Homegrown terrorism inspired by the Islamic State poses the dominant threat to the national security of the United Kingdom, according to a comprehensive new report on violent Islamism in Britain.
The 1,000-page report — "Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offenses and Attacks in the UK (1998–2015)" — was published on March 5 by the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank based in London.
The report, authored by terrorism researcher Hanna Stuart, identifies, profiles and analyzes all 269 Islamism-inspired terrorism convictions and suicide attacks in the United Kingdom between 1998 and 2015.
The report also compares data between 1998 and 2010, a period when al-Qaeda reached its zenith, and 2011 and 2015, the period following the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, and the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
The report shows that young British males were the most prevalent offenders, but that involvement by British females nearly tripled in recent years.
The report found little to no correlation between involvement in Islamic terrorism and educational achievement and employment status. In addition, most of the offenders were based in London and Birmingham, and a majority were living at their family homes with parents, siblings, spouses and/or children. "These findings challenge common stereotypes of terrorists as well-educated and middle-class or as isolated loners," according to the report.
While most offenders were raised as Muslim, one in six was a convert. Three-quarters of offenders were previously known to the authorities; one-quarter had a previous criminal conviction. One in five offenders received terrorist training abroad or engaged in combat prior to arrest.
The report cites the internet as a major source for the inspiration of offenders. At the same time, most offenders belonged to wider networks, formed in person and online, with friends and families. Only one in ten offenses was carried out by someone who acted entirely alone and had no extremist connections.
"The increased prevalence of smaller cells and individualistic offending, suggests a rise in terrorism cases that feature shorter lead times to offending and fewer opportunities for identification," the report warns.
The report's main findings include:
The overwhelming majority (93%) of Islamism-related offenses (IROs) were committed by males. Females accounted for 4% of IROs between 1998 and 2010 and 11% of IROs between 2011 and 2015 — an increase of 175%.
IROs were carried out by individuals between the ages of 14 and 52 years. Forty-six percent of 2011–2015 offenses were committed by individuals aged under 25, a small increase from 42% for 1998–2010 offenses. The most common age ranges overall, and across both time periods, were 21–24 and 25–29.
Seventy-two percent of IROs were committed by British nationals or individuals holding dual British nationality. There was almost no difference between the earlier and later time periods (72% and 71% respectively).
More than half (52%) of IROs were committed by individuals of South Asian ancestry, i.e., British-Pakistanis (25%) and British-Bangladeshis (8%). Other offenders had family ties to countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Forty-seven percent of IROs were committed by individuals who were born in the UK. More than a third (38%) of those born outside of the UK or of unspecified birthplace were raised (at some point before the age of 18) in the UK. As a result, 67% of IROs were committed by individuals who were either born or raised in the UK.
London was the place of residence of 43% of IROs, followed by West Midlands, with 18%. Of the latter, 80% (14% overall) were in Birmingham. The third most common region was North West England, with 10% of IROs. Together these three regions contained the residences in almost three-quarters (72%) of cases. No other region contained 10% of residences.
Across both time periods, East London was home to half (50%) of London-based offenders, while the three most common boroughs — Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest — contained the offenders' residence in 38% of all Londoner IROs (and 16% overall).
Just over a quarter (26%) of individuals who committed IROs had some form of higher education. More than a third (36%) had studied for or achieved secondary level, further education or vocational qualifications, while in 38% of cases, attainment is unspecified.
Thirty-five percent of IROs were committed by individuals in employment; a further 12% were full-time students. Therefore, almost half (47%) of IROs were committed by those in either employment or education.
Thirty-eight percent of IROs were committed by individuals who were unemployed. Of these, almost one-quarter (24%, 9% overall) were in or had recently been released from detention or had recently left full-time education or returned from months-long foreign travel.
Sixteen percent of IROs were committed by individuals known to have converted to Islam. This is more than four times higher than the estimated proportion of converts among the Muslim population at the national level.
More than half (55%) of IROs were committed by individuals either living with family, such as with a partner and/or children (28%), or living at their family home, such as with parents and siblings (27%).
One in five IROs (21%) was committed by an individual whose living arrangements and family circumstances were additionally linked to terrorism or a terrorism investigation. In 55% of these cases, individuals were convicted alongside relatives and/or a partner or they were part of the same cell.
Female offenders were more than twice as likely as male offenders to be living with a partner, relative or individual who is also involved in terrorism (50% and 19% respectively).
Seventy-six percent of IROs were committed by individuals who were previously known to the authorities; 38% were committed by individuals with previous criminal convictions. More than a third (36%, 9% overall) of previous convictions were for extremism- or terrorism-related activities; almost half (46%, 12% overall) of individuals with prior convictions had previously received a prison sentence.
A total of 386 charges were successfully prosecuted in 264 convictions between 1998 and 2015. The most common offenses were preparation for acts of terrorism (27%) and possession/collection of information useful for terrorism (14%), followed by fundraising offenses (8%), dissemination of terrorist publications and conspiracy to murder (both 6%) as well as conspiracy to cause explosions and assisting offenders (both 5%).
More than two-thirds (69%) of IROs were secured under terrorism legislation; just over half (54%) of defendants pled guilty. 2011–2015 defendants pled guilty (64%) more often than 1998–2010 defendants (47%).
The most common sentence was between one year and four years (35%), followed by sentences of between four years and ten years (27%), between ten years and 20 years (15%), and life sentences (13%).
Of the 33 individuals with a life sentence, 30 attempted or planned to kill others, either in indiscriminate bomb attacks or targeted knife attacks, and received minimum terms ranging from 14 years to life.
Individuals who committed, attempted or were planning attacks were responsible for 37% of IROs. Among these offenses, bombing was the most commonly featured type of attack (74%). Proportionally, offenses involving beheadings or stabbings increased eleven-fold across the two time periods, from 4% between 1998 and 2010, to 44% between 2011 and 2015.
Individuals involved in facilitating acts of terrorism, either by fundraising or recruiting or by providing material goods or documentation, or ideologues who encouraged terrorist acts through incitement or by disseminating terrorist publications, were responsible for one-third (33%) of IROs.
Individuals who demonstrated an interest in terrorism, but whose plans were not advanced enough to pose an imminent threat were responsible for 18% of IROs.
Individuals whose offenses related to travel (attempted or planned) for terrorist purposes, namely to receive terrorist training or to engage in fighting overseas, were responsible for 12% of IROs. Travel-related IROs increased four-fold across the two time periods (from 5% to 21%).
Civilian targets were a feature in one-third (33%) of offenses. Infrastructure sectors and institutions, mostly transportation, were a feature in just under one-third (32%) of offenses.
Urban soft targets (areas into which large numbers of citizens regularly gather for usual activities or special events) were among the intended targets for attack in 31% of offenses. Military targets both overseas (including British or coalition forces) and at home (military bases and processions as well as soldiers) were a feature in almost a quarter (24%) of offenses.
A total of 117 IROs were committed by individuals directly linked to one or more proscribed terrorist organizations. Of these, 56% were directly linked to the UK-based group al-Muhajiroun (25% overall), 24% were linked to al-Qaeda (10% overall) and 11% were linked to Islamic State (5% overall).
One fifth (22%) of IROs were committed by individuals who were known or suspected to have attended training camps for terrorist purposes; the majority (78%) were not. Of those with training, most (78%) had trained at camps abroad, 19% had trained at UK-based camps, and in two cases (3%) the location was unspecified.
The report concludes:
"The threat to the UK remains from homegrown terrorism, and is heavily youth- and male-oriented with British nationals prevalent among offenders....
"While analysis of pre-offense behaviors shows that there is no one profile for engagement with Islamism-inspired terrorism, some trends can be identified. Offenders commonly consumed extremist and/or instructional material prior to, or as part of, their offending. Much of the pro-jihadist material accessed promotes 'them and us' thinking, dehumanization of the enemy, and attitudes that justify offending....
"Analysis of common sites of inspiration and facilitation appears to corroborate current counter-radicalization policy priorities such as restricting terrorist and violent extremist material on the internet, supporting at-risk sectors and empowering families to safeguard against extremism."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.