The ‘perfect storm’ turning teenagers into terrorists

Teenage terrorists are on the rise
Teenage terrorists are on the rise

Joe Metcalfe was 15 when he resolved to launch a terror attack in the UK. Shut in his bedroom in his family home, drinking vodka and smoking cannabis, he had become embroiled in the online world of neo-Nazis working to trigger an international race war.

The acne-afflicted teenager was referred to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme by his school in 2021 after teachers became concerned about his extreme views and behaviour. But instead of moving away from violence, he tried to manipulate an ideological mentor into believing he was changing his views while secretly plotting a horrific attack.

He is part of a growing phenomenon of teenage terror offenders in Britain, with 2023 seeing a new record of 42 under-18s arrested for crimes including sharing terrorist propaganda and encouraging attacks.

Joe Metcalfe was convicted of plotting a terror attack on a mosque
Joe Metcalfe was convicted of plotting a terror attack on a mosque - Crown Prosecution Service/PA Wire

In the most recent case, a 16-year-old from Cowes on the Isle of Wight was jailed for seven years this week. Like Metcalfe, that teenager – who cannot be named for legal reasons – was 15 at the time of the offences and had been radicalised online, but he became obsessed with jihadists instead of neo-Nazis.

The boy, from a secular white British family, converted to Islam in late 2021 was described by a judge as an “isolated and troubled young man who looked for the fellowship and comfort of a religious faith”. Instead, he ended up following a “warped and corrupted form” of Islam after inept searches for information on social media led him to extremist groups. One of his tutors noticed a photograph of Osama bin Laden was the background picture on his phone.

The teenager initially researched the Isle of Wight music festival as a potential target, before planning to murder people he believed had insulted his new religion, while spreading graphic Isis propaganda celebrating beheadings and international terror attacks.

“Even if I do get caught, I’m 15 – they will just tell me off and put me on some prevention course, trust me,” he bragged online after an Instagram user warned against sharing the gory videos.

Kingston Crown Court heard that the boy had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was five, and later had his childhood “shattered” by the death of his father. He told a psychiatrist, who assessed that he had impaired social skills and difficulty expressing himself, that he had no friends and had a “bad time at school”.

The number of teenage terror offenders has jumped by a third year-on-year, and means that one in five terror suspects arrested in the UK is now legally considered a child – a figure counter-terror police have called “truly shocking”.

While a child has not yet successfully launched a terror attack in the UK, fears about the real-world threat they could pose were realised in Australia on Monday.

A teenage boy is accused of stabbing a bishop and a priest during an alleged terror attack at a Sydney church, with police saying his comments suggested a religious motive. A third of the children convicted of terror offences in Britain since 2016 were “preparing acts of terrorism”, either by attempting to join Isis abroad or planning attacks on home soil.

An attack on a priest from the live stream at the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney on Monday
An attack on a priest from the live stream at the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney on Monday

Dr Gina Vale, a University of Southampton criminologist who co-authored a report on Britain’s teenage terrorists in November, says the startling combination of social isolation, neurodivergence and “adverse childhood experiences” are not an exception but the rule among under-18s found guilty of terror offences.

“Teenagers are forming their identity, and uncertainty about belonging and disillusionment is common,” she says.

“When they are gaining access to extremist materials that are far too easy to access online, grievances and frustrations can then develop into ideological causes, which is the problem.”

Another common factor among teenage terror offenders is gender – of the more than 40 under-18s convicted of terror offences since 2016, only one was a girl.

Safaa Boular, then 17, planned a UK terror attack in 2017 alongside her sister and mother, in Britain’s first all-female terror cell. She had been romanced by a male Isis fighter, who was directing her actions online before he was killed in a US drone strike.

Safaa Boular, who was found guilty of plotting to carry out terrorist acts in 2017 when she was 17
Safaa Boular, who was found guilty of plotting to carry out terrorist acts in 2017 when she was 17 - Reuters

Several male offenders have been misogynists obsessed with sexual violence, and some young neo-Nazi terrorists have also been prosecuted for child sex offences.

Metcalfe’s targets were two mosques in Keighley, near Bradford, where he planned to massacre worshipping Muslims while disguised as a police officer – with the plan only stopped after he crashed a stolen car during a reconnaissance mission.

But, while being prosecuted for his terror plot, he was also convicted of raping and abusing his 15-year-old girlfriend. He enjoyed “manipulating her into saying and communicating racist things and making Nazi salutes”, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb told his sentencing hearing.

Metcalfe’s parents were in an abusive relationship and his mother moved out during the period he was committing the terror offences. The judge said his father “will provide little effective guidance at the moment”.

Vale and her colleagues are charting all child terror prosecutions in Britain through the Child Innocence Project, with the startling data showing distinct waves of activity.

Between 2016 and 2018, all convicted terror offenders under the age of 18 were inspired by Isis or al-Qaeda, but they were then overtaken by a wave of neo-Nazis inspired by National Action, a far-Right group now proscribed as a terror body, and its spin-off organisations.

Children driven by extreme Right-wing ideologies formed the majority of cases until 2022, when young jihadists inspired by Isis started to make a regular reappearance in the courts.

“We’re now seeing a more sustained terrorist or extremist activism from under-18s from across the ideological spectrum,” Vale says. “We have a new generation that is engaging with extremism in a new phase.”

The dangers facing children were exacerbated during the Covid pandemic, when counter-terror police quickly warned of a “perfect storm” of people spending “more time isolated and online, and with fewer of the protective factors that schooling, friends and family can provide”, while extremist groups of all kinds were using the pandemic to further hateful narratives.

Officers are concerned about the rising number of children in their caseload, and are calling for parents and guardians to “pay close attention” to what they are viewing and sharing online.

Richard Smith, the acting senior national coordinator for UK Counter Terrorism Policing, says: “Whilst our role is to stop anyone – no matter their age – committing terrorism offences or planning to cause harm to the public, it is truly shocking that almost one in every five of our arrests involves a young person.”

Jonathan Hall KC, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, says that tech giants do not have the resources in place to properly moderate billions of posts and messages, and that parents should take more of a role in policing their children’s online activities.

“There’s going to be no perfect legal or technical solution to this, so it’s got to be a social solution about limiting children’s ability to have access to whatever they want,” Hall says.

“The expectation of what we allow our children to access has to change. We wouldn’t allow a stranger into a child’s bedroom, but we allow a phone in their bedroom that allows them to connect to the worst sort of strangers.”

Such is the demand on security services that Hall has called for the Government to create alternatives to conventional criminal prosecution for low-risk children who have committed offences by looking at or sharing material online.

New court-imposed injunctions would see teenagers arrested and jailed if they broke strict conditions, including mandatory ideological mentoring, and how they browse, communicate and interact with other people online.

Hall warns that currently there is “almost no long-term effect” of prosecuting children for lower-level terror offences that do not garner significant jail sentences. He says authorities are finding it particularly difficult to judge the risk that young terror offenders may pose, and that recent cases showed that even where a teenager may not be planning violence themselves, they are capable of inspiring it abroad.

In 2021, the UK’s youngest known terror offender was spared jail after recruiting for a neo-Nazi group at the age of just 13, and disseminating manuals on making explosives, guns and weapons. He had been charged with founding and overseeing a British cell of neo-Nazi terrorist group Feuerkrieg Division, which was led at the time by an Estonian boy who was just 13 himself.

Paul Dunleavy, jailed in November 2018, was also a member of Feuerkrieg Division
Paul Dunleavy, jailed in November 2018, was also a member of Feuerkrieg Division

Some children have been consuming vast amounts of terrorist material, using peer-to-peer sharing to access banned Isis videos and manuals, as well as far Right manifestos and neo-Nazi books, videos and propaganda. Vale says the process often starts when initially harmless research on current events leads young people down online “rabbit holes”.

“Once you start looking for certain content, for example the Ukraine war or the Mediterranean refugee crisis, it’s very easy to start getting on to platforms that are espousing a very different narrative and leading into more and more extreme ideas,” she adds.

“There is a lot of extremist propaganda that’s focused on a teenage audience, particularly among the extreme Right-wing.”

The disturbing trend is not expected to subside in the near future, with today’s digitally native children expected to continue out-manoeuvring authorities’ attempts at limiting access to online material.

Hall expects more “isolated and unhappy teenagers” to be seen in Britain’s courts, warning that while many have been driven to the internet as a “source of comfort … it’s also the source of terrorist information and inspiration.”

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