Two months, two eerily similar attacks. Late last year near London Bridge; on Sunday, a south London street. Members of the public mauled by knife-wielding young men bent on murder. Two corrupted minds untempered by recent prison terms for terror-related offences.
Sunday’s assault on Streatham High Road could have been far, far worse. Tailed by counter-terror cops as he left his parole hostel, 20-year-old Sudesh Amman was shot dead before he could claim a life.
In November, Londoners were less lucky. Usman Khan, a 28-year-old from Stoke-On-Trent, stabbed and killed Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, two graduates working in prisoner rehabilitation.
Both perpetrators had recently done time for terror-related activities—researching and plotting attacks. Released on license in late 2018, Khan had served half of his 16-year term. Amman, guilty of lesser offences, was in prison for little over a year, one-third of his sentence.
His murderous intent deepened while behind bars, says Amman’s mother. Her conclusion chimes with that of terror experts, many of whom warn that prison radicalisation is on the up.
“On the present trajectory, it is all too conceivable that a future terrorist will have been groomed and radicalised within our prison estate,” Ian Acheson, an expert on extremism in jails, warned with tragic prescience last year.
There is no evidence of large-scale inmate radicalisation the government insists—but fearing a public backlash, ministers are now rushing through emergency legislation. The automatic early release of terror offenders will cease, in theory stemming the flow of extremists onto the streets.
On face value, it’s a promising move. The longer convicted terrorists are detained, the lower the risk of violence. But taken in the context of the London Bridge and Streatham attacks, the measures feel curiously illogical.
Both Khan and Amman were jailed on relatively short sentences; whether they were released early or not, it would have been a few short years—not decades—before their reintroduction to society.
At that point, would the men’s extremism have ebbed away? Not necessarily. Rather, as we saw with Amman, it might well have intensified to a point of no return.
This, says London Mayor Sadiq Khan, is because Britain’s prisons have become “warehouses” of radicalisation. Last month, two inmates of H.M.P. Whitemoor donned fake suicide vests and stabbed a prison officer while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. Whether the pair had any connection with the London Bridge attacker—who served his time at Whitemoor—is unclear.
In an effort to tackle ‘jail jihadism’, authorities have adopted a policy of segregation. So-called ‘prisons-within-prisons’ look to isolate the most influential extremists from those at risk of radicalisation—but critics say the programme is flawed.
Rather than diminish extremism, experts warn that confinement of the most ardent inmates entrenches their ideology. Likewise, the policy risks alienating less radical terror offenders, forcing them away from the mainstream and towards militancy.
Prisoner rehabilitation measures have also been questioned. Usman Khan had completed the U.K.’s principal de-radicalisation scheme—the ‘Healthy Identity Intervention Programme’—when he launched his attack. He had even been used by Cambridge University as a case study of success.
A more stringent, society-oriented approach is needed, experts say. “De-radicalisation requires a community-based army working with people like [the offender] to challenge their desire to become significant in their eyes by doing these terrible acts,” writes Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor, in the New Statesman.
Might lessons be learned from Denmark? Grounded in the reintegration of terror offenders, the Danes’ ‘Back on Track’ programme has been widely lauded. It is based on three core principles: inclusion over stigmatisation, addressing the psychology of extremism, and close links between rehabilitation and reintegration schemes. Conspicuously absent is any concept of theological reprogramming.
But with de-radicalisation staff complaining of cutbacks and underfunding, the cash to sustain such a programme seems sparse. Besides, the government looks to be more interested in meeting immediate public safety concerns. That means keeping dangerous individuals detained for longer.
If that’s what it takes to stop a repeat of Sunday’s attack, so be it. But fundamentally, prisons are about retributive justice—not rehabilitation. Terror can be contained with lock and key, but without meaningful intervention, its return is inevitable.