It was not long before Press reaction to Friday’s tragic terrorist attack turned to seeking a culprit other than the perpetrator and his poisonous ideology. Praise for the heroism of those who tackled him, and the courage of the armed police, soon gave way to questions about the length of sentencing, problems in the probation service, and the adequacy of rehabilitation in prison. The irony was that the vile act that left two dead and three injured seems to have been perpetrated by a man who was attending a conference precisely because of his experience of rehabilitation.
It is entirely understandable to want to find out what went wrong, how a convicted terrorist was able to commit an atrocity after years in prison for terrorist offences. But what if, in such cases, in a civilised society, nothing that could be remedied had gone wrong? What if this type of lone-wolf barbarity is a fact of contemporary life and sometimes cannot be detected in advance, and if such cases suggest no obvious remedy save prevention much further upstream?
Most people will reject the idea as a kind of defeatism. It undermines our sense of security. It is a frightening thought that the State’s best efforts over more than eight years – this particular terrorist had been through a course of de-radicalisation – can be to no avail. Such a reaction would be less likely if many people fully grasped the difficulties of dealing with violent religious extremism.
At the most basic level, this recent attack poses the question how should jihadi offenders be handled in prison. Should they be mixed in with others offenders who may be vulnerable to recruitment? To keep safe in many jails you will often need the protection of a gang, and you may naturally be drawn to co-religionists. When it comes to a fight about cooking bacon in the kitchen, you know which side you are on and who is going to watch your back. My experience giving a talk in Wormwood Scrubs was that the front row was solidly Muslim, men who knew something of their faith and stuck together. Among them were one or two impressive men who had kicked a drug habit thanks to their Muslim prison chaplain.
My ANC friends in South Africa, very different prisoners, doing time for political offences in the 1970s, called their prisons “our universities”. The question is then whether religiously-motivated terrorists should be quarantined in specialist units, separated from other kinds of offenders, where a hot-house atmosphere might foment even more fanatical thoughts? No easy answer - though government seems to favour such units.
The path to violent religious extremism is varied. Profiling doesn’t work and there is no guaranteed formula for de-radicalisation. Conservative Salafist scholars who reject violence can be effective but they are rarely advocates of liberalism and pluralism. Their effectiveness stems from the very fact that they share, or once shared, ideas that the general public find repugnant. Using people of this kind to influence men convicted of terrorist offences is controversial and open to challenge.
The belief that winning the debate about the significance of certain verses in the Qur’ān is all that is needed to change minds is far from the truth. De-radicalisation is highly skilled: a matter of instilling trust, grappling with identity, belonging and passionate emotion, and then maybe hitting the right cognitive buttons. The first question should be along the lines of “can I get you a coffee” and “would you like to phone your wife before we chat”. “Do you think Allah might have another purpose for you in life other than jihad” is the last question not the first. It should come as no surprise that de-radicalisation often doesn’t work.
As prison authorities and Muslim chaplains will tell you, counter-intuitively, the aggressive man mouthing the tropes of the jihadist creed is in many ways the least dangerous. You know where you are. The quiet one, saying all the right things, apparently repentant, co-operating with the authorities, may be the most dangerous and quietly recruiting in prison, planning his next move on release. But how can you tell? You can’t. As in clever paedophiles who take years manoeuvring into key positions in schools, care homes and social services with access to children, a clever, devious terrorist is going to fool the most attentive of observers or mentors. It was one such individual who carried out the London Bridge attack.
There is no alternative to prevention. Several things need to be done. The big tech companies, Google, Facebook, ought to be spending more of their advertising revenue on blocking jihadist content and removing links to it. We need to expand the sort of community policing that encourages a Muslim parent to ask the advice of a sympathetic police officer after finding his son looking at a Da’esh website in his bedroom. Increasing the budget of the Intelligence Services while cutting the number of police is no solution. Supporting the mentors in the Channel part of the much-criticised Prevent programme is more to the point. Peer group to Peer group education in schools, even earlier, can work well.
Even if we had room in our overcrowded prisons, which we don’t, imprisonment of violent extremists for more prolonged periods without the money for intensive efforts to de-radicalise them and monitor risk better, won’t eliminate lone-wolf attacks such we have just experienced.
We are in for a long haul. It is time that the sententious attacks on our main counter-terrorism programme, PREVENT, give way to contributions towards improving it. There are many dedicated people trying to keep us safe and many different ways of doing it. Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were two outstanding examples of them. We have lost two people who were part of the solution. Political points-scoring is part of the problem.
See TheArticle 02/12/2019