London Bridge attack: the difficulty in reforming extremists
The attack at London Bridge carried out by Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist, has focused minds on one of the most controversial aspects of counter-terrorism work: deradicalising dangerous extremists and reintegrating them into society.
Khan’s actions are striking because he appeared before the attack to be a model rehabilitation student. After leaving jail — where he served half of a 16-year sentence for his part in a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange — he began attending two separate rehabilitation programmes.
One, with Cambridge university, was so successful that he was invited to attend their conference in London on prison education. It was at this event on Friday that he killed two delegates and injured three others, while wearing a hoax suicide vest.
In the wake of the attack, UK officials have been quick to emphasise that Khan was offered a significant amount of support, both in jail and beyond. Within prison he attended “several counterterror interventions”, according to a Ministry of Justice official.
One was a “healthy identity” programme, designed to focus on positive self-image away from terrorist affiliation. On his release, last December, he joined the Cambridge Institute for Criminology’s “Learning Together” rehabilitation initiative, and was enrolled in a mandatory Home Office deradicalisation scheme known as the Desistence and Disengagement Programme, or DDP.
Despite repeated requests, Home Office officials have been unwilling to reveal much about DDP, which started only three years ago as a way of reintegrating people such as convicted terrorists or returning Isis fighters who have proven extremist intent.
One of the potential controversies is that DDP works by giving these individuals accelerated support in finding housing, employment or education to divert them from their former allegiances. “It’s all about giving them the right apparatus and structure to return to life in the community,” one government official explained.
Crucially, DDP attendees are also given psychological and theological help from specially trained mentors. So far well over 200 people are thought to have taken part in the programme, including radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudhary, who inspired Khan and his co-conspirators in their LSE bombing plot.
Khan’s attack has certainly cast doubt on the effectiveness of such deradicalisation programmes, but Emily Winterbotham, director of the terrorism and conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, says no scheme can be foolproof.
“The path towards terrorism is individual, complex and non-linear, so the mechanism for dealing with it is always going to be constrained by this reality and essentially unpredictability,” she said. “This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to deradicalise or disengage people, but we need to be realistic about the chances of success.”
One reading of the Khan attack is that he was gaming the deradicalisation system, manipulating his mentors and presenting a co-operative front in an effort to distract from his true intent. Another is that his apparent reform was genuine, but that a sudden change in his life caused a reawakening of his extremist belief.
A deradicalisation expert, who asked not to be named, said sudden changes of heart are not unusual among extremists. “The problem is that these people who are ideologically committed can appear to be on your side, but then easily flip back if something in their life goes wrong,” the expert said. “Khan may have woken up one morning and thought, ‘Enough of this, I want salvation, I want paradise, I need to do something now.’”
The political debate following Khan’s attack has focused on longer sentences for terrorists, but the expert consensus is that keeping people in prison is not the answer. However long a terrorist is in custody, there has to be a process for managing them on release.
Julie Norman, a teaching fellow in politics and international relations at University College London, a member of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network, said the lessons from France, Germany and Italy was that “reintegration has a better chance of success than keeping people in prison where they may be re-radicalised”.
The problem with evaluating programmes such as DDP is that they are new, so have little record, and the numbers going through are small. It is also difficult to measure changes in attitude and behaviour in a meaningful way.
The latest experience from overseas suggests that DDP is moving in the right direction. Merely challenging extremists’ religious ideology — which has historically been the UK model — is less effective than addressing the underlying social and economic causes of radicalisation. Denmark’s Aarhus model prioritises reintegration in society over breaking down an individuals’ ideological commitment. The theory is that extremist recruiters are savvy at exploiting grievance and vulnerability; this scheme aims to give them less to work with.
Until the government reveals more about how Khan was managed, it is unclear whether the Home Office’s deradicalisation framework needs fundamental change. Ms Winterbotham sums up the problem of judging a programme which is still only in its infancy. “We have to do something,” she said, “but we don’t know if it’s working”.