UK govt studying plans for child-specific terrorism orders following surge in arrests

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The UK government is considering introducing legal terrorism orders specifically for children amid a rising number of children being arrested for terrorism offences, the Guardian reported on Monday, citing the government’s official adviser on terrorism law.

British ministers are currently studying plans devised by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall KC, that would result in children being compelled to accept help or face jail time.

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The move comes amid a surge in the number of arrests among minors in recent years, largely due to their involvement in lower-level terrorism offences like the sharing of propaganda and downloading of materials. This rise has been fueled by the increased prevalence of terrorism propaganda online and by the growing use of the internet among this age group, with children as young as 13 being arrested.

The use of powerful terrorism laws to address the actions of children has raised concerns about the potential stigmatization of minors, who may not yet be fully mature.

There is a growing belief among counter-terrorism officials that a significant portion of the children being arrested for breaking terrorism laws pose little threat of carrying out an actual attack.

These minors may lack a strong commitment to an ideological cause and may have mental health issues or other vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to falling prey to terrorist propaganda.

“I’m not talking about the most serious cases, where prosecution will usually remain the best option. But during the last three years there has been a slew of internet cases where the suspected terrorist conduct all relates to what children are saying or downloading online,” Hall told the Guardian.

“There is a repeat pattern of particular offences, which I call documentary offences – instruction manuals, terrorist publications, encouragement – all internet-based, where there is no evidence of attack-planning. These offences were created at a time when there was a clearer link between words and violence, in the context of the IRA [Irish Republican Army] and al-Qaeda,” he added. “That link is less clear for children online.”

Under the proposed legal terrorism orders for children, minors aged 17 or under who have been arrested for lower-level offenses would have the option of facing prosecution, imprisonment, and a criminal record or accepting stringent measures such as the use of monitoring software on their electronic devices, limits on device usage, potential limits on contact with others, and mandatory mentoring sessions, Hall said.

Noncompliance with these conditions would itself be considered an arrestable offense punishable by the courts, whereas compliance would allow for the avoidance of prosecution.

Recent figures from Counter Terrorism Policing show that there has been a significant rise in the number of child terrorism suspects in England, Scotland and Wales. In the year ending September 2020, 4 percent of those arrested were minors, while in the year ending September 2022, 17 percent of terrorism-related arrests were of individuals under 18, a total of 32 arrests. Of these, 12 were suspected of extreme right-wing terrorism, 16 of religious extremism, and the ideology of the remaining four could not be determined.

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