The MoJ has just (16 September 2021) published new research “Exploring the role of the Internet in radicalisation and offending of convicted extremists.” Authored by Jonathan Kenyon, Jens Binder and Christopher Baker-Beall, the aim of the study was to establish the role of the Internet in radicalisation processes and offending of those convicted of extremist offences in England and Wales by comparing radicalisation pathways across 3 groups: those who primarily radicalised online; those who primarily radicalised offline; and those radicalised through both online and offline influences.
Four key areas were investigated: first, whether the Internet plays a prominent role in radicalisation; second, whether those taking different radicalisation pathways differ in their internet use; third, whether differences exist in demographic profiles and type of offences committed by those taking different radicalisation pathways; and fourth, whether the pathway taken impacts on professionals’ perceptions of risk of committing future violent extremist offences.
Detailed post-conviction assessments were reviewed, which included 267 Extremism Risk Guidance (ERG22+) and 2 Structured Risk Guidance (SRG) reports. Both the ERG22+ and SRG assessments are risk and need formulation tools intended for use with individuals who have been convicted of any extremist or extremist-related offence. The sample of reports included within the study comprised all that were available on the convicted extremist population in England and Wales from October 2010 to December 2017.
During the time period under investigation, up until 2017, the Internet appeared to play an increasingly prominent role in radicalisation processes for those convicted of extremist offences in England and Wales, reflecting general trends of widespread internet use in today’s society. The types of websites, platforms and applications used by convicted extremists had changed over time, with a move from using specific extremist websites to open social media platforms.
The internet-related behaviours that were found to contribute most to a differentiation of pathway groups were general online activities relating to extremist activity, namely learning from others online and the use of open social media platforms. More specialised activities, such as the use of encrypted applications, were less predictive, possibly due to their low frequency of occurrence.
In terms of general profile and vulnerability factors, several differences between pathway groups were identified. Those who primarily radicalised online were less likely to be socially connected in the context of the offence and they were more likely to display signs of mental illness or personality disorder, compared against the other two pathway groups. Conversely, those who primarily radicalised offline were more likely to take on the role of attacker and they were less likely to follow an Islamist ideology, compared against the other two pathway groups.
Most importantly, differences were found in assessed levels of 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.
Based on the findings of this study, the authors proposed five recommendations for counter-terrorism policy and practice:
- Whilst the Internet appears to be playing an increasingly prominent role in radicalisation processes, offline influences featured at least to some extent for most cases, suggesting extremist offenders generally operate across both domains. To reflect this, security services and counter-terrorism initiatives should continue to target the Internet as a setting where extremist socialisation can occur, but not at the expense of paying attention to environmental interactions offline.
- New online counter-terrorism measures should aim to target younger users and appeal not just to males, but also to females, given the particularly marked increase in prominence of the Internet in radicalisation for these groups.
- Given that those who primarily radicalised online tended to be socially isolated offline with higher rates of mental illness and personality disorder, once vulnerable individuals have been identified online, it is important their wider needs are considered as opposed to focusing solely on interventions to address an increasingly extremist mind-set. In particular, those who appear vulnerable to online radicalisation may benefit from initiatives designed to increase their support network and access to social opportunities to reduce feelings of social isolation. These individuals may also require referral to and support from specialist mental health and/or personality disorder services.
- Further work should determine how radicalisation pathways can inform treatment of extremist offenders during rehabilitation efforts within custodial and community settings. The differences found in engagement, intent and capability ratings between radicalisation pathway groups provide a more nuanced understanding to potentially inform decisions on appropriate response measures. For example, those who have primarily radicalised online and considered less engaged may benefit from interventions that help them get back to a more meaningful life through focusing on positive approach goals. In contrast, those who are considered highly engaged through online and offline influences may require more intensive rehabilitation efforts, including that which specifically addresses extremist beliefs/ideology.
- ERG22+ assessors should have up-to-date knowledge around the role of the Internet in radicalisation processes and extremist offending given the increasingly prominent role of the Internet in radicalisation processes. This includes awareness of literature around extremists’ online behaviours and familiarity with changes in the way the online space is being used (e.g. the types of platforms/applications favoured, how these platforms/applications work and how they are being used). This should help assessors develop a fuller understanding of how individuals come to be engaged with an extremist group or cause, along with greater knowledge around their capabilities for committing extremist offences in the future.