Liam Duffy, an advisor on extremism and counter-terrorism based in London
We have Lenin to thank for observing there are “decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” Well, quite. It is difficult to fathom that a flurry of terror attacks struck Britain just a few months ago. These attacks were less technical and less ambitious than the horrors of 2017, but the fact that all three were carried out by convicted terrorists thrust rumbling concerns over extremism in prisons firmly into the spotlight.
In the aftermath, the debate was predictably … polarized. Between outcry that terrorists were being released back onto the streets at all (let alone early — as the London Bridge and Streatham attackers were) and presenting deradicalization as a silver bullet to “fix” wayward terrorists, the question for policymakers was: Just how dangerous are these people?
According to new research on Belgian terrorists from the Egmont Institute, the answer is: less dangerous than you might think. The data suggests that terrorist recidivism rates are no more than 5%, compared to 40-60% for other criminals. This is an invaluable insight for European policymakers facing the looming prospect of thousands of extremists in prisons coming back onto the streets in the coming months.
The research looks at terrorist recidivism going back to the 1990s, and references datasets going back even further. This type of research is the only available guide for predicting future trends, but political leaders must ensure the reassuring results do not afford complacency and that the findings are served with a considerable dose of caution. The global jihadist movement is fundamentally different at the present time, more disparate and ultimately a more radical, than it was in the 1990s.
For example, in Britain, many of those convicted in the 90s and early 2000s believed in a “covenant of security” with the host nation, namely that they would support efforts to establish sharia overseas, with money and recruits, while eschewing attacks against civilians at home. This paradigm had traction within British Islamism.
Later, influential ideologues with deep reach into the West, like al-Qaeda’s Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, encouraged many to tear up the covenant, and in Britain the July 2005 bombings in London signalled that this era was over. Since then, the Islamic State (ISIS) has chewed up and spat out all remains of this “covenant”, urging followers to kill whomever they can, however and whenever they can.
As if to illustrate the radicalization of a movement, a British contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in the early 1990s was detained by a British mujahideen fighter before being released unharmed. Decades later in Syria, another Briton, Mohammed Emwazi — known to his comrades as Abu Muharib al-Muhajir and to the tabloid press as “Jihadi John” — brutally murdered aid workers and journalists on camera.
If research is to inform sensitive issues like foreign fighter repatriation, it has to factor in that the behaviour of the early jihadis who participated in Afghanistan against the Soviets and in then in Algeria, Bosnia, and/or Chechnya, may not entirely predict the risk of taking in the holdouts from the final bastion of ISIS’s “caliphate” at Baghouz in eastern Syria.
In the West, much has been made of the evolution from the al-Qaeda “spectacular” model of terrorism to the low-tech attacks directed and inspired by ISIS, epitomized by the instructions from the group’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, to “single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car or throw him down from a high place or choke him or poison him.”
It is possible this development has been understated only as a change in tactics, rather than as a fundamental shift. French scholar Gilles Kepel has asked if Europe is entering an entirely new phase of jihadist terror, a “fourth generation”, after the fall of Raqqa in 2017. If so, the algorithms for understanding radicalization and mobilization to violence need recalibration.
Given the uncertainty of unprecedented numbers of extremists on the streets in the years ahead, coupled with the absence of a single terrorist “profile”, the apparently low 5% recidivism rate could actually serve as a relatively strong predictor of engagement, considering the limited utility of any other social or economic traits.
This generation may have been relatively quiet so far, but those who were drawn into the jihadi movement under Osama Bin Laden and later switched allegiances to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may yet make themselves heard. Al-Qaeda loyalists and ISIS have competed for recruits behind bars, and one who wavered back and forth launched his attack inside the prison walls. In the outside world, a resurgent ISIS, al-Qaeda or upstart challenger even years down the line could provide the impetus for the new generation to reactivate and rally to.
The research also references the UK government’s swift introduction of new sentencing guidelines as a “knee-jerk response”, but if anything this was a course correction to 30 years of underreaction to a growing Islamist terror threat. Short sentences have put a great deal of faith in prisons as a deterrent or as places to rehabilitate, and less as institutions which also serve to keep innocent people safe from violence. The debate over this rebalance was taking place before the latest attacks spurred action.
Finally, how useful are comparisons between terrorism and ordinary criminality? It is true that there can be methodological similarities between terrorism and organised crime and sometimes such networks overlap. But terrorism is so fundamentally different in nature to common crime, and the societal consequences of reoffending so very much higher, that these comparisons fall short. Unlike crime, terrorist acts are intended and perceived as an attack on the whole society, on its shared identity and values — and people respond accordingly. There is also little similarity between non-violent crime and “non-violent” terror offences, like fundraising, since the latter could contribute to mass murder somewhere along the line, hence the more severe sentences, regardless of the likelihood of reoffending.
Upon release, most criminals might have a stretched probation officer to periodically report to, whereas terrorists have the eyes of several hundred-million-dollar security apparatus monitoring them. Indeed, it was this impressive operation that sprang into action and prevented Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman from killing anyone. It is impossible to say how much awareness of this machinery deters reengagement, and that will always be so: the great problem in evaluating the counterterrorism programs is that when they do as they are intended to do — and prevent terror — then the low numbers of terror attacks can give a misleading sense of a comparably low threat level.
Accepting that history is our only blueprint, we still simply do not know how dangerous the ISIS generation will be, and they may skew that 5% figure upwards — a point the author readily acknowledges. Even still, this 5% of an absolute number of convicted terrorists that is larger than at any point in the recent past has the capacity to exact a dreadful toll, especially if complemented by the already unprecedented numbers of extremists. Given that this is an experiment that will play out in the streets of our towns and cities in the years ahead, caution is our safest bet.
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.