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Terrorism is the use or threat of action, both in and outside of the UK, designed to influence any international government organisation or to intimidate the public.  It must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.

Examples include:

  • serious violence against a person or damage to property,
  • endangering a person's life (other than that of the person committing the action),
  • creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public,
  • action designed to seriously interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

It is important to note that in order to be convicted of a terrorism offence a person doesn't actually have to commit what could be considered a terrorist attack. Planning, assisting and even collecting information on how to commit terrorist acts are all crimes under British terrorism legislation.

Are terrorism cases dealt with differently from other cases?

Terrorism crimes and terrorist-related offences are subject to the criminal justice system in the same way as all other crimes. The CPS reviews the case and makes a charging decision in line with the Code for Crown Prosecutors. However, terrorism offences are distinct from other types of crime in that individuals who commit terrorism-related offences have political, religious racial and/or ideological motivations, unlike typical criminal motivations, which may be personal gain or revenge, for example. The CPS and Metropolitan Police have specialist units that were set up specifically to undertake terrorism cases and there are four other police Counter Terrorism Units (CTUs) around the country.

CPS Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division (SCCTD)

The SCCTD deals with all terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity, official secrets and incitement to hatred cases.  In the year ending September 2018 91 individuals were prosecuted for terrorism-related offences, a 15% increase compared to the previous 12 months.  Of those 91 individuals SCCTD obtained convictions against 81 for terrorism offences.  In one case the trial was not concluded due to the death of the defendant and, in the remaining 9 cases, the defendant was found not guilty.

There has been a 31% decrease in the number of arrests for terrorism-related offences in the year ending September 2018 compared with the previous year (from 462 to 317 arrests). The fall is partly due to a relatively large number of arrests in the previous reporting year in the wake of terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. Although the number of arrests has fallen, it is still relatively high when compared with other recent years. More information can be found in the Home Office’s statistical bulletin. Our prosecutors work closely with the police to advise on arrests and provide early investigative advice on ongoing operations.

Specialist counter terrorism police

The Metropolitan Police Service Counter Terrorism Command aims to protect London and takes the lead in protecting the UK from the threat of terrorism, working closely with the four other CTUs. It brings together intelligence, operations and investigations functions. It also engages with a range of partners, including the British Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), to prevent terrorist related activity.

Terrorism or not?

Where appropriate, offences can be charged as having 'a terrorist connection'. This can lead to some confusion about whether the person convicted is deemed a terrorist as they are not charged with an offence under terrorism legislation.

Schedule 2 of Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 contains a list of offences which a judge could conclude have 'a terrorist connection'. These include charges such as murder or causing an explosion. For example, the killings of Lee Rigby and Jo Cox MP were charged as murder but both amounted to a terrorism offence and those responsible for the 21/7 bombings were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions, which also amounted to terrorism offences. In all of these cases those convicted are considered terrorists, because even though they are covered by different legislation than the Terrorism Acts, the crimes committed clearly had terrorist aims.

Section 30 of Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 imposes special custodial sentences for offenders of particular concern who have committed offences under Schedule 2. Certain serious violent and terrorist offenders will not be entitled to automatic release at the half way point of their sentence and will only be released early if they do not present a risk to the public.

Substantive terrorism offences

In recent years a number of offences and powers have been designed to counter the activities of terrorists. Before their creation these had not been addressed by permanent legislation. They include, but are not limited to, offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 (TA 2000) and Terrorism Act 2006 (TA 2006).

Section 5 makes it an offence for a person to engage in the preparation of acts of terrorism, or to assist others in preparation of acts of terrorism. This includes attempts. It is an offence which requires proof that an individual had a specific intent to commit an act or acts of terrorism and can encompass a wide range of different levels of criminality, from a minor role in relation to intended acts all the way through to the planning of multiple murders.

The maximum sentence in respect of section 5 is a sentence of imprisonment for life. In the absence of Sentencing Council guidelines the Court of Appeal identified general principles on sentencing under section 5. That judgment can be found here.

Examples of prosecution in these cases include Mohammed Rehman and Sana Ahmed Khan, and Yahya Rashid. 25 people were convicted under section 5 in the year ending September 2016, up from 11 in the previous 12 months.

Read more about the Preparation of terrorist acts (S.5 TA 2006)

Section 58 makes it an offence to collect or make a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or to possess a document or record containing information of that kind. The maximum sentence in respect of s58 is 10 years' imprisonment. Examples include cases such as R v Mustafa Abdullah. Eight people were convicted of s58 in the year ending September 2016.

Read more about Collecting Information (S.58 TA 2000)

Section 2 makes it an offence to distribute a terrorist publication with the intention of encouraging acts of terrorism. A terrorist publication is one which could be useful to a person in the commission or preparation of acts of terror. Examples include R v Abdul Miah and the maximum sentence in respect of this offence is seven years' imprisonment.

Read more about Dissemination of terrorist publications (S.2 TA 2006)

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 received Royal Assent on 12 February 2019. The Act updates and closes gaps in existing counter-terrorism legislation to ensure that it is fit for the digital age and reflect contemporary patterns of radicalisation. The Act will help reduce the threat posed by terrorism and hostile state activity by:

  • updating terrorism offences for the digital age, and to reflect contemporary patterns of radicalisation;
  • disrupting terrorism by enabling the police and Crown Prosecution Service to intervene at an earlier stage in investigations;
  • ensuring that sentences properly reflect the severity seriousness of terrorism offences, and strengthen the ability of the police to manage terrorist offenders after their release; and
  • strengthening the country’s defences at the border against hostile state activity.

Some of the main provisions:

  • Section 1 extends the offence of inviting support for a proscribed organisation in section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to cover expressions of support that are reckless as to whether they will encourage others to support the organisation;
  • Section 2 clarifies that the existing offence in section 13 of the Terrorism Act 2000 of displaying in a public place an image which arouses reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation, covers the display of images online (including of a photograph taken in a private place);
  • Section 3 updates the offence in section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 of obtaining information likely to be useful to a terrorist to cover terrorist material that is just viewed or streamed over the internet, rather than downloaded to form a permanent record;
  • Section 4 provides for a new offence of entering or remaining in an area outside the United Kingdom that has been designated in regulations by the Secretary of State in order to protect the public from a risk of terrorism;
  • Section 6 confers extra-territorial jurisdiction on a number of further offences to ensure that individuals abroad can be prosecuted for having encouraged or carried out acts of terror overseas;
  • Section 7 increases to 15 years’ imprisonment the maximum penalty for certain preparatory terrorism offences; and
  • Section 18 amends the Terrorism Act 2000 so that the pre-charge detention clock can be paused when a detained person is transferred from police custody to hospital.

Further information about the provisions in the Act can be found on GOV.UK.

Some provisions will come into force at the end of the period of two months after the passing of the Act.

Terrorist organisations

There is no one type of terrorist or terrorism. It originates from a variety of countries and terrorists have multiple ethnic, racial, religious and or political identities and have different views, aims and purposes. Here are some examples:

The most common type of CPS terrorism case has been Syria-related since Daesh took over large areas of Syria and Iraq from 2014 onwards. Daesh tactics are geared to attract maximum publicity to amplify the spread of fear; they use violence against anyone who does not agree with their extreme views. The CPS prosecuted Junead and Shazib Khan for offences of preparing acts of terrorism.

Read the Guidance in relation to the prosecution of offences relating to Daesh and the conflict in Syria, Iraq and Libya (revised December 2016)

Recent years have seen a rise in cases of far right extremism in the UK. Far right extremists promote messages of hate-filled prejudice which can encourage radicalisation among people motivated by race hate. Groups including (the now proscribed) National Action have been under scrutiny for promoting offensive, anti-Islamic messages which run contrary to the values of respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. The CPS continues to work to combat those who seek to sow hatred and division by advancing extremist ideologies and in 2016 the CPS prosecuted Thomas Mair for the terrorist murder of Jo Cox MP.

Al-Qaeda is a militant Islamist multi-national organisation, responsible for the 9/11 co-ordinated terror attacks in the US. The group uses conventional techniques seeking to recruit new members in the UK to achieve mass civilian casualties. The CPS prosecuted Rangzieb Ahmed and Habib Ahmed for Al-Qaeda related terrorism.

Can someone be charged with a terrorism offence if they know someone is about to commit a terrorism offence and don’t report them?

Yes. Section 38B(1) and (2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes it an offence if someone does not inform the police if he/she believes that someone they know is in preparation of acts of terrorism. The maximum sentence in respect of section38B is for a term not exceeding five years’ imprisonment, although it is a defence to prove that he/she had reasonable excuse for not making the disclosure.

A person commits an offence if he/she does not disclose the information to the police as soon as reasonably practicable.

In 2007 four would-be suicide bombers were been found guilty of conspiracy to murder after planning a coordinated attack designed to cause death and destruction on the London transport system. Those who assisted them were charged and convicted under s38B and received sentences of imprisonment ranging between 4 years 9 months and 13 years.

Further reading

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