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Radicalisation in the digital era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism


Authors: Ines Von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards & Luke Gribbon

Date of Publication: 2013

Publication: RAND Europe


Purpose of the study

This study set out to ask the following questions:

  • How is the internet used, if at all, in an individual’s process of radicalisation?
  • In what way does a terrorist’s or extremist’s online activity relate to their actions offline?



The research team employed the following methodology: a literature review, a collection of primary data through semi-structured interviews, and an analysis of trial evidence including computer registries (where available).

Number of participants

15 case studies. Interviews were conducted with extremists, convicted terrorists and police Senior Investigative Officers involved in these cases.

The 15 cases examined are broken down as follows:  

  • Nine of the cases are offenders convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 or Terrorism Act 2006. These nine cases touch on both Islamist terrorism and the extreme right-wing.
  • One case study is of a former member of Al Qa’ida who was active in Bosnia, Afghanistan and South-East Asia before disengaging from terrorist activities.

Five of the cases were referred to the PREVENT intervention programme which tackles vulnerability (the Channel Programme).



Type of ‘participant’ 

Extreme right-wing or the Islamist movements (all convicted in the UK). 


This study explores the role of the internet in 15 cases of radicalisation through the data the authors were able to access. Specifically to understand:

  • The relationship between the internet and offline factors in the individual’s radicalisation;
  • The role of the internet at different stages of the individual’s radicalisation process;
  • The strengthening / reinforcing mechanism of the internet, if any; and 
  • The role the internet played in the individual’s journey, if any.

Key findings 

The following five hypotheses were identified from the literature review:

  1. The internet creates more opportunities to become radicalised.
  2. The internet acts as an ‘echo chamber’: a place where individuals find their ideas supported and echoed by other like-minded individuals.
  3. The internet accelerates the process of radicalisation.
  4. The internet allows radicalisation to occur without physical contact.
  5. The internet increases opportunities for self-radicalisation.

Each of the hypotheses was cross-checked using the information obtained from the 15 cases. The interviews confirmed that the internet played a role in the radicalisation process of the violent extremists and terrorists who took part in this study. Specifically, evidence from this study supports hypotheses 1 and 2. However, while self-radicalisation is possible through the medium of the internet, physical contact played a significant role in the case of those interviewed.

This evidence, while based on a small number of cases, also shows that while the internet facilitates the radicalisation of individuals it is not the sole driver of the process. The evidence gathered in the research therefore does not support the final three hypotheses.

The study demonstrates the importance of gathering first-hand evidence, or conducting primary research, in order to build up an evidence base, as well as providing recommendations for framing policy responses to the use of the internet in radicalisation. The internet is an enabling technology in many senses and one that needs smart intervention on behalf of policy-makers to tackle radicalisation.

Key recommendations 

For practitioners, the increasing reach of the internet (from laptops to smartphones and tablets) raises numerous challenges. Based on interviews with police, security and intelligence officials, the authors’ judgement is that relevant agencies will need to re-assess the thresholds and criteria for investigation and intervention, as opportunities to access and engage with extremist material increase. This need poses a number of issues, not least whether relevant agencies have the appropriate resources:

  • Differing approaches and regulatory environment 
  • Investing in people (police and agencies) such as digital literacy skills and more training and resources for tackling online crime, including terrorism and extremism. As technology and threats evolve, so too will the need for further investment in training and equipment. Education and training should have two aims: to increase the digital awareness and to improve the digital resilience of supporting institutions.
  • Identifying red-flags: more collaborative and innovative relationship between Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), social media companies and the police might be essential to assist police and agencies identifying red flags for vulnerable individuals.
  • Bridging ethical concerns: in a policy debate on the role of the internet governments should reflect on some of the ethical dilemmas as well as the operative ones – when to intervene and how to balance security and civil liberties.
  • Forming an effective and appropriate counter-narrative: with respect to the internet and radicalisation, policymakers will have to adopt increasingly innovative methods to disrupt, take down and/or filter unwanted content. One part of such a continuous approach is to evaluate past and present activities in this area as in others. Unlike recent reports that have called for more counternarrative work, the authors believe that independent assessment of the many counternarrative projects would be beneficial to inform and help guide future activity.


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