London Bridge attack deals severe setback to UK’s deradicalisation programmes

Whoever wins the election is likely to tighten the supervision of released offenders.
Sunday 08/12/2019
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a rally as part of an election campaign, in Colchester, England, December 2. (AP)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a rally as part of an election campaign, in Colchester, England, December 2. (AP)

LONDON - When Usman Khan stabbed to death two people trying to help him rebuild his life after eight years in prison following a conviction on terrorism charges, he not only committed senseless killings but dealt a severe blow to the cause of rehabilitation to which his victims were passionately attached.

The circumstances under which Khan, 28, was at liberty and able to kill, having been released last year halfway through a 16-year sentence, have become a major campaign issue in the UK general election scheduled for December 12.

To the displeasure of the family of one of the victims, Jack Merritt, 25, who worked at the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology and strongly believed in the rehabilitation of even serious offenders, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed that a new Conservative government would toughen penal policy, ensuring that terrorists served “every day” of their sentences.

Khan, the British-born son of Pakistani immigrants from Kashmir, was originally given an indeterminate sentence for plotting to recruit British jihadis and create a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. He had his sentence cut to the fixed term on appeal and was freed on licence after serving half.

The Conservatives blame Labour for changes to the law-making such early release automatic without the need for parole board approval, though it was open to appeal judges to confirm the original sentence.

Merritt’s father, David, writing in the Guardian, said his son would be “livid” at the way the attack was being politicised.

“He would be seething at his death and his life being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against,” David Merritt wrote. “We should never forget that. What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Dr Martens. That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key… where we focus on rehabilitation, not revenge.”

There are serious concerns, which cross political boundaries, about how society copes with the threat from those committed to its destruction.

Khan, seen as a model member of the university’s rehabilitation project, Learning Together, fooled authorities into believing he was a changed man.

Applying for enrolment in a deradicalisation course soon after he was jailed in 2012, he wrote of wanting to show his family and society he could live his life “as a good Muslim and also a good citizen of Britain.”

He carried out his attack November 29 on London Bridge while attending a Cambridge-run rehabilitation seminar, at which his victims were working — Merritt as a course coordinator, 23-year-old Cambridge graduate Saskia Jones as a volunteer.

Among immediate questions for the authorities is why Khan was allowed to travel unescorted to London from his home in the Midlands town of Stafford despite restrictions on his movements.

Whoever wins the election is likely to tighten the supervision of released offenders. Johnson told the BBC after the attack that the licence conditions of 74 people, also convicted of terrorism offences but freed early, would be reviewed. Two men have been recalled to prison for breaches.

The challenge of dealing with extremists goes beyond those convicted and jailed and is not a purely British problem.

Julian King, the outgoing British EU Commissioner with special responsibility for security, estimated that of 5,500 jihadis who left European countries for Iraq and Syria, 1,400 were killed, 1,600 returned and 2,500 are unaccounted for. There are thousands of terror suspects across Europe against whom sustainable evidence cannot be produced; round-the-clock monitoring of all is beyond the resources of European security services.

Khan’s deception in falsely claiming to have been deradicalised and its tragic consequences will undoubtedly have repercussions for others, including those genuinely seeking to break with extremism.

Rodger Shanahan, a Middle East specialist, published a research paper in November that examined the cases of 40 Islamic State-era militants sentenced in Australia and concluded that courts found “very low levels of contrition and generally poor prospects of rehabilitation.”

Writing for the Lowy Institute, an independent think-tank in Sydney where he is a research fellow, Shanahan said: “Unlike nationalist terrorists, for whom political changes may render their former aims redundant, those who believe that their actions please God are much more likely to see their incarceration as simply a setback for their ultimate aim. Jihadis and their supporters are always urging sabr, or patience, when viewing their societal and operational aims.”

With his last brutal acts before being killed by police on London Bridge, Usman Khan made it less likely that terrorists will ever again be trusted to reform. Shanahan, though cautious, said he is confident the search for positive outcomes will continue.

“There’s no deradicalisation programme that guarantees success,” he said. “How they are conducted may change but they won’t stop.”