WHEN A MAN
ran amok with two knives on November 29th, many Londoners followed official
advice to “run, hide and tell”. But a few brave souls chased Usman Khan onto
London Bridge, armed with a fire extinguisher and, of all things, a narwhal
tusk, plucked from a display. The attacker took two lives before he was shot
dead by police. The editors of Britain’s tough-on-crime newspapers—three of
whom could watch events from their corner offices across the bridge—didn’t know
what to make of it. Not all of the terrorist’s pursuers made for an easy moral.
“One hero was a jailed murderer on day release,” the Daily Mail acknowledged.
biography poses a still trickier conundrum. It soon emerged that he had been
convicted in 2012 of plotting a terrorist attack, and released early from jail
last year, under supervision. He was allowed to come to central London that day
to attend a conference on prison education; his victims, Jack Merritt and
Saskia Jones, worked on the programme. Do these events amount to a case study
in the impossibility of rehabilitating a terrorist?
question is timely. As Islamic State’s “caliphate” crumbled, hundreds of
fighters and fellow-travellers returned to European countries, including
Britain. Jails in England and Wales house a churning population of 700 or so
terror offenders and other criminals suspected of terrorist affiliations.
Johnson, the prime minister, offered a simple answer. If voters backed him in
the imminent election, he declared, he would make sure that all terrorists were
locked up for at least 14 years, without early release. Polls suggest more than
four-fifths of Britons support him. Jeremy Corbin, the Labour leader, was
ridiculed for saying that such prisoners should “not necessarily” serve their
case presents more of a dilemma than Mr Johnson acknowledges. Such offenders
invite little sympathy even from liberals. Let them out too early and you risk
re-offending. About one in ten convicted terrorists in Britain goes on to
commit another terrorism-related offence. This is lower than the overall
re-offending rate—29%—but is nonetheless highly concerning, given that such
offences can range from associating with terrorists and plotting attacks to
terrorists behind bars too long carries its own risks. Draconian sentences can
transform nobodies into martyrs and radicalise prisoners’ relatives. Some
experts point to Northern Ireland, where internment during the Troubles turned
civilians against the state and hunger strikes created heroes out of inmates.
surprisingly, the police do not always support longer sentences. Some
differentiate between young men who might be caught browsing terrorist material
online and hardened plotters, who have spent years immersed in extremist
ideology. One officer says prison is pointless if inmates can smuggle phones
inside and continue plotting their activities. Either way, inmates must be
released eventually. If extra years behind bars are poorly funded and
structured, they “risk making bad people worse”, says Nick Hardwick, an ex-boss
of the parole board.
of the Mind
of sentence length, most criminologists favour investment in de-radicalisation,
which aims to strip terrorists of their motivating ideology, or “disengagement”,
which has the more modest aim of dissuading convicts from future violence, even
if they retain hardline views. John Horgan, an expert on extremism at Georgia
State University, reckons there are 40-50 such schemes around the world.
counselling to get to the root causes of extremist sympathies. Britain already
has two such schemes: one, in prison, is voluntary; another, on release, is
mandatory. Measuring their success is not easy. Security considerations mean
governments are reluctant to let academics evaluate the programmes. The small
numbers and lack of an available control group would anyway make it tricky to
draw quantitative conclusions. Even so, Mr Horgan says, “the emerging
conclusion seems to be that rehabilitation can work,” but only if prisoners
commit to changing their ways.
qualitative assessment last year by academics judged Britain’s in-prison scheme
to be working well. Most lags said it helped them understand why they offended
and gave them reasons to avoid doing so. Britain’s policy of mixing jihadists
with other criminals risks radicalising non-terrorists. But it also exposes
terrorist convicts to alternative viewpoints. One jihadist prisoner told a
researcher that “being forced to mix for once” opened his eyes.
More can be
done. Hiring more psychologists might help. Andrew Silke, a counter-terrorism
expert, says there is a waiting list for the in-prison course. And more work is
needed on de-radicalisation. Prison governors struggle to divert inmates from
violent ideology without promoting peaceful but similarly extreme views. “You
have to get into the distorted ideology to tackle it,” says an ex-prison boss,
recalling debates about whether to quote statements by the Muslim Brotherhood,
an Islamist group.
What is clear
is that Mr Khan deceived the authorities. He took part in rehabilitation in and
out of prison. And he would only have been allowed to take part in the
conference because his handlers believed him to be engaged, says Mr Hardwick.
Yet Mr Merritt’s father, Dave, urged politicians not to be too punitive. After
all, his son died offering prisoners the chance to redeem themselves. “What
Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has
booted down,” he wrote. “That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and
throw away the key.”
Headline: How to rehabilitate a terrorist
Source: The Economist