Usman Khan's deadly terror attack in London on November 29, 2019 is evidence that the existing schemes for deradicalization and rehabilitation of convicted terrorists are inherently unstable and, in a certain percentage of cases, likely to fail. Pictured: Belmarsh Prison, in London, from where Usman Khan was released to continue his terrorist activities. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
On Friday November 29, 2019, an Islamist terror attack took place in London. Two young people, both recent Cambridge University graduates, Jack Merritt (25) and Saskia Jones (23), were stabbed and killed by a single attacker. It was a terrible and unnecessary loss of life.
The special irony about Jack and Saskia's deaths is that they (and a colleague) had been involved with Cambridge University's Learning Together prison-rehabilitation program, similar to the US version known as Inside-Out, both of which bring prison inmates together with students to learn together. The British programme is run by Cambridge University's Institute of Criminology, from which both Merritt and Jones had received M.Phils in criminology.
On that Friday, the fifth anniversary of the program, they were attending a conference on offender rehabilitation. The event, dedicated to work on reintegrating prisoners after their release, took place in the stately Fishmongers' Hall at the north end of London Bridge. It was attended by a mix of academics, students, graduates and former prisoners, some with tags.
Just after lunch, at 12.58 p.m., the conference erupted into chaos when one of the participants threatened to blow it up. A man, later identified as Usman Khan, revealed that he was wearing what appeared to be a suicide vest. It is not clear what he planned to do, given that the vest was a fake and could not have served in any attack. However, he did have two knives taped to his wrists. When he left the Hall and went down to the bridge, it was indeed with these weapons that he killed Merritt and Jones and injured several others, some badly.
Remarkably, instead of running for their lives, many of the conference participants, including some prisoners, tackled Khan. One was a convicted murderer on day release. Two of these heroes were Merritt and Jones, who paid for their bravery with their own lives.
That Khan was there at all almost beggars belief. He was out on licence from prison, where he had served just half of a 16-year prison sentence for engaging with others in plans for what could have led to a major terrorist atrocity. He was at the conference because it was believed he was working towards his own deradicalization. Quite obviously, he had not been deradicalized.
Nine years earlier, when he was 19, Khan had been a leading member of a terrorist outfit inspired by al-Qa'ida. The members were arrested and put on trial in 2012, when Khan and two others were handed undetermined sentences; Khan was classified as never to be released. They had never carried out an attack, but they had ambitious plans, distributing letter bombs in the post, and setting off pipe bombs in toilets and pubs. There was also a handwritten target list belonging to the group which listed the names and addresses of the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, two rabbis, the US embassy in London and the stock exchange.
There were nine accused in all, but Khan and two others were described by the judge who sentenced them, Justice Alan Wilkie, to have been "more serious jihadis than the others." Wilkie had also warned that Khan should not be released from prison early:
In my judgment, these offenders would remain, even after a lengthy term of imprisonment, of such a significant risk that the public could not be adequately protected by their being managed on licence in the community, subject to conditions, by reference to a preordained release date.
That warning was not heeded when it came to a reconsideration of Khan's situation.
At an appeal hearing in 2013, Khan was given a determinate sentence of 16 years in gaol. He had served about five years of this when he was released on licence while wearing a GPS ankle bracelet. According to a BBC investigation:
During his time in prison, Khan completed a course for people convicted of extremism offences and after his release went on a scheme to address the root causes of terrorism.
The first course Khan went on, the Healthy Identity Intervention Programme, was piloted from 2010 and is now the main rehabilitation scheme for prisoners convicted of offences linked to extremism.
There was, however, a flaw in these schemes: they had not been fully tested or evaluated. The BBC's home affairs correspondent, Danny Shaw, remarked:
Last year, the Ministry of Justice published the findings of research into the pilot project which found it was "viewed positively" by a sample of those who attended and ran the course.
However, the department has not completed any work to test whether the scheme prevents reoffending or successfully tackles extremist behaviour.
There has also been no evaluation of the impact of the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which Khan took part in after his release last year.
It need hardly be said that Khan's attack is evidence that such schemes are inherently unstable and, in a certain percentage of cases, likely to fail.
Actually, the failure rate had already been predicted by Ian Acheson, a British expert on prisons who is currently a senior advisor to the US-based Counter Extremism Project. In 2015, Britain's Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, appointed Acheson, aided by a small expert team, to conduct an independent review of Islamist extremism in the prisons and probation system in England and Wales. A summary of the main findings of Acheson's final report has been made available online by the UK government.
On December 1, however, Acheson himself wrote an article for the London Times entitled "London Bridge attack: I told ministers we were treating terrorist prisoners with jaw-dropping naivety. Did they listen?"
In it, he revealed that his survey was originally opposed by the CEO of Britain's Prison and Probation Service, who had to be overruled by Gove. He goes on to write that "What we found was so shockingly bad that I had to agree to the language in the original report being toned down. With hindsight, I'm not sure that was the right decision." He continues with a deeply worrying account of what he and his team found:
There were serious deficiencies in almost every aspect of the management of terrorist offenders through the system that are relevant to Usman Khan. Frontline prison staff were vulnerable to attack and were ill-equipped to counter hateful extremism on prison landings for fear of being accused of racism. Prison imams did not possess the tools, and sometimes the will, to combat Islamist ideology. The prison service's intelligence-gathering system was hopelessly fractured and ineffectual.
The rest of the article should be read in full, for it is a damning indictment of the way Islamic extremism and deradicalization of terrorists are handled within the UK's prison network. At one point, he writes:
What has this got to do with Khan? Many of the recommendations I made related to what I saw as serious gaps in the management of terrorist offenders into custody and "through the gate". There was a lack of expertise and appropriateness in the arrangements for probation supervision of these most potentially lethal offenders.
The questions Acheson proceeds to ask are detailed and well informed. Perhaps the government agencies responsible for incarceration and deradicalization of terrorists and would-be jihadists will listen to him and others who are deeply informed about the problem and will introduce some at least of the many reforms he calls for.
Tragically, that may not happen. As he himself admits, he is likely to be persona non grata within the service and perhaps the Ministry of Justice:
Moreover, there are legitimate questions to ask about the qualifications of the key people in this highly sensitive role and how they were appointed. HM Prison and Probation Service, where I spent nearly a decade working, is a notoriously closed shop when it comes to the advancement of its senior leadership, whatever the public relations person says.
To make life even harder for prison officials at every level, a study published by the Ministry of Justice in May 2019, has revealed that radical Muslims in gaol in the UK are almost out of control to the point where they rule prisons. Entitled "Exploring the Nature of Muslim Groups and Related Gang Activity in Three High Security Prisons: Findings from Qualitative Research", the study paints a disturbing picture that could have been a script for a violent TV drama.
There is a useful summary of the UK situation by Patrick Dunleavy, a former Inspector General for the New York State Department of Corrections. Dunleavy has testified as an expert witness before the House Committee on Homeland Security about the threat of Islamic Radicalization in the U.S. prison system.
In his summary dated June 19, 2019, Dunleavy identifies a group of radicalized Muslims who function as a gang in UK prisons, taking control of territory and exercising influence over existing and new Muslim prisoners, even where the latter do not enter gaol as extremists or terrorist supporters. Dunleavy sums up the influence of this broad "gang":
Obedience is achieved by violence and intimidation carried out by members of the group known as enforcers. "Those who had committed terrorist crimes often held more senior roles in the gang," the study found, "facilitated by the respect some younger prisoners gave them."
Leadership gives the orders for all acts of violence. No member acts on his own. If he does, one inmate said, he is taken aside by a leader....
The study described the leaders as manipulative, dominating, and outspoken and yet found they were able to portray themselves to prison staff as compliant and polite. In other words, "jail wise."
A similar situation exists in the United States, where Muslim radicals also form gang-like structures of mutual reinforcement and coercion. Dunleavy draws on his own direct experience of US prisons:
I was assigned to "Operation Hades" at the time, a multifaceted investigative group of federal, state, and local agents, analysts, and law enforcement officers tasked with exploring the level of radical Islamic recruitment in the prison system.
The study found that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida did not see prison as an obstacle. Quite the opposite, they viewed it as an opportunity to organize and expand.
In prison, terrorists designed an organizational structure providing specific roles for each member, roles identical to what was just found in the UK; leaders, recruiters, enforcers, foot soldiers. The intelligence report also said that terrorists would operate their group in prison like a "brotherhood," and that recruitment would thrive because they had a large "pool of vulnerable people" from which to draw.
However, in Dunleavy's opinion, American prison and counter-terrorism authorities have handled these matters better than their counterparts in the UK:
The United States seems to have fared better curbing radical Islamic groups organizing in the prison system than our UK and EU counterparts. This may be due in part to the Correctional Intelligence Initiative program operated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which continues to build on the recommendations of the 2002 report.
If there is one shortcoming, it is in the area of post-release supervision of convicted terrorists.
As we have previously reported, more terrorists are being released from custody with no viable de-radicalization program or monitoring system in place.
Where they live or work, as well as any social media involvement after their release, needs to be strictly monitored. Any important intelligence gleaned from this should be shared across the board with participating agencies. International travel should also be restricted.
Usman Khan's trajectory confirms Dunleavy's uneasy concern about the "post-release supervision of convicted terrorists". Is any form of deradicalization possible at all? It is no secret that hundreds of former Islamic State/Da'esh fighters may have returned or hope yet to return to their countries of origin in Europe:
Jürgen Stock, Interpol's chief, who is also a criminologist and law enforcement officer from Germany, said: "We could soon be facing a second wave of other Islamic State linked or radicalised individuals that you might call Isis 2.0."
"A lot of these are suspected terrorists or those who are linked to terrorist groups as supporters who are facing maybe two to five years in jail. Because they were not convicted of a concrete terrorist attack but only support for terrorist activities, their sentences are perhaps not so heavy."
Many such fighters are already in custody under Turkish control. A recent report from Ankara indicates that the Islamist Turkish government is threatening to release them and send them into Europe. If that happens, handling such an influx could become an intense and possibly irresoluble headache for the prison, security, and counter-terrorism authorities everywhere.
In Part II, we shall examine what the Western states will have to do and should already be doing to quash this menace.
Postscript. Just as this article finished editing, a grim event, once more in London, took place in an eerie replica of Usman Khan's November terrorist attack on London Bridge. On February 2, a young Muslim, Sudesh Amman, stabbed two passers-by in Streatham, a London district. Ten days earlier, he had, like Khan, been released from prison halfway through his sentence for terror offences in 2018. He too was shot dead by armed police, and in his case neither of his victims died.
Amman was one of the top five terrorist risk people in the country and was known still to possess extremist views, yet his parole board did not assess him before setting him free to go onto the street, take a knife from a shop, and attack two innocent people. This, despite the fact, as we shall see in part two, that the government had earlier announced plans to tighten up sentencing and end halfway release for terrorist prisoners.
Dr. Denis MacEoin has taught Islamic Studies and written several reports on radical Islam. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at New York's Gatestone Institute.