A live version of this dataset can be found here.
Please read on for the Executive Summary.
A so‑called ‘new generation of extremists’ has attracted significant media attention but has suffered from a lack of transparent data and comprehensive, youth‑specific analysis. Against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving threat landscape, this report presents the first in‑depth research into child terrorist activity in England and Wales. Through the construction of a unique dataset of children convicted of terrorism offences in England and Wales since 2016 – published live alongside this report – it investigates how domestic policing and the criminal justice system understand child‑terrorism offending.
Key Data Points
In the UK since 2016, 43 individuals have been convicted of terrorism offences they committed as minors. Of these, 42 were boys, with only one girl. While the oldest offenders were days before their respective 18th birthdays, the youngest was only 13 years old.
Two clear waves of child terrorism offending can be identified. The first, dominated by Islamist cases, runs concurrently with the peak of Islamic State’s territorial ‘caliphate’ until its collapse in 2018. The second wave predominantly comprises extreme‑right cases, emerging in 2018 in the context of post-National Action and the decentralisation of extreme‑right online networks. In total, 16 cases relate to Islamist activity, 25 to the extreme right, and two to unknown or unclear ideologies.
Almost a third of the children were convicted of preparing an act of terrorism, including the construction of improvised explosive devices, the plotting of complex mass‑casualty attacks, and attempts by seven children to travel independently overseas for the purpose of engaging in terrorism. Eight children – five extreme right and three Islamist – planned to commit domestic acts of terrorism on UK soil.
Eleven minors were convicted of encouraging terrorism, one for providing training for terrorism, one for membership of a banned organisation and one for inviting support for a banned organisation.
The most common offence, committed by 26 minors, was the collection of terrorist propaganda. Children created their own propaganda, engaged with violent extremist literature and downloaded operational materials. 19 minors disseminated banned materials with friends, family and anonymous online networks.
Proportionally, more extreme right than Islamist offenders pleaded not guilty, with many denouncing previously held views, citing adverse childhood experiences, explaining their isolation and desire to fit in with online ecosystems, and claiming childhood innocence.
The most common sentence was non‑custodial, accompanied by a rehabilitative and monitoring order, which was handed down to twelve extreme right, three Islamist and one other offender. The highest sentence, awarded in two separate Islamist cases, was eleven years to life. The disparity in sentencing between ideological categories may be shaped by four factors: the age at sentencing, greater severity of offence, stronger mitigating circumstances among extreme‑right offenders and a higher proportion of not‑guilty pleas entered by Islamist defendants.
A New Threat?
Children did not merely mimic the actions or do the bidding of older individuals, but proved to be innovators and amplifiers in their own right. Many attempted and managed to recruit peers and older family members, prepare acts of terrorism without the help of adults, and create their own propaganda images, videos and manifestos. In anonymous transnational online extremist ecosystems, which are widely available and have very low barriers to participation, the potential impact of extremist minors is on a par with adults.
Children’s support of terrorist networks presents a new threat. While no attack has been committed by a child in the UK to date, late‑stage foiled plots and transnational activism demonstrate this potentiality.
However, children cannot merely be treated as ‘small adults’ with heavily securitised policies. An outcome‑focused system must balance the interests of the public and targeted communities with the best interests of the child to address root causes of radicalisation and secure successful reintegration and threat mitigation.