Deradicalisation and the London Bridge attack
Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Bristol Law School, reflects upon the recent attack on London Bridge, and the role of deradicalisation programmes
Two central questions are raised by the horrific knife attack by Usman Khan upon some of those attending a criminal rehabilitation workshop at Fishmonger’s Hall, London Bridge on 29 November: how, if at all, could it have been prevented? And how, if at all, could other similar incidents be averted? While there are, regrettably, no entirely reassuring answers to either question, there are, nevertheless, ones we must be content to live with.
Khan, from Stoke-on-Trent, joined the jihadist movement al-Muhajiroun in 2006 at the age of 15 and was arrested for terrorism in 2010. Two years later he was convicted, with several others, of involvement in planning to establish terrorist training camps in Pakistan, and conspiracies to attack several London targets, including the Stock Exchange, the US Embassy, and the home of the then Mayor, Boris Johnson. He was sentenced to an indeterminate term of imprisonment with a recommendation that he spend at least eight years behind bars. This was, however, altered on appeal to a fixed term of 18 years with the standard entitlement to automatic release after half the sentence had been served. Khan is said to have been a model prisoner. By contrast with the majority of his terrorist peers, he willingly cooperated with the available opportunities for deradicalisation and rehabilitation. But it is not entirely clear what precisely these involved. It has also been reported that he applied to join a more intensive programme but was unsuccessful. The reasons have not yet been fully disclosed, but it is said that there is a long waiting list.
In December 2018 Khan was released on licence. In compliance with the relevant legislation, no risk assessment was carried out by the Parole Board. He was required to wear a GPS tag, and was banned from meeting named individuals as well as from having an internet-enabled device. Restrictions upon movement were imposed, including a prohibition on unauthorised trips to London. Supervision was provided by a multi-agency team of police, probation and prison staff, he had to meet his probation officer twice a week, and he was monitored by MI5. Khan also had to participate in the Home Office’s ‘Desistence and Disengagement Programme’.
‘Desistence’ means ending involvement in terrorism-related activities while ‘disengagement’ involves a fundamental change in mindset coupled with severing connections with relevant ideologies and movements. The programme was launched in October 2016, initially for those on probation following conviction for a terrorism-related offence, those under house arrest suspected of posing a threat to national security, and those subject to conditional repatriation upon their return from foreign conflict zones. Another strand was added in December 2018 for all terrorism-related offences and for those who exhibited extremist behaviour in prison. Although it is well-known that the programme involves regular reviews and individually-tailored psychological, ideological and (in the case of jihadis) theological counselling, the details remain obscure. It has also been reported that Khan visited London with a minder in the summer of 2019. However, because he was officially considered not to be high risk, his trip to the Learning Together seminar on 29 November was approved without this being required. It has been claimed that he acted alone and could have prepared for the attack, which included making a rudimentary fake suicide vest, a mere 24 hours in advance.
Bearing all this in mind, let’s return to the questions raised at the outset. With the benefit of hindsight, the events of 29 November might have been prevented if one or more of several things had happened: the law had not permitted Khan to be automatically released from prison without a formal risk assessment; his minders had refused him permission to attend the seminar and had stopped him from doing so if he had nevertheless tried; he had, alternatively, been permitted to participate but only under effective official supervision; everyone attending the event had been properly searched before gaining admission. We will in fact never know if such precautions have already averted similar tragedies. More scrupulous adherence to at least some of them could also prevent others in future.
But several other things are clear. What happened on London Bridge doesn’t cast any doubt whatever upon the goals of counter terrorist deradicalisation and rehabilitation. These are not merely expressions of limp, liberal ‘do-goodism’ nor do they ‘securitise the Muslim community’ as the anti-Prevent movement claims. Tougher sentences are unlikely to make us safer from such attacks either, not least because those who embark upon them typically expect to die in the process. Long terms of imprisonment without effective attempts to deradicalise and rehabilitate also tend to consolidate radical mindsets and therefore increase the risk of post-release reoffending.
The core element in effectively tackling domestic terrorism of all kinds is responsible and adequately-informed and funded risk management. But no matter how hard we try, it can never be 100 per cent effective. A middle course must, therefore, be steered between two equally false assumptions – that deradicalisation and rehabilitation never work and that, given the right kind of intervention, they never fail. The possibility of incidents involving those who have undergone some form of deradicalisation can, therefore, never be entirely eliminated. But if and when they occur, they don’t necessarily prove that deradicalisation and rehabilitation are doomed projects nor that relevant schemes are seriously deficient. It is, nevertheless, vital – in order that they may be subjected to informed public scrutiny and debate about what might be done to improve them – that much more information is made publicly available about how relevant programmes operate, how they are resourced and how their effectiveness might be assessed. They also need to be properly explained and justified and pervasive myths about them effectively countered.