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Violent extremists and the ideologies that drive them

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02 Feb 2020 04:02:47 GMT9
02 Feb 2020 04:02:47 GMT9

The UK’s prison system has endured some recent high-profile incidents related to extremism. On Nov. 29, Usman Khan, a terrorist offender attending a conference on rehabilitation, killed two people before being shot dead by police. He had been through deradicalization programs both inside prison and after his release.

On Jan. 9, two inmates at Whitemoor maximum security prison put on fake suicide vests and attacked a prison officer with homemade knives. One of the prisoners is believed to be Brusthom Ziamani, who was jailed in 2015 for a plot to behead a British soldier.

Whitemoor is a common thread: Khan spent much of his sentence there before he was moved to another maximum security prison, Woodhill, before release. Blaming the staff at Whitemoor and Woodhill is pointless scapegoating, and in any case, wrong. The real problem lies in  the structural way in which the UK deals with its extremist prisoners. Indeed, although Woodhill contains one of the UK’s three extremist isolation units, it has hardly been used — though the danger of extremist prisoners mixing with the wider prison population is exemplified by Ziamani’s fellow attacker at Whitemoor; a convert who was not in prison for extremist offenses. This issue goes to the top of the prison service.

The British government has responded to these issues by bringing forward proposals for new counter-terrorism legislation. A lot of the new proposals amount to increases in funding and increases in frontline staff — all good things, but not in themselves able to address the fundamental issue that leads to extremists repeat offending and radicalising others.

A second part of the proposals deals with the terms of detention and release for extremist prisoners, requiring them to serve their full sentence, and establishing minimum sentences. This is a direct response to the London Bridge attack, whose perpetrator’s prison sentence was a mess of different legal regimes and court judgments. The original “indeterminate” sentence that he received for his plot in 2012 (indeterminate sentences were a way of ensuring that a criminal is released from prison only once they are deemed not to be a risk to society, as opposed to being released once they have served a set length of time) was overturned on appeal in 2013, and he was given a 16-year prison term. Under the guidelines for prison sentences in the UK, he was released after eight years (halfway through his sentence) on license, meaning that he had to abide by certain conditions. These conditions did not prevent him from finding the means to carry out a terrorist attack.

A lot of the UK's new proposals on extremism amount to increases in funding and increases in frontline staff — all good things, but not in themselves able to address the fundamental issue that leads to extremists repeat offending and radicalising others.

Peter Welby

Not all terrorist prisoners are the same and sentencing is too often “one size fits all.” Some are much more dangerous than others; some will be deradicalized and rehabilitated, and others will not. There is little point in replacing a system that was blindly lenient with one that is blindly restrictive. The latter is better for the protection of the public, but the best system would be more responsive to the state of the prisoners and the dangers they pose individually — and that kind of system requires far greater resources than are available within the prison service, even with the new funding that has been promised.

But the third element of the proposals could be crucial. There is to be an increased focus on “specialist psychologists and specially trained imams” to assess the risk that extremist prisoners pose and seek to undermine their extremist ideologies. It is heartening to see that the UK government recognizes the importance of religious leaders in the deradicalization process. For much of the past decades, they have been a very small part of the official counter-extremism toolbox, and where they have been used, it has often been badly.

An example of this poor usage is in the Healthy Identity Intervention program, one of the deradicalization programmes that Khan participated in while he was in prison. A 2018 study commissioned by the government into this program records it as focusing “on personal and social identity, needs and values, rather than political or religious beliefs,” and recommended that for religious extremists a religious element was incorporated. More concerning still is the statement that this program was developed to persuade participants to be less willing to harm others (a noble aim), “regardless of their engagement with an extremist group, cause and/or ideology.” In other words, one of the key deradicalization programs sought to change behavior, but was not too worried about the ideology that justified that behavior. As we saw in Khan’s case, he held on to the ideology, and the behavior followed.

There remains in British academic and policy making circles a deeply held — one might say, ideological — belief that religious ideology is a minor factor in religious extremism. This belief is bolstered by several misconceptions, one being that extremist religious belief is irrational, and therefore rational people do not engage with it. This approach has consistently failed to deal with the problem. And while deradicalization efforts in prisons in the UK have focused on the psychological, there has been minimal focus on ensuring that the prison chaplains — those religious leaders appointed by the prison service to care for the spiritual needs of the prisoners — are equipped to engage with extremist offenders on terms to which they will respond.

I look forward to seeing these new specially trained imams, announced in the counter-terrorism proposals, get to work. But unless the prison service as a whole focuses on the ideologies that motivate extremist prisoners, we will not break out of this cycle.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Twitter: @pdcwelby.
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