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The Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism, both in and outside of the UK, as the use or threat of one or more of the actions listed below, and where they are designed to influence the government, or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public. The use or threat must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.

The specific actions included are:

  • serious violence against a person;
  • serious 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; and
  • action designed to seriously interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

The use or threat of action, as set out above, which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism regardless of whether or not the action is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public.

Action includes action outside the United Kingdom.

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.

Terrorist organisations

There is not 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. Some examples are provided below.

International Terrorism

International terrorism refers to terrorism that goes beyond national boundaries in terms of the methods used, the people that are targeted or the places from which the terrorists operate. Since the emergence of Al Qaida in the 1990s, international terrorism has become largely synonymous with Islamist terrorism. Terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, including Al Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, possess both the intention and the capability to direct attacks against the West.

Linked to this, UK nationals travelling overseas to serve with extremist groups as ‘foreign fighters’ present a potential threat to the UK, both while they are overseas and when they return to the UK.

We have published separate guidance on the prosecution of individuals involved in terrorism overseas.

Extreme Right Wing Terrorism

Recent years have seen a rise in cases of extreme right wing terrorism in the UK. Extreme right wing terrorists promote messages of hate-filled prejudice which can encourage radicalisation among people motivated by race hate. Groups including (the now proscribed) National Action, Sonnenkrieg Division and The Base 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. 

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. CPS prosecutors regard those who commit terrorist offences as criminals and believe that it is important that they are tried fairly and objectively through the mainstream criminal justice system, applying the same standards as to any other case, and using offences that properly reflect the conduct concerned.

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 Counter Terrorism Policing  have specialist units that were set up specifically to investigate and prosecute terrorism cases.

CPS Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division (SCCTD)

Within the CPS, the SCCTD is responsible for prosecuting terrorism cases investigated by the police in England and Wales. Our prosecutors provide early investigative advice to the police, make charging decisions and prosecute individuals accused of committing an offence. The Division deals with other highly specialised areas of work, but terrorism, both national and international, forms proportionately the largest part of the workload.

We have published a number of case summaries of successful prosecutions, setting out the background, the offences that were committed and the outcomes.

Separately, the number of arrests and prosecutions for terrorism-related offences is published by the Home Office in their Counter Terrorism Statistics quarterly updates.

Substantive terrorism offences

In recent years a number of offences and powers have been designed to counter the activities of terrorists. They include, but are not limited to, offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 (TA 2000) and Terrorism Act 2006 (TA 2006). We have set out some of the key offences below.

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.

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 15 years' imprisonment.

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, and the maximum sentence in respect of this offence is 15 years' imprisonment.

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

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 updates existing counter-terrorism legislation to ensure that it is fit for the digital age and reflect contemporary patterns of radicalisation. 
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.

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act (2021) ends the prospect of early release for anyone convicted of a serious terror offence and forces them to spend their whole term in jail. The most dangerous offenders – such as those found guilty of preparing or carrying out acts of terrorism where lives were lost or at risk – now face a minimum of 14 years in prison and up to 25 years on licence, with stricter supervision. Key measures include:

  • a new ‘Serious Terrorism Sentence’ for dangerous offenders with a 14-year minimum jail term and up to 25 years spent on licence;
  • ending early release for the most serious offenders who receive Extended Determinate Sentences – instead the whole time will be served in custody;
  • increasing the maximum penalty from 10 to 14 years for a number of terror offences, including membership of a proscribed organisation;
  • ensuring a minimum period of 12 months on licence for all terror offenders as well as requiring adult offenders to take polygraph tests;
  • widening the offences that can be classed as terror-connected to ensure they carry tougher sentences and offenders are subject to the Registered Terrorist Offender notification requirements post-release;  and
  • boosting the disruption and risk management tools available to Counter-Terrorism Policing and the Security Service, by strengthening Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures and supporting the use of Serious Crime Prevention Orders in terrorism cases.

Terrorism or not?

Some offences not included in the Terrorism Acts can also be classed as having a ‘terrorist connection’ to ensure the criminal charges properly reflect the conduct concerned. A case with a terrorist connection will also attract a higher sentence on conviction and means offenders are subject to appropriate notification requirements post-release. 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.

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 Section 38B 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.

Further reading

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