The decision by a court last week to grant the youngest terrorist ever convicted in the United Kingdom (UK) lifelong anonymity has been marred with controversy. Originally labelled as ‘Boy X’, but now known as RXG, the boy was detained for life at the age of 14. RXG admitted to sending thousands of encrypted messages to 18-year-old Sevdet Besim in Australia, inciting him to launch a terrorist attack during an Anzac Day parade. He was sentenced to serve a minimum term of five years in a young offender institution, after pleading guilty to two charges of inciting terrorism overseas.
It is not unusual to grant children anonymity in legal cases. Family courts, where matters pertaining to children’s welfare are often discussed in great detail, are shrouded in privacy in order to prevent the public from finding out about the outcome of these cases. An argument from Sir James Munby, formerly President of the Family Division of the High Court in England and Wales, to foster greater transparency has resulted in limited aspects of some cases being made public. In the realm of terrorism, this ordinarily falls under children who are separated from families due to fear of radicalisation, or children being made wards of court to protect them from travelling to join terrorist organisations abroad, such as so-called ‘Islamic State’. The identity of these minors is rightly kept secret, with a ban on identifying them in the press or otherwise.
The case of RXG is unusual because anonymity in such cases would normally expire on the offender’s 18th birthday, by which time the individual becomes an adult. To date, only six lifelong anonymity orders have been awarded to convicted offenders. These include Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who murdered toddler James Bulger, and Mary Bell, who strangled two male toddlers to death.
Lifelong anonymity does not come without obstacles. The first is expense. When the new identity of Venables was leaked in 2013, for example, the cost to the taxpayer of issuing him with a new identity came to approximately £500,000. Individuals who posted pictures of Venables online were given suspended prison sentences. The same case will be made for RXG, with any individual who breaches the order facing severe consequences.
The second issue is whether details about offenders – such as prior names, whereabouts, and activities – should be revealed if the individual re-offends. Such information, up to return to custody, would help inform the public about rehabilitation of offenders, and better protect civilians from potentially dangerous individuals. James Bulger’s family recently lost a case to overturn lifelong anonymity of Jon Venables, who was sent back to prison on charges related to possession of indecent images of children. A 2016 government-commissioned review, moreover, stated that 69% of children sentenced to custody go on to re-offend within a year. It is important that taxpayers’ money is spent on programmes within jails that ensure that children are offered appropriate mentorship and guidance to de-radicalise and rehabilitate them – as will be the case for RXG. Longitudinal studies on the effectiveness of such de-radicalisation programmes are desperately needed.
A decision of lifelong anonymity, however, should not be without constraints.
RXG, for example, was previously known to authorities. His radicalisation involved an 18-month history of extremism-related disruptive behaviour at school, where he expressed his desire to be a martyr and told a teacher he would stab them in the neck in a ‘halal’ slaughter. This prompted two interventions by Channel – the government de-radicalisation programme – before the police became involved in March 2015. While receiving de-radicalisation, however, RXG continued to engage with Anjem Choudary and Abu Haleema, both of proscribed group Al-Muhajiroun. Choudary advised RXG to increase his social media presence, and within two weeks of receiving this advice, RXG accumulated more than 24,000 followers across 89 Twitter accounts, which he used to influence others. It can be argued, therefore, that the de-radicalisation programmes offered to him both before and during his prison term may need to be more robust. According to court notes, one professional who dealt with RXG had ‘never encountered such entrenched extremist views’.
It is of course important to allow for a fair chance of rehabilitation on the part of offenders, particularly when it comes to children. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old, or 8 years old in Scotland. As with all cases, the level of intent and agency on the part of the child, which would help indicate responsibility, must be examined on a case by case basis. It was stated in court records that RXG suffers from autism, and a strong yearning for recognition. The necessary and proportionate decision made by judges, therefore, was to reduce the risk of him obtaining celebrity status amongst other extremists and terrorists (with whom he already had close connections) by revealing his identity. Such a decision would also allow for an adequate opportunity for him to rehabilitate and reform without the risk of re-radicalisation.
A decision of lifelong anonymity, however, should not be without constraints. The UK Prison Service had experience in dealing with high-profile individuals, including Hammad Munshi, who was reported to be the Britain’s youngest terrorist when convicted in 2010, at the age of 16. Even if the public cannot know the identity of RXG at the current time, they should certainly be allowed access to information that would be ‘common knowledge’ should he re-offend, especially after being granted the extraordinary opportunity to de-radicalise under anonymous protection. Otherwise, the nation risks protecting terrorists at the expense of protecting the British public.
- The case of RXG was originally covered in the Henry Jackson Society’s report, entitled: Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offences and Attacks in the UK (1998-2015).