Exploring the Importance of In-Person Radicalisation to Understand the UK Terrorism Threat

Oct 4, 2023 | Deep Dive, Islamist Terrorism, Right Wing Terrorism

Author: Becca Stewart ASyI, 
Threat Analyst 

Read Time: 10 minutes 

Since 2010, in-person radicalisation has been linked to the majority of significant terrorism-related incidents in the UK. At the same time, rates of online radicalisation have been increasing rapidly resulting in growing numbers of convictions for online terrorism offences.

Following the December 2022 publication of a report by His Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) exploring “the internet and radicalisation pathways” of convicted terrorists in the UK [1], this report seeks to explore and analyse:

  • The findings of the HMPPS report;
  • Groups and facilitators driving in-person radicalisation in the UK;
  • Outlooks and assessments of the future of radicalisation in the UK;
  • How the radicalisation trends will impact the UK terrorism threat.

    This article does not discuss the frequency and severity of terrorist attacks; instead, it highlights certain factors that could influence the terrorism threat landscape in the UK in the long term.

      To read further assessment on this report from Dr. Jens Binder, an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University and co-author of the HMPPS report, please click here.

        You can also access our Totally Terrorism podcast episode with Dr. Jens Binder, exploring the topic of online and offline radicalisation, here on our website or through your podcast streaming app of choice. 

        Findings of the HMPPS Report

        The HMPPS report analysed the extremism risk assessments of 490 individuals convicted of an extremist offence in the UK between October 2010 and December 2021. The report highlights the continued impact of in-person radicalisation on those convicted for late-stage terrorist attack plots against people and property in the UK.

        Individuals can be radicalised online, in person, or a combination of both (‘hybrid’). The report suggests offending behaviour tends to differ depending on which radicalisation pathway individuals have followed:

        • Those radicalised online are more likely to be arrested for online offences and non-violent offences.[2]
        • Those radicalised in person or a combination of in-person and online are more likely to engage in violent terrorism-related behaviour.

        While certain individuals radicalised online engaged in devising terrorist attacks, they were less likely to progress beyond the planning stage and were more likely to be intercepted by police and security services.

        • The report suggests that the majority of the successful terrorist attacks studied were planned by individuals primarily radicalised in person. They often communicated with other extremists in person and predominantly kept terrorism-related activity offline.
        • Whilst individuals radicalised online continue to pose a threat, the report indicates that they are more likely to be intercepted by police and security services prior to reaching the later stages of attack planning. Possible reasons for plot disruption include individuals unwilling to proceed with their plot, arrest before preparation, or a lack of intent to conduct an attack in the first place.
        • The report proposed six recommendations to inform future policy and practice, including the monitoring and interception of both online and offline extremist behaviours and activities. The recommendations aim to combat the potential danger posed by both online and in-person radicalisation, as identified in the findings.
          • It is highly likely that increased levels of online radicalisation have stretched the limited resources of UK police and security services. It is almost certain that online radicalisation presents a significant terrorism threat. However, it is possible that the increased burden of mitigating this threat could impact the resources available to monitor more traditional, in-person radicalisation; the results of this study indicate that whilst smaller in number, extremists radicalised in person could be more likely to progress to later stage attack preparation.

        The report demonstrates the link between the way in which individuals were radicalised and the likelihood of moving to the ‘execution phase’ of an attack. The following table has been produced using data from the report and highlights online, hybrid and in-person radicalisation and the links to late-stage attack plots.  [3]

        Groups and Facilitators of In-Person Radicalisation in the UK

        Several groups in the UK with extreme outlooks have previously played a role in the radicalisation of individuals in the UK, particularly in person. Whilst most of these groups do not outwardly advocate violence, they instil extreme views within individuals and enable their escalation to openly violent groups and ideologies.

        The following section highlights examples of extreme groups and individuals that are almost certainly part of the radicalisation pipeline in the UK, moving individuals that are susceptible to extreme views and opinions towards conducting acts of terrorism.

        Al Muhajiroun
        • Al Muhajiroun (ALM) is a UK-based terrorist organisation that was proscribed in 2006 for inciting violent extremism.[4]
        • Founded in 1996 by Omar Bakri Muhammad, ALM hosted conferences and speakers at events and at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London. Speeches would primarily promote the introduction of Sharia Law in mainland UK.[5]
        • To drive recruitment, ALM: hosted study circles; staged political protests; organised street preaching stalls handing out propaganda; gave guest talks including at a sixth form centre in Crawley; and regularly appeared on television.[6]
        • In 2004, in anticipation of its proscription as a terrorist group, ALM split into several offshoots, including Al Ghurabaa and The Saved Sect. From 2006 onwards, the UK government proscribed ALM and each of its affiliated offshoots.[7]
        • ALM and its offshoots have previously praised the individuals responsible for the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks and encouraged Muslims to reject concepts of freedom of speech, democracy, and human rights.[8]
        • It is alleged that ALM was linked to the majority of significant Islamist terrorist incidents in the UK since its formation including: the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby, the 2017 London Bridge attack, and the 2019 Fishmongers’ Hall attack.[9]
        • Whilst the group’s current status is unknown, it is highly likely that members of ALM continue to operate as a set of disparate covert cells within the UK.[10]
        • It is highly likely that any Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks conducted in the UK in the medium term will be directly connected to, or associated with, ALM or former ALM members.
        • In April 2023, ALM’s founder, Omar Bakri Muhammad, was released from a Lebanese prison following a 6-year sentence for reportedly establishing a Lebanese affiliate of the al Qa’ida linked group, Al Nusra Front.[11] There is a realistic possibility that following his release Bakri Muhammad could facilitate the online radicalisation of individuals in the UK.
        Anjem Choudary
        • Extreme Islamic preacher Anjem Choudary is a former leader of ALM and several of its offshoot groups. He was regularly involved with public marches, protests, and various public speaking events, including mainstream television appearances. He also preached at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, and several other London locations.[12]
        • Choudary was jailed in 2016 for ‘inviting support’ for the proscribed group, Islamic State. He was released in 2018 with legally-mandated restrictions on speaking in public or to the media. Whilst in prison, despite warnings by authorities, Choudary continued to preach his extreme views to vulnerable inmates, leading to a prison transfer to a ‘specialist separation centre’.[13]
        • In July 2021, Choudary’s public speaking ban was lifted, and he initiated a number of online campaigns encouraging support for known extremists.[14] Since 2021, he has also made online calls for the release of Muslim prisoners in countries such as China, the Netherlands, and the US and has encouraged Muslims to take a stand against Western governments to protect Islam.
        • On 24 July 2023, Anjem Choudary was charged with membership of a proscribed organisation, addressing meetings to encourage support for a proscribed organisation, and directing a terrorist organisation. Each of the charges relate to a US-based group, the ‘Islamic Thinkers Society’, which prosecutors allege is an alias for ALM.[15]
        • Between July 2021 and Choudary’s arrest in July 2023, it is highly unlikely that Choudary had resumed in-person public preaching.
        • Choudary consistently published blog posts online. It is highly likely that, if not for his arrest, he would have continued to use this form of communication to continue sharing his extreme Islamic views online. Whilst his public blog content remained within the law, the most recent charges suggest it is almost certain that Choudary engaged further in illegal activity by supporting, encouraging or inciting terrorism.
        • As of September 2023, Choudary has been remanded into custody and is therefore unable to continue sharing his extreme views online or publicly outside of prison. However, there is a realistic possibility that Choudary could continue preaching within the prison environment, with the potential for his extreme views and messaging to influence and radicalise other prisoners.
        • It is highly likely that Choudary, and other lower-profile individuals with similar extreme messaging will continue to facilitate the radicalisation of certain individuals towards terrorism in the long term. Furthermore, it is likely that the radicalising influence of individuals such as Anjem Choudary will inspire others to act as facilitators in terrorism radicalisation.
        Hizb ut-Tahrir
        • Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is a revolutionary Islamic political party with a global presence that seeks to unite Muslims under an Islamic state, the caliphate.[16]
        • HT has been operating in Britain since the late 1980s and has been described as a “conveyor belt” of radicalisation from extremism towards terrorism.[17]
        • One of the first HT leaders in Britain was Omar Bakri Muhammad. Bakri Muhammad later went on to found the aforementioned terrorist organisation ALM.[18]
        • Whilst it remains a legal organisation in Britain, and is alleged to operate in over 40 countries worldwide, HT has allegedly been banned in at least 13 countries.[19]
        • In 2011, the Home Office deemed that whilst HT holds radical views, they do not advocate violence and therefore cannot be banned for holding unpopular beliefs.[20]
        • It is likely that UK-based individuals radicalised by HT’s ideology would become more vulnerable to the violent outlooks of global terrorist groups, including Islamic State (IS) and al-Qa’ida.[21]
          • Former high-profile individuals linked to the group include now-deceased IS fighter Mohamed Emwazi, known publicly as “Jihadi John”, who reportedly attended events with HT speakers whilst at university in Britain.
          • British citizen Omar Sharif, who attempted to blow up a Tel Aviv bar in 2003, had allegedly attended HT meetings whilst at university in London and had HT literature in his house.
        • Whilst it is unlikely HT played a role in directing or encouraging these high-profile individuals to engage in violent extremism, the group’s messaging was likely a factor in the initial radicalisation of these individuals to hold extreme Islamist beliefs in the UK.
        • As of September 2023, HT remains active, maintaining that they are a non-violent Islamic political party.
        • Media reporting in December 2022 highlighted concerns about the possibility of HT radicalising and recruiting asylum seekers held in hotels, particularly in the north of England and the Midlands. HT had allegedly held in-person sessions in converted warehouses nearby these hotels, triggering concerns from local police and council officials.[22]
        • Since November 2021, prominent figures from HT have given up to 10 keynote presentations at several UK universities, despite the National Union of Students (NUS) passing a “No Platform Policy” to HT in 2004, banning HT from speaking at universities due to their alleged support for terrorism and racial hatred.[23] It is unclear whether the hosting university Islamic Societies were aware of the speakers’ links to HT or the NUS ban, however the speakers feature regularly on the HT Britain website despite no mention of their HT affiliations on the university events’ marketing materials.[24]
        • The extreme ideology of HT is non-violent, which has prevented it from being deemed a terrorist organisation. The group’s ideology highlights the distinction between violent and non-violent extremism and sets a threshold for what is too extreme to be considered acceptable.
        • It is highly likely HT will continue to host in-person events sharing their beliefs, aims, and potentially extreme views. There is a realistic possibility that individuals attending these events could go on to engage with terrorist groups or activities.
        British National Party, English Defence League, National Action
        • There have been a variety of extreme right-wing political parties and organisations within Britain, many of which stemmed from the high-profile British National Party (BNP), a former UK political party. Following the decline of the BNP, members formed subsequent groups, including National Action, the English Defence League (EDL), and Patriotic Alternative, which each rose to prominence after 2010.[25]
        • Whilst the majority of those groups remain legal, in 2016, National Action became the first extreme right-wing group to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK.[26]
        • Members of National Action, the BNP and the EDL engaged predominantly in public protests and street activism. National Action targeted universities with leafleting, banner drops, and public speeches in order to recruit new members.[27]
        • A number of former BNP and National Action members have been convicted for violent or terrorism-related offences:
          • In 1999, ex-BNP member David Copeland conducted nail bomb attacks in London targeting the LGBTQ+ community and ethnic minorities.[28]
          • At least three other BNP members have been convicted for possessing explosives, chemicals, firearms or nail bombs between 1985 and 2010.[29]
          • Whilst not deemed as terrorism, National Action member Zack Davies was convicted for attempted murder in 2015 following a racially-motivated machete attack which he claimed was revenge for the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists.[30]
          • In 2017, National Action member Jack Renshaw was convicted of preparing acts of terrorism after purchasing a machete to enact a plot to murder a serving Labour MP.[31]
        • Whilst the founders of National Action have been convicted and imprisoned, it is highly likely that other affiliated individuals continue to meet covertly. In February 2023, two prominent media figures in the UK received direct death threats claiming to be from the National Action London Cell.[32]
        Patriotic Alternative
        • The BNP and EDL have severely declined in their activities and membership since 2011, with former members becoming involved with more active groups such as Patriotic Alternative and Britain First. Both groups maintain they are non-violent right-wing political parties with a right to political representation.
        • Patriotic Alternative regularly engages in leafleting and protesting, particularly against immigration and the LGBTQIA+ community. Amongst other recruitment efforts, the group has reportedly used online techniques to engage teenagers and young people through gaming tournaments and video-sharing platforms. Their in-person activities allegedly remain a prominent element of their recruitment methods.[33]
        • In March 2023, Patriotic Alternative’s “head of fitness” became the first member of the group to be convicted of terrorism offences after pleading guilty to two counts of disseminating terrorist publications.[34] He was sentenced in June 2023 to four years and eight months in prison for the offences.[35]
        • It is highly likely that Patriotic Alternative will continue to engage in both online and in-person activities to recruit individuals in the near future. There is a realistic possibility that certain individuals associated with Patriotic Alternative could escalate towards terrorism-related activity as a result of the group’s more extreme right-wing positions.
          • In April 2023, media reporting suggested members of Patriotic Alternative had split from the core group to form a new group called Homeland. The split was allegedly a result of member dissatisfaction with Patriotic Alternative’s lack of political “direction” and “focus”.[36] Among those who allegedly left the group to form Homeland is the leader of Patriotic Alternative’s Scotland branch, Kenny Smith, who pleaded guilty to possessing excess ammunition in 2022.[37] It remains unclear whether the splinter group would have more radical goals and therefore pose a greater threat to the UK.
          • It is highly likely that any individual associated with Patriotic Alternative’s splinter group, Homeland, will continue to harbour extreme right-wing views. There is a realistic possibility that individuals affiliated with Homeland could escalate to terrorism-related activity in the long term if they remain dissatisfied with the wider group’s progress and goals.

        Outlooks: What is the future of radicalisation in the UK?

          • It is highly likely that online radicalisation will continue to increase. Despite this, it is also highly likely that in-person radicalisation will also remain an enduring threat in the UK.
            • It is likely that there will be a greater number of late-stage attack plots linked to online radicalisation as the number of individuals radicalised in an online environment continues to grow. It is highly likely that the number of plots associated with online radicalisation will increase proportionately to the increase in the number of individuals radicalised online; as one rises, so will the other.
              • For similar reasons, it is likely that the percentage correlation between late-stage attack plots and in-person radicalisation will remain at a consistent level in the long term.
                • It is almost certain that extreme but non-violent groups in the UK will continue to contribute to the overall terrorism threat due to their alleged role in in-person radicalisation. Findings in the HMPPS report support this assessment by demonstrating the increased likelihood of individuals that have been radicalised in-person committing terrorism-related offences.
                  • It is likely that groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir will continue to host in-person events at which extreme Islamic views will be shared. Whilst events of this kind will not be used to promote violence, they are likely to continue to radicalise vulnerable individuals towards groups and ideologies affiliated with terrorism.
                    • It is highly likely that extreme individuals with the intent and capability to radicalise vulnerable individuals towards terrorism will remain active in the UK in the long term. Whilst these individuals will almost certainly continue to legally promote extreme ideologies legally, it is highly likely that high-profile individuals of this kind will continue to face robust consequences when stepping outside of the defined legal parameters. For example, fines, monitoring, convictions, and prison sentences.
                      • It is likely that any individual who conducts a terrorist attack in the UK will have been influenced by elements of in-person radicalisation.

                      Report Ends – Intelligence Cut Off Date: 20 September 2023

                      Expert Insight

                      This intelligence report complements our own analyses very well. In particular, it outlines that the main ideological parties of concern, jihadi-inspired fundamentalists and the extreme right wing groups, are not monolithic blocks. Instead, they consist of much looser, and more complex, networks of groups and organisations. What is more, these groups form a dynamic and adaptive environment of terrorism threats, they are not stable over time. This is reflected in the changing patterns of online and offline radicalisation that we can document in our own work.”

                      Dr Jens Binder, Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University

                        PHIA Scale

                        The “Probability Yardstick” (below) is a standardised instrument used to provide professional intelligence assessments. Judgements made using the yardstick are relative and reflect the analyst’s confidence in their findings and assessments.

                          • Almost Certain: An event is assessed to have a greater than 90% chance of occurring.
                          • Highly Likely: An event is assessed to have a 76% to 90% chance of occurring.
                          • Likely: An event is assessed to have a 55% to 75% chance of occurring.
                          • Realistic Possibility: An event is assessed to have a 40% to 54% chance of occurring.
                          • Unlikely: An event is assessed to have a 25% to 39% chance of occurring.
                          • Highly Unlikely: An event is assessed to have an 10% to 24% chance of occurring.
                          • Remote Chance: An event is assessed to have a less than 10% chance of occurring.

                          Time Spans

                            • Short Term: 0 – 6 Months.
                            • In the next 12 months.
                            • Medium Term: 12 months – 5 Years.
                            • Long Term: 5+ Years.
                        End Notes

                        [1]  The Internet and radicalisation pathways: technological advances, relevance of mental health and role of attackers (publishing.service.gov.uk)
                        [2]  The Internet and radicalisation pathways: technological advances, relevance of mental health and role of attackers (publishing.service.gov.uk), p. 20
                        [3] The Internet and radicalisation pathways: technological advances, relevance of mental health and role of attackers (publishing.service.gov.uk), p. 61
                        [4] Alternative names for proscribed organisation Al Muhajiroun – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
                        [5] Al-Muhajiroun-21-05-2003.pdf (ict.org.il)
                        [6] UK’s ‘most dangerous extremist group’ regenerating after terrorist prisoners released | The Independent | The Independent; Anjem Choudary prison release could worsen both Islamist and far-right extremism, experts warn | The Independent | The Independent
                        [7] Alternative names for proscribed organisation Al Muhajiroun – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
                        [8] Has al-Muhajiroun been underestimated? – BBC News
                        [9] Has al-Muhajiroun been underestimated? – BBC News
                        [10] Kenney-final CCE paper-final proofs-corrected formatting.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk), p. 12
                        [11] Jihadis Celebrate Release Of Jihadi Figure From Lebanon Prison | MEMRI
                        [12] Anjem Choudary: How Islamist preacher sparked rise of Tommy Robinson and the far-right | The Independent | The Independent
                        [13] Anjem Choudary: Radical preacher has public speaking ban lifted | The Independent
                        [14] Anjem Choudary orchestrating online campaigns in support of extremists despite Isis conviction | The Independent
                        [15] Two men charged with terrorism offences | The Crown Prosecution Service (cps.gov.uk)
                        [16] About Us (hizb.org.uk)
                        [17] David Cameron – 2008 Speech to Community Security Trust – UKPOL.CO.UK
                        [18] HIZB.pdf (henryjacksonsociety.org)
                        [19] HIZB.pdf (henryjacksonsociety.org)
                        [20] Microsoft Word – SNIA-03922.doc (parliament.uk)
                        [21] Hizb ut-Tahrir (counterextremism.com)
                        [22] Asylum seekers in hotels ‘could be recruited by extremist groups’ (telegraph.co.uk)
                        [23] Banned jihadi group in push to ‘infiltrate’ UK campuses – The Jewish Chronicle (thejc.com); Hizb ut-Tahrir – HOPE not hate
                        [24] Banned jihadi group in push to ‘infiltrate’ UK campuses – The Jewish Chronicle (thejc.com)
                        [25] patriotic-alternative-report-2021-11-v3.pdf (hopenothate.org.uk)
                        [26] National Action becomes first extreme right-wing group to be banned in UK – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
                        [27] National Action co-founder Alex Davies guilty of membership of banned neo-Nazi group | Counter Terrorism Policing
                        [28] Far-right attack inevitable, warns informant who identified London nail bomber | UK security and counter-terrorism | The Guardian
                        [29] Ex-BNP candidate jailed for stockpiling explosives | UK news | The Guardian; BBC News – West Yorkshire nail bomb maker jailed for 11 years; BNP member covertly poses as policeman (thetimes.co.uk)
                        [30] Nazi-obsessed loner guilty of attempted murder of dentist in racist attack | Crime | The Guardian
                        [31] The neo-Nazi paedophile who plotted to kill – BBC News
                        [32] Neo-Nazi threats probed by anti-terrorism police – BBC News
                        [33] Turning Back to Biologised Racism: A Content Analysis of Patriotic Alternative UK’s Online Discourse – GNET (gnet-research.org)
                        [34] Alleged Patriotic Alternative member admits terror charges – BBC News
                        [35] Man jailed for sharing extreme right wing material to online followers | Metropolitan Police
                        [36] Patriotic Alternative split results in ‘dangerous’ Homeland group | The National
                        [37] Patriotic Alternative leader guilty of firearms charges (theferret.scot)

                        Author: Becca Stewart ASyI,
                        Threat Analyst

                        Read Time: 10 minutes 

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