UK’s ‘half-baked reformation’ blamed for London attack

Updated 04 December 2019

UK’s ‘half-baked reformation’ blamed for London attack

  • Finger pointed at programs meant to help convicted terrorists rebuild crime-free lives
  • Nov. 29 attack sparks national debate on whether prisoners should serve their full sentence

LONDON: Jack Merritt died doing the job he loved. After completing a master’s degree in criminology at Cambridge University, he worked as a course coordinator for Learning Together, the department’s prison-based education program.

The initiative was designed to help reform prisoners, allowing them to rebuild their lives free from crime.

Merritt was killed last Friday by Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist who had been given “special permission” to travel to a Learning Together conference in Fishmonger’s Hall, London.

On Sunday, details of the second victim were released. Saskia Jones, another Cambridge criminology graduate, volunteered at the rehabilitation program that worked with Khan. 

Opinion

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Outrage erupted across the UK after it emerged that Khan had been freed from prison on license a year before the Nov. 29 attack.

The front page of The Times the morning after the attack led with the headline “Terrorist with a tag,” referring to the electronic monitoring bracelet and curfews that he was given as conditions of his release.

In 2012, Khan, a friend of notorious hate preacher Anjem Choudhary, was jailed for planning to carry out a bomb attack on the London Stock Exchange.

As every aspect of the attack is scoured over by police and media, one question keeps being asked: How could a terrorist convicted of planning a bomb attack be freed to walk the streets of London?

Details of Khan’s release and the perceived “soft touch” that gave him the freedom to strike in the capital has led to a national conversation on when a known terrorist can safely return to society.

On one hand, many academics and criminal justice campaigners believe that all criminals — even terrorists — should be offered resources to reform and return to their communities.

But their opponents, often from security think tanks, allege that convicted extremists are different to other criminals as their minds have been warped beyond repair and the risks of rehabilitation are not worth the costs.

FASTFACTS

● Attacker identified as Usman Khan, 28.

● Khan was born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent.

● Arrested in 2010 for London Stock Exchange attack plot.

● Previously sentenced in 2012 with minimum jail term of eight years.

● Released in 2018.

● Made to wear electronic tag, enter rehabilitation program.

Khan, the first freed convicted terrorist to carry out an attack in the UK, is at the center of this debate.

Following the attack, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced demands for convicted terrorists to be barred from early prison release.

He blamed changes to the law made under former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government for Khan’s freedom, arguing that it was “ridiculous and repulsive” that he was automatically freed halfway through his sentence.




Terror victims: Cambridge University graduates Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, died in the London Bridge attack. (AFP)

Johnson revealed on Sunday that 74 other convicted terrorists had been released from prison since 2000.

But Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader and Johnson’s opponent in the upcoming election, declared that it was “not necessarily” right that convicted extremists should have to serve their full sentence.

Merritt’s family said: “We know Jack would not want this terrible, isolated incident to be used as a pretext by the government for introducing even more draconian sentences on prisoners, or for detaining people in prison for longer than necessary.”

But in Khan’s case, security experts argue that he was not detained for as long as was necessary.

Kyle Orton, a British independent terrorism researcher, told Arab News that it is “impossible to argue that he shouldn’t have been in prison. He was so obviously a dangerous person.”

Orton believes that rehabilitation works “in some cases, especially for those who are dabbling in extremism. In those circumstances, early intervention can make a big difference. But I’m really skeptical of claims that they (rehabilitation programs) should be used more generally as a tool to counter extremism.”

He added: “Rehabilitation is a spongy concept. De-radicalization is too ambitious. Expecting the state to change ideas is asking too much.”

Khan, dubbed the “poster boy” of the rehabilitation scheme he went on to attack, even wrote a poem and a thank-you note to organizers of the Learning Together initiative after they provided him with a computer he could use without breaching his Internet ban.




Police surround Usman Khan after the convicted terrorist was wrestled to the ground by bystanders following his deadly knife attack. (AP)

This raises the question: How can we know when an extremist has been turned? Orton is adamant: “We can’t.”

He added: “It’s incredibly difficult to judge a jihadist’s state of mind. You’re incentivizing them to lie to you. You can’t prove their change of heart, and they know that enough goodwill might get them released.”

David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, told The Times that “people know what they have to say so that you can tick boxes to say you have done the course. It is not rigorous and nobody has confidence that it does what it says on the tin.”

Wilson, who has previously served as a police governor, added: “The prison service has no idea how to cope with terrorists. The only good thing that might come out of this terrible tragedy is there will be a proper look at how we are going to cope with people convicted of terrorist offences.”

The solution, according to Orton, lies in the tougher sentencing being touted by the prime minister.

“In the US, terrorists receive 20-30 years of prison for material support of an extremist group,” Orton said. “Keeping jihadists off the streets is preferable to trusting in half-baked reformation.”

The UK’s Ministry of Justice released a study this year claiming that a major challenge facing counter-extremism centers is that many of the inmates have “refused to engage in aspects of the centers, especially interventions to support disengagement from extremism.” 




Rehabilitation is a spongy concept. Expecting the state to change
ideas is asking too much. — Kyle Orton, British terrorism researcher

This has not deterred supporters of counter-radicalization efforts, such as former extremist Maajid Nawaz, founder of the London-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam.

Speaking the day after the attack, Nawaz said rehabilitation efforts are key to reducing extremist violence. “You have to release them from jail. The only thing you can do is ongoing de-radicalization efforts with them,” he added.

Nawaz argued that unless counter-radicalization is prioritized, “the only alternative that you leave people is a law-and-order, police-led state.”

He added: “We must start thinking seriously about long-term social cohesion efforts that are needed … to rehabilitate them (extremists) into society and to debunk these ideologies.”

Corbyn agrees. Opposed to indefinite jail sentences, on Sunday he reiterated his belief that prison needs to be a “place where rehabilitation takes place.”

While the debate on how to handle the growing extremist population advances, 74 convicted and freed terrorists will continue to roam British streets.


Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

Updated 20 September 2020

Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

  • There have been conflicting reports from lawmakers and residents about number of fatalities
  • Taliban says none of its fighters killed in attack

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry pledged on Sunday to probe “allegations” of at least 12 civilians being killed in an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in the northern Kunduz province a day earlier.
The pledge followed inconsistencies about the number of casualties, with the insurgent group saying that none of its men had died in the attack.
“The Taliban were the target, and 30 of them were killed. Initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians, but we are probing reports by locals about civilian casualties. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces take allegations of civilian harm seriously, and these claims will be investigated,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the defense ministry in Kabul, told Arab News.
He added that the ministry would “share any details” about civilian casualties “once the probe is over.”
If confirmed, Saturday’s airstrike in the Khan Abad district, which lies nearly 350 km from Kabul and is mostly controlled by the Taliban, will be the latest in a series of air raids killing civilians in several parts of the country.
It follows a week after crucial intra-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban officials began in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, to end the protracted war and plan a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.
There were conflicting accounts from civilians and lawmakers in the area about the incident, with two provincial council members, Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani and Sayed Yusuf, saying that at least 12 civilians had died in Saturday’s air raid.
“Since the area is under Taliban’s control, we have not been able to find out exactly how the civilians were killed,” Rabbani told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Nilofar Jalali, a legislator from Kunduz, offered another version of the attack, which she said “hit a residential area before sunrise when people were still in their bed.”
“Children and women are among the dead, and 18 civilians have also been wounded. I informed the defense minister about it; he said he will check and get back to me, but has not,” she told Arab News. However, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the reports in a statement on Sunday, saying that “no fighter of the group was killed,” before placing the number of civilian deaths at 23.
Kunduz and other parts of the country have witnessed an escalation in attacks by both the government and the Taliban in recent weeks, despite their negotiators participating in the Qatar talks which are part of a US-facilitated process following 19 years of conflict in the country — Washington’s longest war in history.
The Qatar discussions are based on a historic accord signed between Washington and the Taliban in February this year which, among other things, paves the way for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country by next spring, in return for a pledge from the Taliban not to allow use Afghanistan to harm any country’s, including US, interests.
Kabul’s negotiators in Qatar are pushing the Taliban to declare a cease-fire, while the Taliban say it can be included in the agenda and that both sides must first ascertain “the real cause” of the war.
Some analysts believe that while delegates of the parties are struggling to agree over the mechanism and agenda of the talks in Qatar, their fighters in Afghanistan are “focusing on military tactics to capture grounds” so that they can use it as a “bargaining chip” at the negotiation table.
“Both sides think that if they have more territory then they can argue their case from a position of strength during the talks and use it as leverage,” Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst and a former university teacher, told Arab News.
“The sides have not yet agreed on the mechanism of the talks despite the Qatar talks, which began on the 12th of September. So, this is an indication that things are not going the right way politically, and both sides are trying their luck on the battlefield here.”