Terrorism, incarceration and recidivism: What do we know?

Perceived recidivism rates for incarcerated terrorists do not seem to be as high as most people believe but the situation is much more complicated than that.

We have jailed thousands of terrorists over the past 20 years and that has been accompanied by fear of what they might do next: how valid is the latter?

Following two recent terrorist attacks in the UK perpetrated by Islamist terrorists who had been convicted but released early (based on statutory practices) there was a public uproar akin to WTF? “You let jihadis go BEFORE they finished their sentences? What were you thinking? Are you NUTS??”

Terrorism seems to paralyse citizenry in ways that ‘average’ crime does not. For example, no one – at least no one that I know – would cancel a trip to a tourist destination in the wake of a murder. People will cancel – and indeed have cancelled – such trips after a terrorist attack. I witnessed that first hand after the 2015 Paris attacks when Canadians very publicly said ‘non, merci!’ to going to France in the weeks and months afterwards. Fear of more carnage had a very tangible effect on their decision-making.

I have been arguing for decades that terrorism is over-exaggerated (and this from a guy that worked in counter terrorism for 15 years and who has written five books on the subject!). We seem to have lost the ability to think and act objectively when it comes to this particular form of violence. Simply stated, there is a lot less terrorism out there than most people think.

But, getting back to the problem of what to do with terrorists behind bars the issue is still unresolved: what do we do with them? Lock them up and throw away the key? ‘Rehabilitate’ them? Let them go after sentences are up? Before they are up? Won’t they just re-offend and cause more death, destruction and mayhem?


Into all this comes a very interesting study carried out by Thomas Renard of the Egmont Institute in Belgium, and just published in the Counter Terrorism Center’s Sentinel e-zine. I suggest you read it all but in a nutshell Mr. Renard looked at judicial records for 557 jihadi terrorist convicts in Belgium, spanning the three decades from 1990, and found that less than five percent reengaged in terrorist activities upon release. He claims that this is much lower than the public probably believes and should have implications for sentencing, penitentiary practices and post-release policies.

I found this article of great interest and must first and foremost congratulate Mr. Renard for his data-heavy work: this is not always the case in terrorism studies. While he himself recognises that questions remain and that a whole bunch of Belgian foreign fighters who joined ISIS may skew future trends, I would nevertheless like to weigh in as follows:

  • As Mr. Renard noted, there is probably a difference between recidivism and ‘terrorism’ recidivism. Terrorism already constitutes a minuscule percentage of all crime in countries like Belgium (and in Canada: the total of all cases in my country during the same time period is less than 1/10 than of Belgium) so it might equally stand to reason that terrorism recidivism is also low;
  • There probably is a difference between ‘real’ terrorists and wannabes convicted on terrorism-related charges. In my experience the vast majority of ‘terrorists’ are loser wankers who had no capability or intent of actually killing anyone. What about those with blood on their hands (Mr. Renard also refers to ‘die hards’)? Are they any more likely to re-offend in the same way that put them away in the first place? There is also a great unknown: are today’s jihadis, particularly those who joined ISIS, more dangerous than earlier ones? After all, ISIS was a VERY violent gang of thugs which engaged in acts almost beyond description. The fact that Mr. Renard’s study went back to 1990 afforded him more data but it may no longer be reflective of the current threat. In other words, the low recidivism rate may be skewed through the inclusion of older data;
  • Do those who serve time realise that they are ‘on the radar’ and thus consciously ‘keep their noses clean’ until such time as they are convinced that authorities are no longer watching them? In other words, how long must they be looked at post prison? Furthermore, if you work in counter terrorism a terrorist in jail is one less to worry about. When that person is released s/he must be investigated to determine risk and that means resources have to come from somewhere else. It is thus of no surprise that those of us from the security intelligence world are not keen to see these guys on the street any time soon. This may explain in part what Mr. Renard labels “the magnifying effect of a few eye-catching, problematic cases” within intelligence and police services.

One further point (and this is not intended as a slight to Mr. Renard or any other academic who studies terrorism, many of whom I respect and consider as friends). If this study is wrong not one person is going to blame the author for blowing it. His career will not suffer. He will not be brought before an inquiry.

But if the Belgian or the UK or the Canadian security services drop the ball and someone dies we will hear about it – forever – especially if the perpetrator was already convicted of terrorism. YOU let him out! As a result blame WILL be apportioned. Incompetence WILL be charged. Heads WILL roll. Reputations WILL suffer. Lawsuits could ensue. That is life in my (previous) sphere of work. I say this not to gain sympathy: it simply is.

You see, the security intelligence and law enforcement agencies tasked with preventing bombs from going off do not get a ‘second chance’. I fear that these counter terrorism organisations must face real-world consequences that academics rarely have to (again, no insult intended – these actors serve very different functions in our society).

As the IRA famously told Margaret Thatcher after the Brighton bombing in 1984: “you have to get lucky 100% of the time whereas we have to get lucky once”.

So yes Mr. Renard has provided us with some interesting work and I hope to see more from him. But as he also acknowledged this issue is far from resolved. Terrorism may be a rare scourge in most societies but it always has an effect orders of magnitude disproportionate to its actual achievements. I wish it were not so but I accept that this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The next time an ‘ex-con’ terrorist kills – and there will most definitely be a next time – get ready for the baying for blood.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “Terrorism, incarceration and recidivism: What do we know?”

Personally, the success of de-radicalization is very low (2% to 3%). It remind me of the recidivism of criminals previously known as “rounders” using the in/out doors of justice.

Leave a Reply