Ever since the emergence of the modern curse of terrorism, the concept of de-radicalisation has been central to efforts to end the involvement of impressionable young Muslims in committing acts of terrorism.
From the September 11 attacks in 2001 to the modern day, the use of de-radicalisation programmes – in which moderate and mainstream Islamic experts seek to persuade radicalised young Muslims about the true, more peaceful teachings of Islam – have played a central role in the campaign to defeat terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
And yet, to judge from a recent spate of terror attacks in London, all indications are that the current approach to de-radicalisation, at least in the UK, is failing miserably to achieve the desired effect.
In the latest attack last weekend in the south London suburb of Streatham, Sudesh Amman, a 20-year-old convicted terrorist, launched a frenzied knife attack on innocent passers-by before being shot dead by undercover police. Two people suffered serious wounds in the attack, and it was only due to the prompt intervention of the undercover unit that Amman’s assault did not result in fatalities.
The reason, moreover, that the police were able to intervene so quickly was that Amman, who had only been released from London’s high-security Belmarsh prison the previous week, was deemed to be such a threat to the British public that MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, authorised that he be placed under 24-hour surveillance by a specialist undercover team.
Amman was initially imprisoned in November 2018 after pleading guilty to numerous ISIS-related terror offences. The fact that he emerged from Belmarsh posing just as much of a threat to public safety as he did beforehand raises troubling questions about the effectiveness of British authorities' attempts to persuade impressionable young men like him to renounce their ties to terrorism.
In common with other ideologically motivated, convicted terrorists, Amman would have been subjected to attempts by the prison authorities to mend his ways. Apart from the de-radicalisation programmes, a variety of other initiatives, including vocational training and educational courses, are on offer to encourage them to reform their conduct.
Amman’s case has graphically demonstrated, however, that these positive efforts failed badly. Nor is this the only example of the British de-radicalisation system’s failings.
In November, another recently released terrorist, Usman Khan, launched an attack on London Bridge in which he killed two innocent bystanders before being shot dead by police. On this occasion, Khan had been attending a specialist conference in London designed to help convicted offenders – including radicalised British Muslims – reintegrate into society.
The main difference between Khan and Amman was that, while the latter actively resisted de-radicalisation, the former led the authorities to believe that he was genuinely interested in reform, to the extent that the safeguards normally put in place to prevent his reoffending were relaxed.
In some respects, the fact that both Khan and Amman were able to carry out terror attacks so soon after being released from prison point to serious failings of security. The authorities should have been more careful in making sure that Khan was not pulling the wool over their eyes with his claims of rehabilitation. In Amman’s case, the fact that he was clearly still violent, but freed after serving only half his sentence suggests the British judicial system is far too lax when it comes to handling high-risk offenders.
The British government has now announced that it is introducing emergency legislation, which it wants to have implemented within the next three weeks, to prevent convicted terrorists from being granted early release in future.
The need to have the measures in place at the earliest possible opportunity has been made all the more acute by the revelation that more than a dozen terrorists are due to be released from British jails in the coming months. These include Jamshed Javeed, a science teacher jailed for six years for trying to join ISIS in Syria, and Moinul Abedin, who has been described as Britain’s first Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist after being convicted of making detonators at his home in Birmingham.
But while, for the moment, the British government’s main priority is to keep high-profile terrorists behind bars, there are growing calls for ministers to undertake a radical review of its wider approach to de-radicalisation.
Many of the problems facing the British justice system are due to recent austerity cuts, which have resulted in many prisons becoming overcrowded, frequently filthy and with too few staff – hardly the type of surroundings that are conducive to reforming a prisoner’s mindset.
In particular, it is said the recent reduction in resources has resulted in a sharp decline in the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes, as those who have real-world expertise of dealing with radicalised young Muslims have been replaced with those who prefer a more “academic” approach.
Certainly, at a time when the threat posed by terror groups remains as high as it has been at any time during the past two decades, it should not be an option for countries like Britain to allow these systematic failings in their approach to tackling extremism.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor