Incarcerating jihadists ‘forever’ could run into logistical quicksand
Britain has declared a war on terrorists. It is only marginally better than US President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” Unlike the United States, which has fought since 9/11 against an abstract noun, Britain will wage war against a common noun.
After a February 2 knife attack on a south London street by Sudesh Amman, a man with a previous conviction for terrorist offences, the British government plans to extend the time that jihadists spend in jail.
Michael Gove, a senior cabinet minister, has suggested that the new, tougher sentencing regime for terrorists should, “if necessary,” cover indefinite detention. “We need to be able to prove that people are no longer a danger to the public,” he said.
So, whole-of-life incarceration then? How else to ensure a convicted terrorist is “no longer a danger to the public?” At what point would it be reasonably safe to assume a 20-year-old like Amman no longer posed a threat?
Amman, who was killed by police within minutes of going on the rampage with a stolen knife, was not considered a serious offender when he was convicted in December 2018. He was sentenced to three years and four months in prison for six counts of collecting information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” and seven counts of “dissemination of terrorist material.” He was released from prison just days before the knife attack.
Amman was released at the halfway point of his sentence under rules introduced in 1991 by Britain’s Conservative government and simplified by the Labour government’s Criminal Justice Act 2003. No one, least of all his jailers, could have predicted Amman’s orgy of violence after his release. Amman had not shown himself to be violent enough to be locked up for the rest of his life. As terrorist offences go, he was convicted for relatively innocuous crimes.
Even so, it’s not hard to understand the reason for the British government’s newly declared hard line on convicted terrorists. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to reassure a jittery public even as the British media keep up a barrage of reporting on “dangerous jihadis on our streets.”
Of the approximately 220 terrorist offenders in British prisons as of September 30, four are due for early release in March, the Henry Jackson Society think-tank said.
Johnson’s government is clearly concerned about the risks posed by prisoners serving sentences for terrorism who are eligible for early release. By some estimates, there is about one release, on average, every week. In November, three months before Amman’s knife attack, 28-year-old Usman Khan, also a terrorist convict on early release from prison, stabbed two people to death in London.
On the face of it, the British government seems to have arrived at the right answer to the deep and troubling problem of preventing convicted terrorists from causing further grievous societal harm — lock them up for as long as possible. However, this strategy quickly runs into logistical quicksand.
It is unlikely that prisons in England and Wales will ever have room to house every terrorist convict until they die. Except for a limited number of dangerous individuals, most convicts will have to be released eventually. As Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor, put it: “Longer prison sentences will keep us safe for a little longer but the likelihood is that, when they come out, they will be as radical as they were when they went in, as extreme as they were and they will still want to do what they were planning to do those months or years before.”
Furthermore, the longer incarceration for terrorist convicts contemplated by the Johnson government would not have applied to Amman because he wasn’t considered a violent offender.
The British government appears to be veering towards a solution proposed by American social scientists some years ago: Let criminals get to middle age before release. Research indicates that most criminals, even violent ones, eventually grow out of breaking the law.
The American studies covered non-ideological crimes such as vandalism, homicide, rape, forgery, fraud, assault and car-theft rather than jihadist terrorism but lead researcher, Carnegie Mellon Professor Alfred Blumstein, insists: “Lots of people, as they age, they are no longer a risk. We are keeping people in prison who are physically unable to represent a threat to anybody.”
This is disputable for terrorist offenders who may not age out of ideological convictions.
One way to deal with the issue is “jihadist jails,” a concept described by former prison governor Ian Acheson. He suggested establishing high-security centres that house hardliners separately from other, less serious offenders. However, “jihadist jails,” too, might not have prevented attacks by released prisoners such as Amman and Khan.
It’s a conundrum. There may not be a single solution to the threat of terrorists re-offending.