Radicalisation in the Digital Era

Internet radical tagcloud

Background

We live in a digital era. In the UK alone, 85 percent of homes have internet access. As society increasingly embraces the internet, so opportunities for those wishing to use it for terrorism have grown. The internet offers terrorists and extremists the capability to communicate, collaborate and convince. Yet the internet’s role in the process of radicalisation has remained difficult to address. Despite significant policy interest, action and academic work, which focus mainly on online content and messaging, little is known about individuals’ experiences of the internet and their engagement with it during their radicalisation.

Goals

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?

Methods

The research team conducted interviews with a number of extremists, convicted terrorists and police Senior Investigative Officers involved in these cases. These individuals were identified by the research team together with the UK Association of Chief Police Officers and UK Counter Terrorism Units. The terrorist cases included individuals from either the extreme right-wing or the Islamist movements who were convicted in the UK.

Current hypotheses were identified through a literature review while trial evidence was analysed (where it was available) to complement the interview data.

Research 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.

Publication

Media Mentions

DCB Magazine interviewed Ines von Behr in their June 2014 issue, in an article titled "RAND Europe: researching radicalisation". "The role of the internet and social media in terrorism is a big topic; we need to look carefully at how to tackle it," she said, adding, "I think it is essential to focus on the potential interaction between the offline and online worlds, placing the internet in the context of an individual's personal history and cultural relationships. The internet can't be seen as the only route to radicalisation."

Read More (contracts.mod.uk/publication, paid subscription required) »

BBC Radio 4 logo

The BBC cited Radicalisation in the Digital Era in a news segment on Al Qaeda. "The think-tank RAND Europe has been looking at the online activity of convicted terrorists," it reported. "It found that the Internet, more than any other source, had been key in exchanging information and propaganda." The ground-breaking report on the use of the Internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism provides primary data on how the Internet is used by individuals in the process of their radicalisation.

Listen Now (bbc.co.uk, clip begins at 01:32:00) »

Project Team

Ines von Behr
Anaïs Reding
Charlie Edwards
Luke Gribbon