What to do with terrorist prisoners

Last November, Usman Khan, carried out an attack in central London that left two people dead. Should we or can we keep him behind bars forever?

Whenever a released inmate commits a violent crime people are angry: that anger is magnified when the inmate is a terrorist.

Prisons are an interesting social experiment. We forcibly confine individuals in highly-regulated environs for variable periods of time and their fate lies solely with those in charge of the prison/justice system. As most of us believe in human rights and freedom of movement this is indeed an extraordinary breach of those rights.

This restriction is not done frivolously. We have collectively decided that individuals who pose a serious threat to society and who can harm others must be isolated. The same goes for those who have committed – or planned to commit – serious crimes. It is thus not unreasonable to remove their liberties in the interests of general public safety (NB whether we should incarcerate tax cheats and other non-violent people is an entirely different issue).

Last November, Usman Khan, carried out an attack in central London that left two people dead. Should we or can we keep him behind bars forever?

Terrorism of course is one such serious offence. I cannot imagine anyone advocating against locking these criminals up. After all, terrorism is an act of serious violence in an of itself, the fear and panic it causes notwithstanding. As a consequence, most nations have severe penalties for terrorists.

The question then becomes: what do we do with them once they are inside?

This question has assumed much larger importance now that a second instance of a released terrorist committing an act of violence in the UK has just taken place. Sudesh Amman, a 20-year-old from London who was jailed in 2018 for terrorism-related offenses, stabbed three people on Sunday (February 2) before he was shot dead by police. He had been sentenced to more than three years in prison, but had been released early automatically, in line with government policy.

This latest attack bore striking similarities to one in November when Usman Khan, who had also been released early after having been convicted on terrorism charges, carried out an attack in central London that left two people dead. Not surprisingly in the wake of this latest incident British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to implement tougher rules on releasing people convicted of terrorism offences.

So now what? I can already hear the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key‘ clamour for terrorists. For many this kind of offence is the worst of the worst and we cannot take chances releasing these people back into society. Ever.

Lock ’em up and throw away the key

In my view several elements are at play. First, whatever programs currently exist in the prison system to deal with these types of inmates – deradicalisation or whatever – do not always work, if they ever do (NB my position is simple: one can never determine with 100% certainty that a given individual has ‘deradicalised’). It thus comes down to what level of risk we are willing to assume.

Secondly we normally do release inmates after they have served their time unless it is determined that they still pose a significant risk to the public. Many terrorist prisoners are in jail for having planned acts, not having carried them out: i.e. they have not actually killed or harmed anyone. The two UK men in question, to the best of my knowledge, had not engaged in violent acts. Should we or can we keep them behind bars forever?

The debate over prison conditions for convicted terrorists

Some would say YES! and I understand that position. Maybe they are right. Maybe all terrorists pose a risk to us indefinitely. Maybe they should never see the light of day. Then again, maybe this is a disproportionate penalty.

All I know is that this latest attack in the UK will not be the last. And the next time one happens the voices calling for true lifetime incarceration will be ever the louder.

When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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.

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