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Max Hill KC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), 28 September 2023



I am delighted to be here today to share my reflections on the prosecution of terrorism over the last 20 years. Throughout this time, RUSI have been at the forefront of research and critical thinking in this space, challenging and supporting the UK’s policy response to terrorism. I can think of no better audience to share my experiences.

My first involvement in a terrorism prosecution followed the Real IRA bombing campaign of 2001. The attacks included car bombs that exploded outside the BBC television centre in west London in March 2001 and at Ealing Broadway in August 2001, and an attempted bombing in Birmingham city centre in November 2001. All five defendants were convicted and received determinate sentences of between 16 and 22 years. Some of the key evidence relied upon included mobile phone records, early use of ANPR in combination with CCTV footage across London, and fingerprint evidence of their whereabouts at certain times.

Fast forward 20 years and one of the many successful terrorism prosecutions completed by the CPS team this year was the conviction of Vaughn Dolphin, far-right extremist, who downloaded manuals on how to make guns and explosives and was sentenced in May to eight years and six months' imprisonment.

Such conduct perhaps demonstrates the shifting nature of terrorism, where technology and online activity, rather than hard copy material and physical behaviours, have become key evidential features of our casework.

Changes over 20 years

While the two cases I have mentioned thankfully involved no fatalities, there have of course been many, and my thoughts remain with all those affected. The devastating impact such attacks have on all our communities has remained a constant, even while the nature of such attacks has evolved. 

We are all aware that in the past attacks in the UK were dominated by Northern Ireland-related terrorism. It remains a serious threat, particularly in Northern Ireland.

However, in 2005, we saw the first conviction of an Al-Qaeda operative on British soil following the Ricin plot in 2003. I was junior prosecution counsel on the case and Kamel Bourgass was sentenced to 17 years for conspiracy to commit public nuisance by the use of poisons and/or explosives. He was also sentenced at a separate trial to life imprisonment with a minimum term fixed at 20 years and 6 months for murder, after fatally stabbing a police officer and injuring others during his arrest.

And there were then the horrific 7/7 bombings on the London transport network in 2005, carried out by Islamist suicide bombers. I was lead counsel for the Metropolitan Police Service throughout the Coroner's Inquest, and involved as junior and then leader in three major prosecutions that followed the 21/7 plot to detonate more bombs on the London transport network.

And in 2016 the brutal murder of MP Jo Cox highlighted the growing threat from Extreme Right-Wing terrorism.

The methodology of attack has also evolved. From indiscriminate explosive attacks to the growth of less sophisticated methods, using knives and vehicles. The appalling murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013 demonstrated this shift towards readily accessible weapons and vehicle borne attacks, and since 2018, almost 80% of UK domestic terrorist attacks have been carried out with bladed or blunt force weapons.

But perhaps the biggest development we have seen is the use of technology, and a far-reaching online front to contend with. As well as being exploited by terrorists to plan, publicise and glorify their attacks, from a prosecution perspective, this poses huge resource challenges to plough through large volumes of material held on electronic devices that may hold vital evidence. It remains to be seen the wider impact Artificial Intelligence may have on terrorist offending, and on our society as a whole.

The point is that nothing has stood still.

Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation

This evolving and increasing threat from terrorism over the past 20 years has led to a robust response from various Governments of the day, and in particular through legislation. It is of course a primary duty of Government to keep the people it serves safe from harm. But we must also recognise that this duty and its response must be balanced and proportionate.

The role of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (IRTL) helps to support these important checks and balances, as well as considering how our legislative framework might be further strengthened. It is a role completely independent from government but with access to secret and sensitive national security information. This makes it ideally placed to consider whether the application of our terrorism laws is fair, necessary and proportionate, all of which helps to inform the public and political debate on our counter terrorism response.

CPS Counter Terrorism Division and Legislation

Having been involved in the response to terrorism through individual cases then through reviewing the broader legislative approach, it has been a privilege to oversee the work of the CPS’ specialist Counter Terrorism Division during the last five years as DPP.

The Division is made up of specialist and highly skilled prosecutors and support staff, and its effectiveness has been applauded in our inspection reports.

As prosecutors our duty is to apply the law as agreed by Parliament and to make assessments about whether it is appropriate to present charges for the criminal court to consider. We work closely with the police and partners to ensure that we have the best possible response to the threat from all forms of terrorism.

Fundamental to our prosecutorial approach is the definition of terrorism, as set out under s1 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This provides the legal definitions, as agreed by Parliament, that we at the CPS must apply to decision making in terrorism cases. I remember prosecuting cases involving extremism before the Act came into force, when we often had to rely upon general crime provisions to bring what we now rightly recognise as terrorism-related prosecutions – the 2000 Act provided a much-improved statutory basis to properly capture specific terrorist offending.

In 2006 the Terrorism Act introduced further key offences that criminalised the encouragement of terrorism and the dissemination of terrorist publications – offences that are often used to tackle online offending – and the preparation of acts of terrorism. Then in 2008 the Counter Terrorism Act made provision for offences such as murder to be charged as having ‘a terrorist connection’.

In 2011 we saw the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) Act repeal the previous control order regime. Of course, our primary objective must be to prosecute and bring terrorist offenders to justice wherever possible, and the CPS has an important statutory function when TPIMs are being considered by the Secretary of State. We assess whether there is evidence available that could realistically be used for the purposes of prosecuting the individual for terrorism related offences. An important safeguard.

More recent legislation has extended extra-territorial jurisdiction on a number of offences and made provision for longer jail terms and stricter monitoring upon release.

That means we are now seeing greater use of life or indeterminate sentences – underlining the extreme importance of the work that we do within the CTD at the CPS. I am proud of our expertise and dedication in bringing justice in these most serious of criminal cases.

And turning briefly to the growing threat from Hostile State Actors, the new National Security Act will enhance our ability to bring strong prosecutions, working closely with our partners.

So our legislative response has evolved, and we have a raft of powers at our disposal; we must continue to use them effectively and responsibly.


In the year ending 30 June 2023, the CPS Counter Terrorism Division prosecuted 48 people for terrorism-related offences, and 43 were convicted. These numbers have fluctuated throughout the years, and of course we often see an increase in the aftermath of an attack. 2017, my first year as IRTL, stands as a sober reminder of a terrible time, and at the year ending June 2018, 100 people had been tried for terrorism-related offences, and 90 were convicted.

While most of our casework stems from Islamist terrorism, there has also been an increase in arrests and prosecutions for Extreme Right-Wing terrorism. Home Office data shows that in June 2013, there were 6 people in custody for terrorism-related offences linked to Extreme Right-Wing ideologies; in June 2023 there were 63.

This growing threat was something I recognised in my Annual Report on the operation of the Terrorism Acts in 2016, whilst in post as the Independent Reviewer, and I recommended then that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) extend its remit to include assessing the threat from domestic extremism.

Counter-terrorism casework by its very nature presents complex evidence, and often high-profile attacks require lengthy trial periods. An enduring principle is that we must make sure the relevant evidence can be easily understood by members of the jury.

A good example of this was in our prosecution of Hashem Abedi, the brother of the Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi, who was charged with murder, attempted murder and conspiring to cause explosions, all with a terrorist connection, following his extradition from Libya. It should be said that the extradition alone was ground-breaking, a testament to the determination of our CTD staff working alongside partners.

In proving that Abedi was as guilty of these offences as his brother, the prosecution had to present the complex timeline and evidence to the jury so they could follow the story of this large-scale terror attack. We did this using animation, images, crime scene photos and a chronological list of mobile phone communications.

Following a trial that lasted for 34 days, (I spent one of them sitting alongside bereaved families in Manchester Crown Court, to which the proceedings were screened on a live feed from the Old Bailey) the jury agreed with us that Hashem Abedi assisted and encouraged his brother and knew that his brother’s plan was to detonate an explosive device in a public place with the intention of killing and injuring as many people as possible. In August 2020, he was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 55 years – a record for a determinate prison term and meaning he is highly unlikely to ever be released.

DPP – IRTL Links

But the CPS does not just deal with individual cases as they come to us – we also develop guidance to help our prosecutors and be transparent with the public about our decision making.

For example, last year we responded to a recommendation from the current Independent Reviewer, calling for prosecutorial guidance on overseas aid agencies and proscribed organisations.

Working in conflict zones, and where proscribed organisations may be in de-facto control, aid agencies may run the risk of engaging with proscribed organisations and their members so they can access communities in need. This posed questions on our approach to considering alleged proscription and terrorist finance offences in such circumstances.

It was an issue I was all too familiar with during my time as the Independent Reviewer.

We are clear that counter-terrorism legislation should not hinder legitimate organisations from operating overseas. So, we published new guidance on ‘Humanitarian, Development and Peacebuilding Work Overseas’ in relation to specific terrorism offences. This included bespoke factors that we might consider when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

For example, prosecutors may consider the nature of the operational challenge that may be facing those delivering this vital work, as well as the extent to which they have put in place appropriate systems and controls to minimise the risk of terrorism offences – such as the subversion of legitimate funding for terrorist purposes – being committed.

This was a meaningful step, that provided further transparency on our prosecutorial approach, and offered support for those delivering humanitarian, development and peacebuilding work overseas.

The Future

Looking ahead, it remains vital that we analyse and understand the evolving threats we face, and organisations like RUSI make an invaluable contribution.

The terrorist threat in the UK today is dominated by individuals or small groups acting outside of organised terrorist networks, making it less predictable and harder to identify, investigate and disrupt.

In the UK, the primary domestic terrorist threat comes from Islamist terrorism, which accounts for approximately 67% of attacks since 2018. But extreme right-wing terrorism has grown and I fear is a threat that will persist.

Record numbers of young people are being arrested for terrorism-related offences and some of those are in their very early teens. Police data shows that last year 20 per cent of those arrested were aged under 18, up from 4 per cent in 2019.

With an increasing online world to contend with, we must get to grips with the radicalising influences and narratives that young and vulnerable people in particular can be drawn towards.

And of course, the future global landscape will be further influenced by events in Ukraine. We are committed to supporting Ukraine, the International Criminal Court and other jurisdictions investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity, which have occurred in Ukraine.

Just as there must be no impunity for terrorism, the same goes for war criminals and all states should be committed to upholding international law and bringing to justice those who commit core international crimes, such as war crimes and genocide, whenever and wherever they are committed.

Thank you.

Further reading

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