The 360: When is it safe to release terrorists onto the streets?

Will Taylor
News Reporter
Usman Khan, left, and Sudesh Amman, right.

What’s happening?

Two terror attacks in the space of four months have been committed by jihadists recently released from prison.

Sudesh Amman grabbed a knife from a shop in south London and stabbed two people before being shot dead by armed police on 1 February.

His attack followed Usman Khan’s rampage in November, when he stabbed two people to death near London Bridge while he was attending a prisoner rehabilitation conference.

Both had previously been convicted of terror offences.

In fact Khan, who was shot dead by police after members of the public restrained him, had previously been held up as a model for prisoner rehabilitation.

MPs have reacted by voting through legislation to prevent people convicted of terror offences from being automatically released part-way through their sentence. It came into law on Wednesday.

Why there’s debate

Politicians and experts disagree about how prisoners convicted of terror links should be handled during their time in prison and when they’re released.

Most prisoners can be released halfway through their sentence. The new law requirea clearance from a parole board after a person convicted of a terror offence has served two-thirds of the sentence.

In the wake of Khan’s London Bridge attack, Boris Johnson announced that he wanted to review early release conditions for people convicted of terror offences.

More than 160 people convicted of terror offences have been released in the last seven years - and what has been described by the media as a “wave of jihadi terrorists” are due to be freed on early release within the coming months

Johnson’s opinion resonates with the public, too. Nearly three-quarters believe it is acceptable to change the rules on early release for people in prison and about the same amount support the new law changes.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has said that while prisoners should not necessarily have to serve their full sentence, whether they do should depend on their circumstances.

He has said more money is needed to be spent on probation and mental health services - he has also criticised Conservative cuts.

"That can lead to missed chances to intervene in the lives of people who go on to commit inexcusable acts," he has said.

David Merritt, the father of London Bridge victim Jack Merritt, who actually worked for a programme aimed at improving prisoner rehabilitation, has warned that simply keeping people behind bars for longer is not the solution. He believes his son would not want his death “to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily”.

What’s next

Mohammed Zahir Khan, a shopkeeper from Sunderland, was jailed for four-and-a-half years in May 2018 after posting material supporting Isis on social media. He is due for release on 28 February, which means Johnson is set to avoid the politically awkward situation of another convicted terrorist being released early.

Whether or not the law change proves effective remains to be seen.


More money and commitment to rehabilitation programmes is needed

“It is all too easy to jump to the rhetoric of “tough on crime” in the aftermath of such a tragedy. Boris Johnson has been especially quick to do that. But a more considered approach – an approach that also honours Jack and Saskia – would be to think about how Learning Together’s values could inform the justice system as a whole. This would require not only more funding for rehabilitative programmes (although that is sorely needed), but also a broader commitment to seeing incarcerated people as more than their worst actions.” Jake Thorold, The Guardian

Hard to say if the new law will work

“Two attacks by recently released offenders would suggest terrorists re-offending is a genuine issue. But without the statistics to show how many convicted terrorists commit further terror offences when released from prison, it’s hard to know the scale of the problem. And going by the available evidence, it’s difficult to say whether such changes in law would make us safer.” Alan Greene, senior lecturer in law at the University of Birmingham, writing in The Conversation

Longer prison sentences could make radicalisation worse

“The attack has raised wider questions on judicial policy. Prime minister Boris Johnson has laid the blame on Khan’s automatic early release from prison, having served only half his sentence. But the experience from Northern Ireland proves that jail time can accelerate and intensify radicalisation. The bigger issue is how to manage former terrorists both in prison and after their release.” Helen Warrell, Financial Times (paywall)

Tracking terrorists is one thing - stopping them is another

“But given the nature of the threat we face today the net that has been cast to prevent atrocities is not, and cannot be, infallible. Keeping tabs on affiliated members of terror organisations such as al-Qaeda or the IRA is one thing; preventing a lone knifeman inspired by Isil and radicalised online from marauding through our city streets is quite another.” Rosa Silverman and Cara McGoogan, The Telegraph

Rehabilitation programmes focus on either de-radicalisation or disengagement

“Regardless of sentence length, most criminologists favour investment in de-radicalisation, which aims to strip terrorists of their motivating ideology, or “disengagement”, which has the more modest aim of dissuading convicts from future violence, even if they retain hardline views. John Horgan, an expert on extremism at Georgia State University, reckons there are 40-50 such schemes around the world.” The Economist (paywall)

Justice system must look at solving problems instead of making then worse

“How should we move forward? The answer does not lie in writing people off. The focus must be on safely fostering our human potential for change. It lies in a criminal justice system – and a wider response from other public agencies – that looks to solve problems rather than making them worse.” The Howard League for Penal Reform