During the Black Friday festivities on 29 November, three incidents across Europe and Britain re-opened the discussion about Islamist terrorism in Western countries after something of a lull in such attacks as the Islamic State’s (ISIS) caliphate has been demolished in Iraq and Syria.
Three Incidents, One Day
In France, the Gare du Nord railway station—one of the busiest in Europe—was briefly shut down and evacuated after the discovery of an explosive device. It transpired the item was an inert mortar round, and this vital rail-link in northern Paris was quickly re-opened.
In the Netherlands, three young teenagers were wounded in a stabbing attack at Grote Marktstraat in The Hague. The Netherlands has been regularly targeted by jihadist terrorists: an Afghan stabbed and wounded two American tourists to “protect the Prophet Muhammad” in Amsterdam in August 2018; a Turkish-born jihadi shot and killed four people on a tram in Utrecht in March 2019; and in early November 2019 a Pakistani man was sentenced to ten years in prison for plotting to assassinate anti-Islam gadfly Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament. It was not far from this Parliament that the latest attack took place, and the man in custody is a 35-year-old homeless individual. The police say it is “too early to speculate” why he carried out the attack.
The most serious attack of the day occurred in Britain. Near London Bridge, a young man of Subcontinental origin got up at a Cambridge University conference on criminal rehabilitation, threatened to blow up the historic Fishmongers’ Hall, and went on a stabbing spree, murdering two people, before being confronted, pushed outside, and wrestled to the ground by members of the public—one of them armed with a 5-foot narwhal tusk and one with a fire extinguisher. Police pulled these “have-a-go heroes” out of the way and shot the attacker dead, since he was wearing a suicide vest (albeit one that turned out to be fake).
London Bridge II
The killer turned out to be a Pakistani-origin man named Usman Khan. As the London Times reports, Khan was on a tag at the time he carried out the attack. He had been convicted in February 2012 for an Al-Qaeda-inspired plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange and construct a terrorist-training camp in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir that could recruit Britons. The network Khan was part had also considered putting bombs in pubs in Stoke, and a handwritten list had the names and addresses of the then-London mayor (now-Prime Minister) Boris Johnson, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, two rabbis, and the U.S. Embassy.
Although Khan was the youngest of the group convicted for the Stock Exchange plot, at 19-years-of-age, he and two others from Stoke-on-Trent were considered the most seriously ideological of the nine men (the others were from London and Cardiff). Khan and these other two—Mohammed Shahjahan and Nazam Hussein—were initially given indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPPs), meaning they could be kept in prison beyond the terms given until they were judged to be safe for release, but those sentences were quashed and replaced with fixed-term sentences in 2013. Khan was released in December 2018—a mere seven years into a sixteen-year sentence.
Khan was at the rehabilitation conference as an example of its success. In October 2012, months after his conviction, Khan wrote to prison authorities at HMP Belmarsh, asking to be sent on a “deradicalization course”. The letter, obtained by ITV News, stated: “I would like to do such a course so I can prove … that I don’t carry the views I had before my arrest and also I can prove that at the time I was immature, and now I am much more mature and want to live my life as a good Muslim and also a good citizen of Britain.”
Khan would be sent on such a deradicalization course, the Learning Together program run by Cambridge University, for which Khan became a poster-boy, a living example showcased by the program to other offenders and donors, of the potential of jihadists to reform. Having associated with the ISIS loyalist Anjem Choudary, Khan would ostensibly distance from these radicals in prison and create instead a close bond with one of the coordinators of Learning Together, Jack Merritt.
Once released from prison, staff at Learning Together continued to provide support to Khan, even doing a sponsored run to buy Khan a laptop, despite his license conditions banning the use of the internet. Ultimately, it was through Learning Together, Merritt specifically, that Khan was able to come to London to stage his attack. Merritt was one of the people Khan murdered; the other was a young lady named Saskia Jones, a volunteer on the program.
Although Neil Basu, the Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations, the Metropolitan Police’s top counter-terrorism officer, felt that there was ambiguity in the situation—it was conceded that Khan was “known to authorities, having been convicted in 2012 for terrorism offenses”, but Basu said the “key line[s] of inquiry” about motive were still open—most of the public made up their minds relatively quickly. And ISIS soon resolved all doubt by confirming that Khan was one of their operatives. The external attacks campaign has been reduced in scale of late, but ISIS continues to pose a danger even without holding territory.
It transpired that at least 74 other people were in the position that Khan had been in: convicted terrorists allowed early release into the community, albeit under various restrictions. These cases naturally came under suspicion and had to be reviewed. One case where the convict was deemed too risky was Khan’s old comrade, Nazam Hussein, now-34-years-old, who was sent back to prison for breaches of his license conditions. Another terrorist, Yayha Rashid, 23, who tried to join ISIS in 2015, was recalled to prison for the same reason, and the same has happened in “a number” of other cases.
In Britain, the post-attack debate has the feel of a long-delayed reckoning. There are two primary issues in contention: first, this issue of sentencing, which the overwhelming majority of the public believes has been too lenient, and, secondly, the efficacy of deradicalization, since Khan managed to so comprehensively deceive the authorities into believing he had shed his extremist views that he was able to carry out his attack actually at a rehabilitation meeting, where those in attendance regarded him as a success story.
Khan met twice per week with a specialist parole officer trained to detect signs of convicts relapsing into extremism. This officer did not record so much as a hint of what Khan truly believed and had planned. The controversy is all the greater because Khan has managed to perpetrate this deception after the judge who sentenced him seven years ago pointed out what a dedicated, devious, and strategically committed jihadist Khan was, willing to be patient in order to succeed in carrying out an act of terrorism.
The critiques being made of the British state’s deradicalization programs roughly divide between those who find fault with the practice and those who doubt the whole concept. As the country prepares for an Election and to chart a new course outside the European Union, this might be one area of policy that is radically shaken up.