Does Britain believe in deradicalisation anymore?
The truly tragic fallout of the November 29 London Bridge knife attack by Usman Khan, a man who had served time in prison for terrorist offences, must be considered in two parts.
First, the death of two idealistic young British people who believed in and worked for the rehabilitation of violent offenders, including convicted terrorists such as Khan.
Second, that the political debate in Britain appears to be centring on revenge rather than rehabilitation of terrorist offenders. The United Kingdom’s governing Conservative Party is campaigning for re-election on an agenda of tougher jail sentences for violent criminals, including terrorists, with little interest in examining the causes.
It’s a fair bet, noted with sober sadness by your columnist, that the second part of the fallout will prove to have a greater, longer-lasting effect on the British and wider European and Western debate on jihadism.
Over time, the horror will lessen over the death at Khan’s hands of Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, both of whom were Cambridge University alumni and passionate believers in prisoner rehabilitation, but the effects of Britain’s somewhat tone-deaf debate over how to deal with terrorists may continue to reverberate.
Some are citing Khan, 28, as an example of the ineffectiveness of deradicalisation programmes. It’s true that Khan was attending a learning and rehabilitation course when he carried out the attack on Merritt and Jones. It’s also the case that Khan attended two separate rehabilitation programmes after serving half of a 16-year prison sentence for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange.
And there’s no reason to disbelieve the unnamed British Justice Ministry official who said, after the London Bridge attack, that Khan was offered lots of help to change his ways both in prison and out of it. In prison, the official said, Khan attended “several counterterror interventions.”
The result appears to have been a spectacular failure. It’s tragically clear that Khan emerged from prison just as prone to violence as when he went in. It is also clear that he remained in opposition to the system within which he lived, as well as to the people with whom he interacted. He was neither rehabilitated nor deradicalised.
Should one condemn an entire process based on one example?
As Emily Winterbotham, director of the terrorism and conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute has said: “The path towards terrorism is individual, complex and non-linear, so the mechanism for dealing with it is always going to be constrained by this reality and essentially unpredictability.”Quite.
Even so, Britain must deal with the dangerous fallout of questions about deradicalisation as a concept. There are fears that countless others like Khan — convicted terrorists released from prison — are wandering around the country pretending they are reformed. Still, more questions will be posed when it comes to the possible repatriation from Syria of British Islamic State fighters and their families.
However, the real question should be the effectiveness of the British model of deradicalisation. Thus far, it has largely revolved around challenging extremists’ religious ideology. It has neither sought to address the underlying social and economic causes of jihadism nor the larger sense of political injustice felt by many over issues to do with the Palestinians, the Iraq invasion and the demonisation of Muslims and minorities in the West.
Three years ago, a review commissioned by the British government into extremism in prisons, probation and youth justice, made the following observation: “Statistics show an increasing and disproportionate representation of Muslims within the criminal justice system, which could chime with the radicalisers’ message of the victimisation of Muslims.”
It was a reference to government figures that indicated there were 5,502 prisoners in England and Wales who said they were Muslim in 2002; rising to 7,246 in 2005 and 12,225 in 2014. A 2015 government report said 14.4% of the prison population is Muslim, compared with 7.7% of the general UK population.
This is pretty alarming. The report, by former prison Governor Ian Acheson, made several recommendations on radicalisation and deradicalisation within the prison system but those were mostly left unaddressed. Nor was there any attempt to ask why more Muslims were in prison proportionately than the general UK population.
This is an inflection point in the approach to counterterrorism, nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks. The mood is changing again. Some time ago, counterterrorism and its hard-line paradigms metamorphosed into a more nuanced soft-focus strategy but it’s reverting to the hang-them-flog-them approach.
This is a terrible mistake. Daniel Koehler, a leading expert on deradicalisation research and founder of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies, has cited studies that “highlight the astonishing fact that, after their release from prison, fewer than 5% of former members of the Irish Republic Army, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna and al-Qaeda are rearrested, even without their having participated in a reintegration or deradicalisation programme of any kind.”
That may be a better basis upon which to invest in rehabilitation programmes than the ghastly recidivism of one former terrorist.
Just as important is an honest reassessment of Britain’s — and the West’s — role in perpetrating and maintaining unjust systems.