Britain’s deradicalization programs are once again in the spotlight after Sunday’s terror knife attack in which two people were injured in London, with questions being asked about why they are less successful than those of many other countries — in Europe and the Middle East — in deradicalizing youngsters.
The stabbing Sunday in the south London neighborhood of Streatham was carried out by a 20-year-old who’d been released a week earlier from a high-security prison after serving just half his jail term on terrorist related charges.
Sudesh Amman allegedly knifed two people, one a nursery school teacher, and was shot dead within 60 seconds of the attack’s start by armed undercover police officers. He had been under covert surveillance since he left Belmarsh Prison on the southeast outskirts of Britain’s capital, trailed and monitored by up to 20 police officers. He had been freed automatically from prison despite openly bragging of plans to launch terror attacks and saying his ambition was to murder a lawmaker.
He had been jailed for possessing and distributing extremist literature, including Islamic State recruitment material and instruction manuals on the use of knives. In jail he reportedly staged mock executions to rehearse what he wanted to do once outside.
Sunday's incident came just weeks after another freed terrorist offender, Usman Khan, killed two people in a stabbing rampage on London Bridge in December. He, too, carried out his attack within weeks of leaving jail, serving only half of a 16-year sentence for his part in a plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange. Khan — unlike Sudesh Amman — was thought to be making good progress toward being deradicalized and was seen as a poster boy for Britain’s rehabilitation programs.
After December’s London Bridge attack, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to end the early release of terrorist offenders. Under current legislation, they can be freed in the middle of their jail terms without even appearing before a parole board.
Johnson now plans to make good on his promise, and the ruling Conservative government is rushing through legislation that will scrap automatic early release for convicted terrorists at the halfway point of their sentences. Instead, they would be entitled to release when they have served two thirds of their sentence, but only after a parole board has approved.
The emergency legislation also will apply to 220 convicted terrorists who are behind bars. About 10 of them are due to be released this month and another 30 or so during this year. But to do so, Johnson may have to suspend the application in Britain of the European Convention on Human Rights in his bid to keep convicted terrorists behind bars. The convention bars retroactive changes to sentencing. Lawyers say the government likely will face legal challenges over the move.
Johnson also is considering plans to imprison all convicted terrorists indefinitely, regardless of the severity of their offenses. They would only gain freedom if a special parole board approved and judged them to no longer pose a risk.
Michael Gove, a top British minister, said the government wants to “be absolutely certain that people who would otherwise be released early stay behind bars so the public are protected.” He told Sky News that terrorist offenders should be locked up indefinitely “if necessary.”
He added: “If you have people who are in the grip of an ideology, that ideology means they want to kill innocent people in order to advance a particular religious and political view, they are a danger to society ... Until we know that they are comprehensively deradicalized and that it is safe to have those people on our streets, then public protection must come first.”
Opposition politicians and some deradicalization experts worry the government is going too far and is basically turning its back on rehabilitation programs. They say the programs have been severely underfunded and warn that knee-jerk reactions, however popular with the wider public, won’t help to improve rehabilitation schemes or answer difficult questions surrounding their effectiveness and whether a militant can be de-radicalized.
In December in the wake of the London Bridge attack Johnson cast doubt on the efficacy of deradicalization and said some offenders are beyond rehabilitation and suggested they should be locked up for life.
Former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal says that with sufficient resources extremists can be deradicalized, and he points to effective programs run in Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Saudi Arabia’s program claims an 80 percent rehabilitation success rate, although some experts are skeptical. Denmark’s focuses on reintegration, and terrorist offenders in prison are kept separate from the rest of the prison population to ensure they can’t proselytize.
Afzal has campaigned for years for Britain’s deradicalization efforts to be better funding and professionalized. He notes that the more successful overseas programs are better funded, run by special agencies, involve the community and faith leaders and use reformed offenders as peer models and mentors, something British authorities are reluctant to do. “I am ashamed to say that the events of Streatham and London Bridge will be repeated until we take a different approach, and even then it will take time,” he wrote in a commentary for The Times newspaper.
Freed terrorists are required to follow a strict set of rules, including not using the internet, not associating with former accomplices, observing a curfew and attending only approved mosques. They are required to wear electronic ankle tags so their movements can be monitored.
Criminal justice experts have been warning for months about a lack of rigor with the prison rehabilitation programs, arguing that some offenders game the system to appear as though they are on the way to being deradicalized.
Former prison governor Ian Acheson, who in 2015 led an independent review of how Islamist militants are handled by the country’s prisons and probation system, said in the wake of December’s London Bridge attack that the entire rehabilitation system is deeply flawed. He said it is marked sometimes by naïveté and a “toxic combination of arrogance, defensiveness and ineptitude.”
He complained in his 2015 report the “screening tools to detect and programs to tackle radicalized behavior were rudimentary in-house creations with former terrorist offenders telling us how easy courses were to ‘game.’” He argues Britain’s criminal justice system is “unsuited to managing the risk of religious extremists with a martyrdom complex coming from a moral universe far away from the professionals responsible for their management.”
Criminal justice experts said that just lengthening sentences won’t necessarily solve the problem. Eventually offenders will have to be freed, and when they are, they will remain a threat if deradicalization efforts aren’t improved. They also worry that keeping more terrorist offenders locked up will create more extremists among the prison population.
They say Britain’s high-security prisons have become “jihadi training camps.”
In his 2015 report, former prison governor Acheson warned that “charismatic” jihadi prisoners are “acting as self-styled emirs” and “exerting a controlling and radicalizing influence on the wider Muslim prison population.”