Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and senior official in the U.K. Home Office, has more than 25 years of experience in counter-terrorism and prison security. He is now a Senior Adviser to the Counter-Extremism Project (CEP).
Belgium, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom carry most of the convicted terrorist prisoners’ burden in Europe. Between them, at the last count, this amounts to well over a thousand violent extremists scatted throughout dozens of jails, some with specialised units, and others warehoused in close proximity to other prisoners susceptible to their toxic ideologies.
Ideologically motivated offenders are a relatively recent phenomenon—in scale terms anyway—outside Spain and the U.K., who have been dealing with ethno-nationalist separatists using terrorist violence since the 1970s. Even with this long experience, neither country sought to challenge and modify the views of jailed extremists.
But now, our high-security jails are filled with Islamist extremists who operate by markedly different standards. While the U.K. and Spain grappled with Irish and Basque separatists, these terrorists were not aiming for a worldwide caliphate that would subjugate all other faiths and make war on liberal democracy as such. Nor, despite their immense cruelty, did the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) or Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) operate under the pretext of divine permission to murder civilians.
Should the criminal justice system concentrate on merely containing this threat behind high walls and razor wire, or should it at least attempt to reduce the dangerousness of such people? How would we attempt to intervene to get them to disengage or at least desist from such a lethal mindset? And while we try, should such extremist prisoners be left in the general population to expose them to ideas outside of their own cultic beliefs, or should they be isolated to prevent them recruiting? After all, in prisons, the extremists have a pool of easily-available, already-violent, and credulous young men to try to convert; it seems likely leaving extremists in the general population creates some additional risk to staff holding them, never mind the community at large once they are released.
These are not easy challenges. It is unlikely a single answer exists that will be sustained over time and changing prison demographics. In the U.K. in 2016, I led an independent government review of Islamist extremism in our criminal justice system. My report which included field visits to prisons holding terrorists in the Netherlands, France, and Spain was stark. U.K. prisons were experiencing determined radicalization by subversive Islamist prisoners. The problem was not understood or acknowledged by senior officials and frontline staff were not equipped to identify and challenge toxic behaviours because of poor training and the fear of being accused of racism. Highly sectarian and incendiary literature, which supported and encouraged extremism, was freely available from prison chaplains. Many prison Imams did not have the capacity, and a few did not have the will, to confront Islamist extremism within the faith groups they led.
My solution was the introduction of ‘Separation Units’ to completely incapacitate terrorist offenders and other extremists who wanted to preach hate to a captive audience. These units were not to be punitive; they should be places where highly skilled staff could offer those isolated the chance to examine and change their behaviour as the route back to the normal prison wings. In doing so, I built on what I had seen in Europe. We cannot talk to dead terrorists. Live ones in prisons offer a unique opportunity for study and intelligence-gathering with the additional prize of possibly divesting the extremist of his lethal religiosity. It has taken years for these units to be accepted by the prison bureaucracy, but they are now working, and they do have a positive impact when the right subversives are removed from general circulation. Whether these people can ever be changed remains to be seen.
“Deradicalization” is a term that has become almost meaningless. I prefer to talk about “dangerousness”. One of the key dangers that prison authorities face is determining the sincerity of terrorist prisoners who convince their therapists that they have abandoned violence in the name of their religious beliefs while still, in fact, being committed to extremist violence. I have written about this challenge extensively. “Disguised compliance”, where a determined terrorist has deceived authorities with lethal consequences, is not confined to the U.K., but some of the most awful examples are to be found here. They include the risk management of a convicted terrorist, Usman Khan, who deceived prison authorities into thinking he was reformed, a delusion that affected his surveillance after release and led to a situation where he was able to murder two students from a prison rehabilitation programme he was on in a celebratory event in London in November 2019. There are numerous other cases where the same deception has been employed by terrorists to allow them the space to continue their jihad. The interior minister in Austria admitted authorities had been “fooled” by an apparently repentant terrorist who went on a rampage in Vienna in November 2020 murdering four people and wounding 23. Two prison officers in France were stabbed by an Islamist extremist, Bilal Taghi, in 2016: Taghi had been regarded as a model prisoner, engaged in rehabilitation. Adel Kermiche, one of the Islamists who murdered a priest in his church in Normandy in 2016, obtained release from prison by convincing magistrates he had abandoned violence. The list goes on.
What can we do to reduce the chances that such atrocities do not continue to occur? Much depends on the culture and philosophical approach to managing terrorist risk. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions continue to use personnel and therapeutic approaches that are derived from working with non-ideological prisoners who commit offences for quite different reasons. This means that the traditional collusive approach between therapist and subject, which seeks to obtain rehabilitation as both the end and the measure of success, is open to manipulation. The various class and cultural differences—and a lack of religious competence—between many professionals and the terrorists they try to change is also problematic. Moreover, an approach that is overly concerned with collusion, prisoner rights, and “reclamation” may make it easier for sophisticated offenders to “game” the encounter and convince the therapist he has changed. Finally, a generic psycho-social approach to a terrorist offending pathology that is often intensely individualistic and seen through an “affirmatory” lens is unlikely to reveal, let alone treat, deviant thinking.
We need a new generation of counter-terrorism specialists who have public protection as their priority, not the rescue of fallen citizens. While it is important to see and encourage the possibility of change and reform—one authentically reformed terrorist is worth a thousand police officers—it is equally important to be sceptical and questioning about overtly changed behaviour. The use of technology can assist here. There are many brave people who currently work across Europe with terrorist offenders, unseen and unrewarded. But too many of them operate with dangerously outdated approaches that cannot cope with the new generation of terrorists who are totalitarian in outlook and see deception as not only necessity, but divinely ordained. We can never eliminate the risk of deceptive terrorists killing again without doing their work for them and introducing a police state. But we can, and we should, do very much better.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.