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By James Monroe
On Tuesday 7th March the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to launch our new major research project Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offences and Attacks in the UK (1998-2015) in the House of Commons. The report’s author, Hannah Stuart, began by noting that like David Anderson (Q.C. Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation) – who wrote the Foreword – she believed that this factual and dispassionate analysis of Islamist terror offences and attacks in the UK is an important tool in attempting to understand and defeat Islamist-inspired terrorism.
Stuart explained that of the 264 individuals convicted from 1998-2015, and the five suicide attackers, the overwhelming majority (93%) were men whilst women made up just 7% of convictions. The most common age at the time of arrest was 22 and the most common age ranges were between 21 and 29, whilst almost half of offences were committed by individuals in their twenties. The most serious offences (indiscriminate attacks planned or carried out against civilians) were more commonly carried out by younger individuals. Stuart noted that although 72% of those convicted were British nationals, individual’s ancestries can be traced back to diverse backgrounds including South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, although just over half were of South Asian ancestry (predominantly British Pakistanis and British Bangladeshis).
Stuart then stated that in regards to places of residence, no region of the UK was unaffected by Islamism inspired terrorism. However London and Birmingham are the hotspots and London and the North West accounted for three quarters of all cases. East London was home to half of the London based offenders (22% overall), most commonly in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest. In Birmingham, the constituencies of Hall Green and Hodge Hill contained three quarters of all Birmingham-based offenders (11% overall).
Stuart noted that one of the most striking finds was the link between social deprivation and Islamist terrorism. Residency data shows that more than three quarters of offences were committed by individuals whose neighbourhood was an above average deprived neighbourhood, and almost half of offences were committed by individuals living in highly deprived neighbourhoods (as categorised by the Government). The report data also shows that individuals who committed offences were more likely than the national Muslim average to be living in Muslim majority neighbourhoods. Almost a quarter of offences were committed by individuals who lived in a neighbourhood where the proportion of the Muslim population was 60% or above.
In terms of the education level, Stuart explained that a quarter of offenders had some form of higher education and 38% were unemployed. Almost half of offences were carried out by somebody in employment or education at the time of their arrest. Stuart also noted that more than half of offences were committed by people who lived with their family or lived at their family home.
Stuart concluded that the socio-demographic findings clearly show that the principal threat to the UK is from home-grown terrorism and that it is heavily youth- and male- orientated. There appears to be little correlation between involvement in terrorism and educational achievement and employment. Stuart noted that her findings challenge commonly held assumptions that many terrorists either come from the educated middle classes or are isolated loners and the deprivation findings raise concerns about extremism taking root in deprived communities.
Stuart then moved on to discuss the behavioural types of offenders prior to their convictions. She noted that nearly two-thirds of those convicted had watched or read extremist material or terrorist instructional handbooks, most notably Inspire, al-Qaeda’s online English-language magazine. 75% of offences were carried out by individuals previously known to the authorities. Importantly however, although half of the offenders were known to MI5, since 2011 this proportion halved from 61% to 29%.
Stuart explained to the audience that 44% of individuals had known or suspected links to proscribed organisations: Al-Muhajiroun (25%), al-Qaeda (10%) and IS (5%). Furthermore, nearly one-fifth of those convicted had undergone prior terrorist training or had gained combat experience abroad. Terrorists with such experience were almost twice as likely to be involved in the most serious attack-related offences.
Stuart also noted that the offence-specific data shows how the threat from Islamism-inspired terrorism has developed over a twenty-year period. The 269 offences came from 135 terrorist cases. In 2005 the data suggests that there were more large cells, whereas more recently the data shows that smaller cells are more common with a greater increase in individualistic offending. Stuart also drew attention to the wide variety of offences that were successfully prosecuted. The most common offences were preparation for acts of terrorism and possession of information useful for terrorism, followed by fundraising, dissemination of terrorist publications and conspiracy to murder and cause explosions.
Finally, Stuart concluded by stating that overall the picture is of an evolving threat. Although terrorist organisations are increasingly able to inspire individuals to attempt low-tech attacks, the type of threat remains diverse and sophisticated bombing attacks still remain the most common method of attack. Stuart noted that analysis of common sites of inspiration and facilitation appears to support the current policy priorities of the government and the security services of restricting extremist material on the internet, supporting at-risk sectors and encouraging families and local authorities to safeguard against extremism.
During the question and answer section several interesting points were raised. Responding to a question from Toby Harris about lone wolves and the extent to which those known to the police had declined, Stuart noted that whilst the number of lone individuals was small (28 offences), strikingly, half of those were aspirational convictions. Stuart explained that those known to the police remained similar across the two time periods (36% and 38%) but clarified that the number of people known to the security services halved across the time period (60% to 29%) reflecting a number of changes such as the increase in knife attacks and the increased difficulties in monitoring smaller cells or lone individuals.
Responding to a question about the extent to which those arrested in connection with terror offences were prosecuted, Stuart clarified that the priority of the security services and the police is always to prioritise disruption of terrorist plots over conviction chances in order to protect the general public, highlighting the huge difficulties counter-terrorism officers face in deciding at which stage in the investigation to make arrests.