Will the UK’s beefed up terrorism laws prove effective?

Legislation could be introduced in parliament ensuring that terrorist offenders face a minimum of 14 years in prison, more than four times the present 3-year average.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Root of the problem? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (2nd R) and Home Secretary Priti Patel (C) attend the scene of an attack on London Bridge in London, last November. (AP)
Root of the problem? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (2nd R) and Home Secretary Priti Patel (C) attend the scene of an attack on London Bridge in London, last November. (AP)

LONDON - After the British government confirmed it intended to beef up its terrorism laws, questions remain whether this was a political ploy or a genuine attempt to overhaul the country’s counterterrorism and de-radicalisation policies.

The move came after convicted terror offender Usman Khan fatally stabbed Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt at Fishmongers’ Hall near London Bridge on November 29.

Khan had been released from jail on licence in 2018, halfway through a 16-year prison sentence for terrorism offences. His victims were attending a conference organised by the University of Cambridge programme Learning Together, which helps criminal offenders, such as Khan, access higher education.

The attack raised questions about Britain’s counterterrorism policy and became an issue during the recent election campaign, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging to end automatic early release of terrorists.

“If you are convicted of a serious terrorist offence, there should be a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 years — and some should never be released,” Johnson wrote in an opinion piece for the Daily Mail newspaper one day after the attack. “Further, for all terrorism and extremist offences, the sentence announced by the judge must be the time actually served — these criminals must serve every day of their sentence, with no exceptions.”

After Johnson’s landslide election victory December 12, it appears the prime minister aims to move forward with his reform programme.

The UK Home Office said legislation could be introduced in parliament ensuring that terrorist offenders face a minimum of 14 years in prison, more than four times the present 3-year average. The current rule allowing release of serious offenders two-thirds of the way through their sentence would be permanently abolished. The number of probation officers specialising in counterterrorism would double and counterterrorism police would receive a 10% funding increase.

Although head of UK counterterrorism policing Neil Basu welcomed the proposed extra measures and increased funding, he noted that the demand for counterterror work had increased by an even greater amount.

“We have seen our demand increase by around one-third since 2017 and the only way we are going to turn the tide is by throwing our support behind the only strategy which attempts to divert people away from violent extremism in the first place — Prevent,” he said, describing the controversial programme as “our best hope in reducing the threat in the long term.”

Prevent has a shaky history and is facing an independent review following lack of clarity of what constitutes extremism and how suspected extremists are referred to authorities.

Even the United Kingdom’s counter-extremism official, Sara Khan, complained about the Prevent strategy after it was revealed that the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion had been included on a list of extremist groups.

“I believe it is in our country’s interest that we have a clearer description and consensus of extremism which can be used by the police, government and public bodies to help them carry out their roles,” said Khan, lead commissioner of Britain’s Commission for Countering Extremism.

Prevent mandates that teachers, council officers and other public sector workers monitor for signs of radicalisation or extremism and report such cases to authorities. Critics say that training is lacking and that public-sector workers should not be tasked with informing against those under their care. In 2018, the National Union of Teachers announced its official rejection of the Prevent strategy following a vote, saying it caused “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staff room.”

The new bill looks to force convicted terrorists to take a lie detector test to prove they have reformed and are not planning another attack before they can be released from prison.

“We get a lot of people who are superficially very compliant with the regime [in prison] and sometimes the assessment of risk is a very difficult thing to do,” UK Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Britain’s Sky News. “You can get people who are, in fact, ‘sleepers’ for many years and then suddenly back come the hatreds and the prejudices and we see atrocities like the one we did at Fishmongers’ Hall.”

Buckland defended the use of polygraph testing, saying the devices were used in cases involving some sex offenders. “The introduction of polygraphs… improves the tools that we have in terms of trying to assess that risk, to minimise that risk,” he said.

Buckland acknowledged that risk could not be “eliminated” but said British authorities must do everything in their power to reduce it as much as possible.

Polygraph tests are used in cases involving serious sex offenders on parole in England and Wales and, since 2014, mandatory tests have been attached to some offenders’ release conditions. However, they are not admissible in court but failed tests result in further investigation or supervision.

Harsher prison sentences can’t and won’t serve as a deterrent to terrorist wannabes, however. The answer lies in de-radicalisation, a difficult process that requires a significant expenditure of time and attention.

“We’re asking people to kind of reconsider or re-examine the identity commitments in their life… why they may have bought into a particular cause and support in violence on behalf of that cause,” Christopher Dean, the psychologist behind Britain’s main de-radicalisation programme, told the BBC.

“This is something you can’t force people to do. It isn’t about telling someone you have to be this way… Human behaviour doesn’t work like that,” he added, warning that no expert could guarantee that a terrorist offender would not re-offend.

“I think we have to be very careful about ever saying that somebody no longer presents a risk of committing an offence. I don’t think you can ever be sure. We have to be very careful about saying someone has totally changed or has been cured,” he added.