Psychologists and behavioural scientists should be deployed more frequently to counter-terrorism operations as the number of neurodivergent individuals under investigation rises, a watchdog has advised.
The government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation told the Observer that evaluating the threat from individuals with conditions like autism was becoming an increasingly prevalent challenge. Jonathan Hall QC said: “You are seeing a lot more neurodivergence and mental health coming into terrorist investigations, and that’s also having an impact on deradicalisation programmes.
“When you see [counter-terrorism] officials trying to work out what the behaviour of a person means – and what might counteract it – it’s odd not to have a psychologist present.”
In an interview to mark the evolving nature of the UK’s terrorist threat since the London Bridge and Borough Market attack five years ago, he said the shift from recognised terror groups such as al-Qaida or the far-right National Action to a leaderless resistance model meant a new type of individual was being drawn into terrorism.
“Old-school terrorist groups like the IRA wouldn’t want to employ people who are mentally ill or neurodivergent; they wouldn’t want people who might let the side down, who might give away secrets or be weak soldiers,” said Hall, who reports to the Home Office on the working and development of the often contentious legislative codes against terrorism.
“This leaderless resistance, self-initiating stuff – facilitated by the internet – is a really profound move away from groups,” he added.
The recent US mass shootings in the US, particularly in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, Hall said, underscored the threat from lone attackers facing the UK.
While the Buffalo gunman associated himself with rightwing terrorist ideology online and the Uvalde killer did not, Hall said it was legitimate to ask how different they were. “Both chose to become shooters, emulating a pattern of behaviour that is widely glorified online. Whether you apply a terrorist label or not, they had the same capacity for violence.”
On Thursday, the teenage gunman accused of shooting 10 people dead in a Buffalo supermarket was charged with domestic terrorism.
The UK’s security services are monitoring a decline in traditional ideological motives for potential terrorists, raising questions over how fixated the UK’s counterterrorism strategy should be on such definitions. “You need to ask the hard question: do we care about ideology if it doesn’t result in violence? There may be issues around social cohesion and British values, but that’s not terrorism.”
A landmark review of the government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, is expected to advocate a greater focus on Islamism, a recommendation that security services note appears at odds with a documented rise in “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideologies.
In 2017, the UK terrorist threat seemed more clearcut when a series of attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park Mosque and Parsons Green were acts of uncomplicated Islamist or rightwing terrorism.
Two years later, an attack near London Bridge by Usman Khan, who had participated in two Home Office deradicalisation programmes, began a debate on released terrorist offenders.
Hall conceded that no “off-the-shelf” programme to deradicalise terrorists had yet been devised, saying that successes or failures often relied on the personalities of the terrorist and those attempting to deprogramme them. “It’s impossible because you’re dealing with human nature. No one in the world has said we’ve now got peer-reviewed evidence as to what works and we’re administering it,” said Hall, who interviews government officials, ministers, security and intelligence officers and police to assess terrorism laws.
However, he warned that since Khan killed Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones while at a prisoners’ rehabilitation conference in November 2019, many counter-terrorism officials were wary of being “gamed” by those pretending to be deradicalised while secretly harbouring an intention to commit terrorist attacks.“There’s strong scepticism about being gamed these days, and this means it’s hard for people to prove they are not a terrorist. It makes it hard for individuals to melt back into society in a good way.”