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Influences and vulnerabilities in radicalised lone-actor terrorists: UK practitioner perspectives


Authors: Peddell, Daniel, Eyre, Marie, Mcmanus, Michelle Ann & Bonworth, James

Date of Publication: 2016

Publication: International Journal of Police Science and Management, 18 (2). pp. 6376. 

Purpose of the Study

Key Questions Addressed

How Prevent practitioners perceive the radicalisation and motivations of lone-actor terrorists they had encountered. 


Counter-terrorism, lone actors, radicalisation, Prevent, extremism

Design of Study

Approach (e.g. empirical/ theoretical/ case study/ anecdotal/ non-scientific)? Empirical - qualitative study involving thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews. 

(If applicable) Number of participants? Five Prevent practitioners; all had served as police officers with varying employment backgrounds and counter-terrorism experience. 

Where? UK

Type of ‘participant’ (e.g. Islamic terrorism, lone actor, ISIS defector, returnee from Syria):  Lone actors


Lone actor radicalisation in the UK. From the perspectives of Prevent practitioners.

Key Findings

Three themes on lone-actor radicalisation, clustering around the concepts of vulnerability and motivation are discussed, they are: mechanisms of radicalisation, factors of vulnerability to radical discourse, and individual motivation.

Participants did not relate unique, idiosyncratic cases. Rather, they described mental health problems and grievances as classifiably common features. Generalised criminality or other common-sense or folk-psychological explanations were proffered (e.g. social deprivation, poor education, absence of nurturing).

Mental health issues appeared to be a common feature characterising the lone actors that participants come into contact with on a regular basis.

Prevent practitioners saw radicalised individuals as vulnerable to external influences. Influences were seen as proximal and distal, the former including mental illness, deprivation or generalised criminality, the latter including rational prospectors via the Internet: findings that show some support for social movement theory.

Prevent practitioners did not make explicit reference to any evidence base, but drew on folk-psychological explanations. They generally lack an in-depth understanding of academic literature.

Key Recommendations

A number of recommendations are made, mainly around better communications and engagement between academics and practitioners. For example:

Academia ought not to be a separate parallel stream from praxis and neither party can afford to be complacent. Knowledge exchange is the responsibility of academics and practitioners alike. 

Practitioners charged with delivering effective intervention programmes aimed at deradicalising individuals regarded as vulnerable ought to have a solid grounding in main theories and empirical findings on the subject. 

It is the responsibility of academics to ensure that research has utility beyond journal publication. Academic peers ought to be the start not the end point of dissemination of research findings.

Partnerships can also be built informally from the ground up and direct approaches locally can encourage early adopters of ideas which ultimately bear fruit at national level. 

There are different channels available for dissemination. Conferences as forums for knowledge exchange are as familiar a practice for practitioner agencies as they are for academics.

Academics being proactive in offering to inform practitioners about the relevance of their research to applied problems would be a welcome step in developing evidence-based practice. 

Better knowledge exchange could help develop evidence-based policy.

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