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December 22, 2020 7:13 am

On Jailed Terrorists, the UK Finally Acknowledges Reality

avatar by Patrick Dunleavy


Pedestrians walk past a British government health information advertisement highlighting new restrictions amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, December 19, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville

The first step in any effective rehabilitation program is acknowledging you have a problem. The United Kingdom has finally come to the realization that its deradicalization program for terrorists is an utter failure.

Jonathan Hall, the country’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, made this admission publicly. “There is no evidence that deradicalization programs work,” he said in a recent interview with the Times.

The UK was forced to change its anti-terrorism legislation earlier this year, after a series of deadly terror attacks carried out by convicted jihadists who were released from prison early after going through a deradicalization program.

Hall’s comments were part of an ongoing conversation in the UK about what to do with convicted jihadists and returning foreign fighters who had traveled overseas to join radical Islamic groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or al-Shabaab.

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The UK has several deradicalization programs. One, the Desistance and Disengagement Program (DDP), is mandatory for both convicted terrorists and returning foreign fighters. Its focus is on education, training, and theology. Hall admitted that the authors of the program intentionally omitted the term “deradicalization” from the title because, in his words, “you can’t take someone’s ideology away.”

The deadly truth of that statement was exhibited by Usman Khan. Khan, a disciple of radical cleric Anjem Choudary, spent eight years in prison for his part in a jihadist cell that plotted to bomb the London Stock Exchange. He completed the DDP while incarcerated, and was granted an early release from prison. In November 2019, less than a year after his release, Khan killed two people and wounded several others near the London Bridge before he was shot and killed by responding Metropolitan police.

Khan was a committed jihadist. He never changed his twisted ideology.

Sudesh Amman is another glaring example of the failed program. He was jailed on terrorism charges in 2018, and sentenced to 40 months in prison.

Amman was granted an early release from prison in January after serving half that time. One week later, he attacked several individuals, stabbing two people in the Streatham section of South London before being shot and killed by responding police. Amman had also attended a deradicalization program while incarcerated.

So how did Khan and Amman convince authorities that they were deradicalized prior to release?

“Terrorists are deceptive,” Mr. Hall admitted.

In my experience as the former Deputy Inspector General for New York Department of Corrections, I have all too often seen that convicts will say anything to be released. They know what the parole and probation authorities want to hear, and can easily feign contrition and rehabilitation. They are not called “cons” for nothing.

Still Hall is not ready to abandon rehabilitation programs for terrorists. That, in his words, “would be throwing away all hope.”

The question is whether the primary goal of counter-terrorism authorities should be to give convicted terrorists hope, or rather to endorse the view, in the words of the UK’s Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, that “Protecting the public is Government’s first duty.”

Here in the United States, we have long acknowledged that there is no effective deradicalization program for convicted jihadists. Evidence of this reality was seen in July, when Victor Alvarez, convicted in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, was released from federal prison.

US District Court Judge Vernon Broderick ordered him to attend a deradicalization program conducted by the US Probation Office. The problem is, no such program existed at the time Judge Broderick issued his order, the US Probation Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT).

In fact, SDNY officials had asked Judge Broderick not to place that mandate in Alvarez’s supervision conditions order.

One thing is certain when it comes to offering prison programs for incarcerated terrorists: Do not let the terrorist tell you what they would like to do while jailed.

For example, “Chelsea bomberAhmad Rahimi was sentenced to life in prison for a series of terror bombings in the greater New York/New Jersey area. He told the court that he wanted to take drama classes while he served his sentence, along with business and enterprise risk management courses. That is the theater of the absurd.

This is not to suggest a return to draconian measures of incarceration for convicted terrorists. Like any other inmate, they should be provided with decent conditions of confinement, such as food, clothing, health care, and housing. Beyond that, we deceive ourselves if we think there is, again as Hall said, a “special pill” or program that deradicalizes committed jihadists.

Hall has called for stricter post-release conditions and polygraph testing for convicted terrorists. Recognizing the existential threat of prison radicalization, he has also called for people who have been radicalized in prison to be subject to the same post-release conditions as convicted terrorists. I agree with this assessment and have been sounding the alarm regarding the threat posed by prison radicalization for quite some time.

In his interview, Hall likened terrorists to sex offenders who often repeat their aberrant behavior after release. That’s why I have been advocating for a national registry for convicted terrorists, much like the one currently mandated for convicted sex offenders. It includes notifications to local authorities upon the individual’s release from custody.

Society has a right to be safe from those who would do us harm. And that should be the primary goal of any counter-terrorism or deradicalization program.

IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently lectures a class on terrorism for the United States Air Force’s Special Operations School.

IPT Senior Analyst and Editor Cynthia Dachowitz contributed to this report.

This article was commissioned by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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