisation was found to now take place primarily online, as was evident for those sentenced in 2019–2021, although it remains at present uncertain to what extent this may be due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions. Some of the other principal findings are summarised below.
The most marked increase in prominence of the Internet in radicalisation pathways over time was found for convicted women and the older generation. The Internet was also increasingly prominent over time in pathways for 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.
The types of websites, platforms and applications used by convicted extremists had changed over time, with a steady decline in use of specific extremist websites/homepages and standard communication applications/platforms, and an increase in use of forums/chatrooms, open social media platforms and encrypted applications. Use of the dark web was reported infrequently, as were new developments such as online gaming and use of imageboards.
Differences between online and offline radicalisation
Those who primarily radicalised online were most likely to have committed a non-violent offence, most likely to have committed extremist offences solely online, least likely to be socially connected in the context of the offence and most likely to display signs of mental health issues, neurodivergence1 or personality disorder/difficulties. Those reported as being primarily radicalised offline were most likely to be older and have a convicted offending history, including prior convictions for violence. Index offences were most likely to be violent, with individuals most likely to be part of a group of four or more people and least likely to follow an Islamist extremist ideology.
The recorded nature and success of plots by attackers differed between pathway groups. Whilst those who primarily radicalised online devised plots with the potential to cause serious harm, their plots were least likely to have progressed beyond the planning stage and most likely to have been foiled.
Differences were also found in assessed levels of reported engagement, intent and capability, with those who primarily radicalised online considered the least identified with an extremist group or cause, and least willing and able to perpetrate violent extremist acts.
Mental health and neurodivergence
A third of the sample were reported as having mental health issues, neurodivergence or personality disorder/difficulties. Disorders most commonly reported were Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), depression and personality disorder/difficulties. However, these were most common for those who primarily radicalised online.
The principal recommendation of the report is that online responses should remain a key focus of counter-terrorism efforts with research focused on investigating emerging platforms and applications, establishing how they are used and best ways to respond. The study recommends multi-platform responses with tech companies needed as key partners.
The research also recommends that those vulnerable to online radicalisation may benefit from specialist input concerning ASC, depression and personality disorder, along with support during transitional periods in their life.