On 4 March, the Home Office released its latest quarterly dataset on counter-terrorism related arrests and prosecutions for the year ending December 2020. This data allows for a greater understanding of the impact of COVID and associated restrictions on the terrorist threat to GB and the related police and MI5 response.
By Pool Re SOLUTIONS Risk Consulting Team – March 2021
Terrorist-related arrests declined to the lowest levels since 2011, however, this does not necessarily reflect a lower level of engagement with extremism and terrorism. By contrast, arrests amongst under 18s in 2020 were at their highest levels since the peak in 2017, possibly indicating an increase in terrorist engagement amongst some of the youngest members of society.
The release of this data followed a reduction in the terrorist threat level in February, which saw the threat level reduced from ‘SEVERE’ to ‘SUBSTANTIAL’, which the Risk Consulting Team analysed in a recent blog, which can be read here.
Declining arrests, not declining threat
By the end of December 2020, there were 185 arrests for terrorist-related activity across Great Britain. This was 97 fewer arrests than the same period in 2019 and the lowest number of arrests since 2011. In our view, this decline in arrests does not indicate a significant reduction in terrorist threat across the country. Rather, as a result of the pandemic, it is likely to be more difficult for police and intelligence services to effectively gather evidence on and investigate terrorist suspects, particularly as most offences may be conducted from home and offline activities such as attack planning, reconnaissance, training and physical preparations may be curtailed by restrictions.
Nevertheless, counter-terrorism officers have raised concerns that extremists across the threat spectrum continue to engage with terrorist material online and may continue to use the lockdown period to develop attack plans. It is difficult to monitor traffic to extremist websites and materials as often sites are taken down and new sites spring up immediately. Extremist material is also often spread on encrypted platforms, such as Telegram or Gab, creating a challenge for police and intelligence agencies. These difficulties are further exacerbated by the reluctance of tech companies to work with governments in providing data on suspected extremists.
As of March 2021, counter-terrorism police are conducting over 850 live investigations into around 20,000 subjects of interest, a record high. As such, whilst terrorism-related arrests are at their lowest level in nearly a decade, we expect these numbers to increase in the second half of 2021 and into 2022, as lockdown restrictions are eased, vaccine rollouts continue, crowded places re-emerge, and would-be terrorist accelerate attack plans.
Number of people arrested for terrorism-related offences 2011 – 2020
A new generation of violent extremists
Senior police officials, including Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations Neil Basu, have voiced concerns that increased online activity and growing isolation amongst teenagers during the pandemic has left young people more susceptible to engaging in terrorist activity. The vulnerability of teenagers during the pandemic to extremist influences was reflected in the data released by the Home Office. Arrests across all age groups fell apart from the under-18s group, which increased from 12 arrests to 19 in 2020.
Whilst an increase of seven may seem insignificant, this is the second highest number of under-18s arrested since 2011, after a peak of 28 in 2017. The increasing extremist activity amongst teenagers, against a declining trend in 2020, may present a threat in the longer term. This is further supported by both the comments of senior Counter-Terrorism Police officers and the increasing number of teenagers being referred to the Channel programme, a government counter violent extremism initiative.
Teenagers radicalised during the lockdown may further engage in extremist activities such as offline networking with other extremists, once lockdown restrictions have ended and may begin to plan and execute attacks. The fallout from the pandemic, including increased economic inequalities, more widespread alienation and increased isolation, factors that are likely to disproportionately affect the younger generation, may also cement extremist views in the longer term.
Indeed, vulnerable individuals, who are cooped up in their rooms and downloading radical material online, has been a long-term concern for counter-terrorism officers. However, as Neil Basu recently noted, Counter-Terrorism Police no longer refer to such individuals as ‘lone actors’ or ‘lone wolves.’ The term that the Counter-Terrorism Police now use is ‘self-initiated terrorists’, highlighting that no-one is radicalised in isolation and external influences almost always play a part in the process.
A key issue for police and security services is that teenagers may be more technologically literate than older generations and, as such, better equipped to avoid detection online, making identifying and interdicting plots more challenging. Pool Re commented on the potential increase in radicalisation during the coronavirus pandemic in May 2020, which can be read here.
Number of under-18s related for terrorism-related offences 2011 – 2020
Terrorism remains a judicial priority
Despite a large backlog in court cases across England and Wales as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, terrorism cases have been tried at similar levels to 2019. The prioritisation of such cases by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reflects the serious nature of the offences. Of the terrorism-related cases tried, 91% ended in a conviction in 2020. Convictions ensure that terrorist offenders are detained and represent a lesser threat to the general public in the immediate term.
However, prisons have long been considered a breeding ground for violent extremists, where extremist prisoners can spread radical ideologies to potentially susceptible inmates. Even when extremist prisoners are segregated, this has been shown to further entrench extremist views among segregated prisoners. Two terrorist attacks since 2019 have been perpetrated by terrorist prisoners against guards.
Despite the rapidity of the CPS in prosecuting terrorist offenders, it is likely that prosecutions and custodial sentences will only delay further offences, given the widely acknowledged inadequacies in countering violent extremism programmes in place in prisons. Jonathan Hall QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, launched a review in January 2021 on radicalisation in prisons.
While the recently released Home Office data appears to demonstrate a decrease in terrorist activity in Great Britain, we assess that this is probably not to be the case. The pandemic has had unexpected effects on all aspects of society, including extremists and would-be terrorists. The overnight disappearance of target-rich environments has made perpetrating a mass-casualty attack more difficult. However, isolation, a lack of long-term economic opportunities and increased online activity has created a fertile breeding ground to radicalise a new generation of violent and potentially younger extremists.
In the short term, those radicalised online during lockdowns may plan and execute attacks as vaccine rollouts allow for eased restrictions. In the longer term, the radicalisation that has occurred throughout the pandemic may be ingrained by various factors, including lack of job opportunities and financial hardship and increased alienation and isolation, particularly among those who are currently under 18. Therefore, we may see a noticeable increase in terrorist attacks in the coming months and over the next several years.