Terror Behind Bars: Radicalization In British Prisons

There’s a worrying trend emerging on Britain’s streets: extremist Islamic terrorism. In November last year, it happened near London Bridge; earlier this month, a terrorist lashed out in the middle of a busy thoroughfare in the city’s south. The incidents involve young men equipped with knives and fake suicide vests unleashing their fury on innocent passersby. In both cases, the assailants had recently served jail terms for terror-related crimes – punitive measures which, it seems, only heightened their murderous intent.

Terror In Britain

Sudesh Amman – the 20-year-old Streatham attacker described by his father as a “very good boy” – was shot dead by police before he could claim a life. Usman Khan, the man who brought terror to London Bridge in November, went further in his bloody quest, murdering two prisoner rehabilitation workers. That the pair had been involved in efforts to deradicalize Khan is a tragic irony. 

Both Khan and Amman had served prison sentences for terror offenses, namely the planning or inciting of atrocities. Khan was released in late 2018 having served half of his 16-year term – standard practice in the UK criminal justice system. Amman spent scarcely one-third of his sentence behind bars: a little over a year in total. 

Incarceration Seems To Be Increasing Radicalization

Troubling as it is, it seems rather than diminishing his radicalism, incarceration saw Amman descend further into extremism. “Before he went to prison he was not that religious. After he came out he was really religious,” Amman’s mother said shortly after the attack. 

Her conclusion echoes that of radicalization experts who warn that British jails have become a hotbed of violent fundamentalism.    

“On the present trajectory, it is all too conceivable that a future terrorist will have been groomed and radicalized within our prison estate,” Professor Ian Achesonthe leader of a government review on extremism in jailswarned last year.    

Will New Counterterror Laws Work?

British authorities claim that there is no evidence of wide scale inmate radicalization – but conscious of public concern, new counterterror laws are being rushed through. Once enacted, the new rules will prevent the automatic early release of convicted terrorists, keeping – in theory – Britain’s streets safer. 

But critics have their doubts. Of course, an individual bent on violence is best kept behind bars; but neither the London Bridge nor Streatham attacks would have been different if prison sentences had been longer.

Both Khan and Amman were found guilty of relatively minor terror offenses: they had been involved in researching attacks, but hadn’t yet participated directly. These crimes carry relatively short sentences – years, not decades – and so the men would’ve been at liberty before too long whether their full terms been served or not. 

At this stage, is there any certainty that they would no longer subscribe to Islamist extremism? No; and as Amman’s case made painfully clear, they may even have grown more dangerous as a result of their imprisonment . 

British Prisons: “Warehouses” Of Terror

That is the real issue: short of offering corrupt minds a suitable space to deradicalize, British prisons have become “warehouses” of terror, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan said after the latest attack. 

There’s certainly evidence to corroborate this. In January, a prison officer was stabbed at H.M.P. Whitemoor by two inmates wearing fake suicide vests and shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Incidentally, Whitemoor was where Khan – the London Bridge attacker – served his jail time. 

Recognizing the issue, the government has in recent years been experimenting with so-called jails-within-jails. Under the policy, inmates deemed to be at highest risk of radicalizing others have been segregated from the main prison population.   

It’s a contentious move with little sign of success, critics say. Isolating the most extreme terror convicts may spare others from their hateful ideology, but it risks entrenching – not eradicating – dangerous beliefs. Likewise, there are fears that less radical prisoners might respond badly to their counterparts’ segregation, forcing those on the cusp of rehabilitation towards militancy. 

How Can Freed Extremists Be Prevented From Radicalizing To The Point Of Violence?

Rather than clamping down directly on extremism inside jails, many believe that the focus should be on reforming the provisions available for terror offenders after they’re freed. ‘Healthy Identity Intervention Programme’ – the UK’s principal deradicalization scheme – has been widely criticized, particularly after the actions of Usman Khan, who had completed the course in its entirety. 

A more rigorous, community-based approach is needed, experts say. Denmark is often quoted as a promising role model. Copenhagen’s ‘Back on Track’ programme rests on three core principles: inclusion over stigmatization, addressing the psychology of extremism, and closely linking rehabilitation and reintegration schemes. Theological discussions are all but absent. 

But for the government, meeting immediate public safety concerns is of paramount importance. That means – for better or for worse – lengthier prison terms for terrorists and extremists. The longer they’re locked up, the safer Britain’s streets will feel – at least in the short term.