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Research project

Counter-Terrorism and 'Digital Human Trafficking'

Project overview

Counter-Terrorism and ‘Digital Human Trafficking’ is an innovative research project investigating human trafficking victimhood and its role in terrorism offending, addressing a crucial and contemporary research gap. This issue recently came to the fore in a landmark case of a British teenage girl whose terrorism charges were dropped in December 2021 after she had been found to be a victim of human trafficking. Despite no physical movement, her international online communications on forums and with individuals linked to terrorist organisations reportedly amounted to human trafficking exploitation under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA).

This case prompts questions regarding, broadly, Section 45 of the MSA 2015, which relates to the defence for modern slavery or trafficking victims who have committed an offence. More specifically, it applies directly to individuals (particularly minors) facing terrorism charges in the UK and overseas. It also teases out the potential international law implications of the non-punishment principle set out in instruments such as Article 23 of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

To date, neither counter-terrorism nor anti-trafficking literatures have engaged with the nexus between trafficking victimisation as statutory defence for terrorism charges. This is particularly pertinent to cases without physical movement, or ‘digital human trafficking’. Due to increasing use of online platforms by underage users, a holistic investigation and subsequent guidance for the nexus between ‘digital human trafficking’ and terrorism is urgently required.

This exploratory research project combines cross-sector expertise to examine the parameters and consequences of (digital) human trafficking victimisation in the context of terrorism offending. The project team adopts a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative interviews, knowledge-exchange workshops, case law analysis, and network analysis to map and understand relevant cases, legalisation, and government policies. The results will be disseminated through publications and our website.

The project is funded by the University of Southampton Web Science Institute Stimulus Fund 2022-2023.

Research Team Members:

The project team involves collaboration between researchers in the department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology (SSPC) and the Web Science Institute (WSI) at the University of Southampton. The team have substantial cross-disciplinary expertise in the areas of web science, counter-terrorism, human trafficking, and the criminal justice system.

Dr Gina Vale – Principal Investigator
Dr Avi Boukli – Co-Investigator
Professor Leslie Carr – Co-Investigator
Hannah Rose – Research Assistant


Lead researcher

Dr Gina Vale

Lecturer of Criminology

Research interests

  • Terrorism
  • Violent Extremism
  • Rebel Governance
Connect with Gina
Other researchers

Dr Avi Boukli

Associate Professor of Criminology
Connect with Avi

Professor Leslie Carr

Professor of Web Science
Connect with Leslie

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs