Authors: P. Gill, E. Corner, M. Conway, A. Thornton, M. Bloom & J. Horgan
Date of Publication: 2017
Journal / Publisher: Criminology & Public Policy
Purpose of the study
Public interest and policy debates surrounding the role of the Internet in terrorist activities is increasing. Criminology has said very little on the matter. By using a unique data set of 223 convicted United Kingdom–based terrorists, this article focuses on how they used the Internet in the commission of their crimes.
Number of participants
223 convicted United Kingdom-based terrorists
UK: either those convicted in the United Kingdom or died in the commission of a terrorist act in the United Kingdom.
Type of ‘participant’
Islamic terrorism, extreme right-wing
As most samples of terrorist offenders vary in terms of capabilities (lone-actor vs. group offenders) and criminal sophistication (improvised explosive devices vs. stabbings), the research tested whether the affordances they sought from the Internet significantly differed.
The Internet is largely a facilitative tool that affords greater opportunities for violent radicalization and attack planning. Nevertheless, radicalization and attack planning are not dependent on the Internet and researchers need to look at behaviors, intentions, and capabilities. Offenders hampered by their co-offending environment or the ambitions of their plot are afforded opportunities online. We found significant differences across targeting strategies, ideologies, network forms, and actors’ propensity to engage in online learning and communication. Selection of harder targets was strongly associated with online learning. Technically more difficult attacks such as IEDs led to more online searching compared with primitive or simpler attacks. Lone-actors required more online learning because they lacked the pooled human talent typically associated with an attack cell. Extreme-right-wing offenders were more likely than Jihadist-inspired offenders in the United Kingdom to learn and communicate online. This may be a result of geography and the structural unavailability of co-offenders in their local area, as well as of their increased likelihood of being “lone-actors.”
This study also highlights the fact that there is no easy offline versus online violent radicalization dichotomy to be drawn. As illustrated throughout, cases in which all transactions were conducted online are rare. Face-to-face interactions were still the key to the process for most actors even if they were aware of, and made use of, the bounty of ideological and training material available online.
The use of the Internet was largely for instrumental purposes whether it was pre-attack (e.g., surveillance, learning, practice, or communication) or postattack (e.g., disseminating propaganda).
Collectively the results provide insight into violent radicalization as a whole and not just into violent online radicalization. The Internet is largely a facilitative tool that affords greater opportunities for violent radicalization and attack planning. Nevertheless, radicalization and attack planning are not dependent on the Internet, and policy needs to look at behavior, intentions, and capabilities and not just at beliefs. From a risk assessment perspective, the study also highlights the fact that there is no easy offline versus online violent radicalization dichotomy to be drawn. It may be a false dichotomy. Plotters regularly engage in activities in both domains. Often their behaviors are compartmentalized across these two domains. Threat management policies would do well to understand the individuals’ breadth of interactions rather than relying on a dichotomous understanding of offline versus online, which represent two extremes of a spectrum that regularly provide prototypical examples in reality. A preoccupation with only checking online behaviors may lead an intelligence analyst to miss crucial face-to-face components of a plot’s technical development or a perpetrator’s motivation. Policy and practice may benefit from adopting insights from emerging research arguing in favor of disaggregating our conception of the “terrorist” into discrete groups (e.g., foreign fighters vs. homegrown fighters, bomb-makers vs. bomb-planters, and group-actors vs. lone-actors; Gill and Corner, 2013; LaFree, 2013) rather than disaggregating the radicalization process into discrete groups (e.g., online radicalization and prison radicalization). We need to understand the drives, needs, and forms of behavior that led to the radicalization and attack planning and why the offender chose that environment rather than purely looking at the affordances the environment produced. By looking at the Internet as an affordance opportunity that some forms of terrorist or terrorist violence require more than others do, the focus is shifted from the radicalization process toward an understanding of how crimes are committed. In other words, we are looking at crime events rather than at the underlying dispositions behind the criminality.
The variables spanned sociodemographic information (e.g., age, gender, occupation, family characteristics, relationship status, occupation, and employment), network behaviors (e.g., number of co-offenders and training location), event-specific behaviors (e.g., attack method(s), target(s)), and post-event behaviors and experiences (e.g., claim(s) of responsibility and arrest/conviction details)