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The Manchester Arena Inquiry has now concluded. The closure notice from the Inquiry Chairman is available here.

Volume Three: Radicalisation and Preventability
Volume Three: Radicalisation and Preventability (20pt version)

Radicalisation into Islamist extremism

Key findings

  • Mainstream Islam is the worldview adopted by the substantial majority of the global Muslim population. Mainstream Islam rejects violent extremism and embraces the differences between Muslims and non‑Muslims.
  • Islamist extremism emphasises the differences between extremist Muslims and everyone else. Non‑Muslims and mainstream Muslims are viewed as wrong, lesser, impure and are stripped of human qualities and rights. The ambition of Islamist extremism is to impose Islamic law and establish a global Islamic state or caliphate. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK and across the world would entirely reject the attitudes and behaviours of Islamist extremism.
  • Islamist extremism takes three different forms: non‑violent Islamist extremism; theoretical violent Islamist extremism; and operational violent Islamist extremism. Operational violent Islamist extremism involves an active commitment to violence in order to eradicate non‑Muslims as the necessary precursor to bringing an Islamic state into existence.
  • In mainstream Islam, suicide bombing is regarded as a sin. Violent Islamist extremism has utilised suicide bombing as a way of advancing its agenda.
  • SA’s radicalisation journey into operational violent Islamist extremism was primarily driven by noxious absences and malign presences. Noxious absences included a prolonged disengagement from mainstream English education and parental absence. Malign presences included the ongoing conflict in Libya and engagement with a radicalising peer group.

I instructed an expert in radicalisation, Dr Matthew Wilkinson. Dr Wilkinson has an established expertise in Islamic theology, Islamist ideology and Islamist extremism, developed through academic research, his work as an expert witness and his own background.10

Dr Wilkinson provided a helpful model to describe and explain what an Islamist extremist worldview is and how people can be radicalised into such a worldview.

Before I address the specific issues relating to the radicalisation of SA, it is important to understand the language and analytical tools that Dr Wilkinson used.


Dr Wilkinson described worldviews as ways of understanding how the world is and how to behave in it.11 He explained that, for most of us, our worldviews are simply absorbed and are not consciously formed. At certain times of life, some people are more vulnerable to absorbing ideas without thinking about them than others, for instance during adolescence.12

Dr Wilkinson explained that various types of expressions of Islam are best understood not as being theologically different but as being fundamentally different worldviews. The result is that mainstream Islam and violent Islamist extremism are “utterly distinct”.13

Mainstream Islam

Mainstream Islam is centred on a religious practice and the basic teachings of the Qur’an and Sunna.14 It is a worldview adopted by approximately 75 per cent of the global Muslim population.15

Mainstream Islam can be divided into traditional and activist Islam. Traditional Islam is based on the inclusive notion of ‘unity and diversity’, centred on a worldview of the basic equality of all people before God.16 This underlying message has two strands rooted in the Qur’an: first, that not everyone was intended to be born as Muslim; and second, that diversity of religious worship should be defended as part of God’s creation.17 Moderation and the sanctity of human life are ethical tenets of traditional Islam.18 On this basis, Dr Wilkinson stated that the worldview of mainstream Islam “tends to be protective against violent Islamist extremism”.19

Activist Islam adopts the same view of unity and inclusivity but is characterised by an ethos of change, transformation and personal improvement. Dr Wilkinson gave an example of an activist Muslim putting into practice this kind of worldview by advocating for prayer spaces in offices.20


Ideological Islamism marks a shift away from mainstream Islam: from Islam as a religion, which prioritises religious practice and belief, to Islam as a political or cultural identity, which is directed at overthrowing rather than transforming existing political structures.21 This worldview emerged in the early 20th century and gained momentum from the 1960s onwards.22

Importantly, ideological Islamism can be distinguished from mainstream Islam on the basis that, instead of a belief in the equality of all people before God, it creates a separation between ‘us and them’, that is to say between Muslims and non‑Muslims.23

Islamist extremism

Islamist extremism emphasises this separation until it sharpens into an absolute division. Non‑Muslims are viewed as wrong, lesser, impure and are stripped of human qualities and rights.24 In this way, Islamist extremism is like all other forms of extremism which is premised on the existence of a chosen in‑group set against an out‑group.25 This exaggerated division is accompanied by an ambition to impose Islamic law and establish a global Islamic state or caliphate,26 and the active shunning of non‑Muslims.27

Dr Wilkinson emphasised that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK and across the world would entirely reject such attitudes and behaviours.28 He stressed that such a worldview is reliant on a misinterpretation of the Qur’an, often by extrapolating general principles from isolated, specific verses.29

Dr Wilkinson divided Islamist extremism into three categories.

First, there is non‑violent Islamist extremism: an ‘us and them’ worldview but including ‘wrong’ mainstream Muslims in the out‑group,30 without a commitment to lethal consequences.31

Second, there is theoretical violent Islamist extremism: an ‘us and them’ worldview, with a theoretical commitment to lethal consequences. Here, violent Islamist extremists see violence in the form of the eradication of the ‘them’ as the necessary precursor to bringing an Islamic state into existence.32

Third, there is operational violent Islamist extremism: the same as theoretical extremism, except there is an active commitment to violence.33

Martyrdom, in the sense of being killed fighting in defence of Islam, is a classic theme of violent Islamist extremism. Martyrdom is used both as a recruiting tool and as a symbolic way of distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those committed and loyal to the extremist Islamist worldview and unbelievers. Specifically, Islamist extremists often use suicide bombing as a technique to achieve their political agenda and view the act of suicide bombing as an end in itself.34 The cult of martyrdom is central to the ideology of violent extremist groups like Al‑Qaeda and Islamic State.35

In mainstream Islam, suicide bombing is viewed as a grave sin and a crime.36 The Inquiry heard that the 21st‑century cult of suicide martyrdom is diametrically opposed to the spirit and the letter of mainstream Islam, including the Islamic doctrine of armed struggle (violent jihad), and is indicative of a nihilistic violent ideology.37

Radicalisation trajectories

Islamist radicalisation is a process of a shifting worldview, typically from ideological Islam to Islamist extremism, together with identifying more and more exclusively with the Muslim ‘in‑group’.38 It is a process of increasing hostility to the out‑group and intense attachment to the in‑group.39 Dr Wilkinson took the view that SA’s entire experience of Islam started from within the extremist worldview and his radicalisation was therefore a relatively short journey which took him from non‑violent extremism through to operational violent extremism.40

Dr Wilkinson set out a mechanism for radicalisation in a number of distinct stages. This is outlined in Figure 42.

Figure 42: Stages of radicalisation into Islamist extremism41

To understand how someone’s worldview can shift and move towards Islamist extremism, Dr Wilkinson explained that he sought to distinguish between ‘factors’ and ‘causes’ of radicalisation. Factors are broader familial, cultural and social realities, which render someone more vulnerable and exposed to extremism. Causes are catalysts or triggers, which move the journey along in a more direct and pronounced way.42

Analysing the factors that create an environment in which a person can be radicalised, Dr Wilkinson stressed the importance of both those that are present in someone’s life and those that are missing. He labelled these two types of factors as “malign presences” and “noxious absences”.43 For the purposes of the Inquiry, noxious absences were things missing from SA’s life that had a radicalising effect on him. Malign presences were parts of SA’s life that actively contributed to radicalising him.44

Dr Wilkinson’s view was that SA’s radicalisation was primarily driven by noxious absences, such as his prolonged disengagement from mainstream English education and the absence of responsible parenting. Malign presences included the ongoing conflict in Libya and engagement with a radicalising peer group.45 These factors are considered in more detail later in this Part.

Dr Wilkinson made clear that such factors are not enough to explain how people move across the spectrum towards Islamist extremism; there also need to be triggers that move people towards operational extremism. Causes tend to focus on charismatic individuals or specific encounters.46 In SA’s case, possible causes include associates such as Raphael Hostey or Abdalraouf Abdallah, or his experiences of conflict in the Libyan civil war.

With this broad framework in mind, this Volume of my Report will examine the possible factors and causes of SA’s radicalisation from that of non‑violent Islamist extremism to operational Islamist extremism.