Much greater emphasis must be placed on the dangers posed by recent converts to Islam as they have previously been behind major terrorist attacks, a report has warned.
Although the vast majority of converts to the religion are peaceful and law-abiding, they are “over-represented among foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq”, experts said.
More attention also needs to be paid to conversions to Islam which take place in prisons and probation services, particularly in juvenile offender establishments and high security prisons, according to the report by think tank The Henry Jackson Society.
It said that when taken together with other aggravating factors such as possession of a criminal record, paternal absence, and exposure to the messages of radical preachers, the process of conversion to Islam can indicate a vulnerability to extremism.
And it is the more ultra-conservative branches of Islam – known as Salafi groups – who have proven to be more adept at getting people to convert.
“Converts are often more malleable and vulnerable to radical rhetoric, often combining enthusiasm to change the world with a vacuum of knowledge about different interpretations of Islam,” the report said.
The paper highlights how Islamic State (IS) has worked to ensure that its message is capable of being embraced by followers from a diverse array of backgrounds, which helps to explain the tendency of some converts to favour ultra-conservative versions of Islam.
It also suggests that those leading counter-extremism efforts must take into account the fact that the appeal of radical Islam as an ideology has often been shown to extend well beyond communities historically associated with Islam.
A report published by the think tank in March found that 16% of those who committed Islamic terror offences in the UK between 1998 and 2015 were converts.
The latest report, Converts To Islam And Home Grown Jihadism, emphasises that like the vast majority of Muslims, most converts to the faith are peaceful and law-abiding.
It cites figures that show the overall number of converts to Islam in the UK rose from 60,000 in 2001, to 100,000 in 2010, and at present, around 5,000 British people convert to Islam every year – most of them women.
Dr Julia Rushchenko, an associate research fellow at The Henry Jackson Society’s Centre for the Response to Terrorism and Radicalisation, wrote the report.
She said: “This report underscores the importance of considering the all-encompassing nature of Radical Islam as a pernicious ideology, which has proven capable of luring a wide range of individuals from across Europe.
“Policy-makers and practitioners must be alert to this specific but understudied danger, if they are to counter extremism effectively.”
Khalid Masood, who killed five people and injured dozens of others in the Westminster terror attack in March, was a convert to Islam, along with Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale who murdered soldier Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, in 2013.
Khalid Masood, who carried out the Westminster terror attack, was a convert to Islam (Metropolitan Police/PA)
The many British-born converts who have travelled to Syria and Iraq include Sally-Anne Jones, who became a poster girl for IS.
She left her home in Chatham, Kent, to go to Syria in 2013, becoming known as the White Widow, and is thought to have recently been killed in a US drone strike.
Abu Zakariya al-Britani was born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester before coverting to Islam.
He is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq in early 2017 after travelling to join IS fighters in Syria in early 2014.