Usman Khan proves rehabilitation without deradicalization is impossible
For the second British general election in a row, an Islamist terror attack has changed the direction of the campaign. Usman Khan’s actions on London Bridge on Friday were horrific but small scale compared to the previous London Bridge attack and the Manchester Arena bomb in 2017, but they have had outsized consequences.
Unlike in the 2017 election, campaigning was not suspended in response to the attack; in fact, the attack was immediately turned into a campaigning topic by both the Labour and Conservative parties. The reason for this is that Khan was released on probation from prison only a year ago and was still wearing a monitoring tag. And the reason he had gone to prison in the first place was for plotting a terrorist attack.
The Conservative Party was quick to point out that Khan’s release was out of their hands: His original 2012 indeterminate prison sentence was ruled a breach of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. He was subsequently given a 16-year sentence, with automatic release after eight years (including his pre-trial detention). The reduced time inside was the result of sentencing laws passed by Labour in 2008 and, although the Conservatives changed the law in 2012, Khan had been sentenced under the 2008 law, and so remained subject to its requirements.
All of this is true, although the public tend not to pay close attention to the niceties of who passed what law, and when sentencing was passed, when they are inflicting political consequences for a failure. These will be borne by the government of the day.
Focusing on legal failures, however, only addresses half of the problem. Regardless of when he was released, Khan spent a significant amount of time in prison and was clearly just as radicalized when he came out as when he went in — and it is equally apparent that those tasked with his rehabilitation were not aware of this.
In 2016, the then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove published a review he had commissioned into extremism in prisons, written by a former prison governor called Ian Acheson. Among other things, this review considered radicalization and deradicalization within the prison system. Most of the review’s recommendations were not acted upon during the last Parliament. This should now be reviewed to address a part of the system that requires major reform.
There is a fundamental issue with the rehabilitation of extremist prisoners, particularly those whose ideology receives, in their view, divine sanction. Most rehabilitation efforts rely in the first instance on an acceptance by the prisoner that what they have done is wrong; this will not succeed unless the ideology that they follow has been comprehensively dismantled in their own minds.
The problem is that, such is the state of religious illiteracy in the UK, the system is not really designed for the comprehensive dismantling of a perverted idea of the proper nature of God’s relationship with humanity. Moreover, our laws and our security system are more focused on countering violence than countering ideas. And so deradicalization efforts may be considered a success if the extremist recognizes that violence is not the way to achieve their goals. Such a focus on method rather than objective is highly vulnerable to prisoners playing the system.
We do not know the details of the efforts at deradicalization and rehabilitation that were pursued with Khan — and there are those working within our prison system who are not religiously illiterate and have a clear conception of the right approach. But one thing is very apparent with Khan: He was not just released and monitored, but was actively participating in rehabilitation programs. His actions demonstrate that rehabilitation without deradicalization is impossible. This is something clearly understood in some other programs. One example is at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center in Riyadh, where deradicalization and rehabilitation go hand in hand.
If the Conservative reaction sought to shift the blame onto the Labour Party, Labour’s reaction was to shift it onto the country at large. Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a video of a speech he gave at a rally against the Iraq War in 2003. “Sixteen years ago,” he wrote. “I warned the invasion and occupation of Iraq would set off a spiral of conflict and hate that would fuel the wars, terrorism and misery of future generations.” He expanded on this thought in a campaign speech he gave this week. In other words, terrorist attacks happen because we bring them upon ourselves.
Khan spent a significant amount of time in prison and was clearly just as radicalized when he came out as when he went in.
If Corbyn wants us to pay attention to everything that he has said on this issue over the past few decades, then there are plenty who are very willing to do that. A man who called terrorists his “friends” might rightly face questions as to whether he can be trusted with protecting us from people who share that same ideology. His prescience is also suspect: He opposed the liberation of Kuwait, the liberation of Kosovo, and the invasion of Afghanistan that was preceded, not followed, by a major terror attack.
In parroting the line that military interventions are to blame for terrorism, he is echoing extremist propaganda and recruitment narratives, and seems to forget that, in the 1990s, recruiting sergeants showed their dexterity when it comes to radicalization by using the absence of Western intervention in the Balkans as a sign that the West didn’t care about Muslims. Corbyn doesn’t seem to understand that people like Khan — and those who share his ideology — will hate those who do not agree with them regardless of what we do. That includes Corbyn and the people who share his world view.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby