17 March 2023

Either side of the prison walls, tomorrow’s terrorist plotters are already in the making


We know a depressing amount of information about terrorists who have managed to evade detection and carry out atrocities in this country, mainly through public inquiries and inquests. But what about those who have failed in their crimes? What are we doing with them and why does it matter?

Next week sees the publication of Plotters – the UK terrorists who failed by the journalist Lizzie Dearden. It’s a meticulously researched and extremely readable deep dive into the motivations and methods of our growing population of thwarted violent extremists. It also comes out on the heels of the latest official statistics on the operation of the UKs Terrorism legislation. The year to December 2022 is measured and it contains a number of trends that suggest the profile of violent extremists is changing. There is a gradual shift in the balance from Islamist terrorist prisoners to those motivated by extreme right wing ideology. During this period the highest number of non-custodial sentences was imposed on terrorist-connected offenders. The arrests of children and young people are increasing. The number of releases from custody for older terrorist offenders is stagnating.

It seems reasonable to infer from the data that more and more young people are being scooped up by the police and security services further and further upstream of an actual terrorist offence. On the face of it, this must surely be a good thing. But when this is coupled with the increase in non-custodial sentences it raises some serious questions.

Some of the case studies in Dearden’s book describe inept and inadequate youngsters searching for status and meaning in mediocre existences, drawn into the foothills of violent extremism. Many of these youngsters, acting alone and desensitised by ‘execution porn’ addiction are the antithesis of the organised terrorist gangs or even those fanatical loners who brought carnage to Britain’s streets in the last decade and more. They are the lowest fruits of a poisoned tree and relatively easy for the police to catch, provided they have the intelligence.

In my view these young people needlessly clog up our national counter-terrorism strategy, which should be centred on harm, not criminalising psychologically flawed adolescents. The challenge for the security services in this context isn’t sophistication, it’s sheer volume. The profile of terrorist attacks has changed significantly since the iconic 7/7 atrocity in 2005. Lone actor terrorists mobilised online using crude but deadly improvised weapons are still able to inflict awful damage but are, to be fair, much harder to spot and track in a stew of amateurish fantasists.

What is happening to these younger new entrants to the prison system after they are convicted should also concern us. Many of our young offender institutions are unstable and dangerous places where far too few staff struggle to maintain order, let alone deradicalise baby extremists. Senior officials have admitted to me that treatment programmes for these prisoners are crude and ineffectual. For that growing number of people whose offence, while terror-connected, doesn’t merit custody, the Probation service will be responsible for managing their risk and rehabilitation in the community.

It is very clear again, that recruitment, retention and performance problems are at crisis point within this organisation. Only this month the independent Probation Inspector issued a ‘wake-up call’ for ‘serious concern’ about its effectiveness in dealing with the most dangerous offenders in the community. Do they really have the capability to wean youngsters off violent extremism?

Thwarted terrorist prisoners in custody or after release present an enduring challenge. Islamist extremists often believe they are on a holy mission or jihad, and when these plotters are successfully disrupted there may well be a lingering sense of failure that makes managing that risk particularly difficult. Usman Khan was imprisoned at the age of 19 as part of a failed plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange. Eight years later, still designated a high risk Category A prisoner, he was released from prison. Several months later he murdered two students in London in a terror attack, before being shot dead by police.

This was the culmination of a series of catastrophic risk management failures by prisons, probation, police and security service. At the same prison Khan spent most of his sentence, HMP Whitemoor, in January 2020 – a few months after his attack – two terrorists attacked and almost murdered a prison officer. The ringleader, Busthrom Ziamani, was convicted in 2014 after a plot to behead a British soldier was thwarted by police. In both cases, there is a clear sense of religiously motivated extremists attempting to complete what they saw was a divine mission.

The testimony of numerous failed plotters is replete in the language of sacrifice – the ‘shaheed’ by his act of martyrdom being elevated to the ranks of the ‘mujahid’ – the holy warrior. In the prison attack, terrorists who have been prevented from killing are surrounded by poorly equipped agents of the state in uniform, who represent all the values they reject, and are available targets. The Independent reviewer of the Terrorism Act, Jonathan Hall KC, believes that terrorist risk prisoners are present in the majority of our 104 prisons. That’s prisoners whose behaviour either makes them ripe for extremist indoctrination or who are active radicalisers. That’s an awful lot of dynamic risk to manage in institutions replete with angry young failures where it is sometimes not clear who is in charge. 

While the continuing dangers of ‘mission failure’ are self-evident in Islamist extremists, we should not ignore the steadily growing numbers of far right terrorists (XRW) who now comprise 26% of our terrorist prisoner population. This is the largest proportion to date and it would be naïve to think that many of these failed plotters will not present a future risk if and when they get organised.

Many of these younger XRW prisoners serving relatively short sentences will have been inspired by increasingly sophisticated online propaganda. Moreover, outside the prison walls, young people using largely unregulated gaming websites and platforms are easy prey to recruiters and radicalisers. White supremacists in particular have proven adept at modifying cult classic games to appeal to young people and draw them into conversations aimed at radicalising them. Our dithering over what is non-violent extremism allows these online communities to flourish – communities where the inadequate can find shelter and camaraderie, and are also available to groom. 

On either side of the prison walls, tomorrow’s failed plotters are already in the making. Unfortunately this also means they will include those who do wriggle through threadbare safety nets to complete their mission. For our hard-pressed protective services, failure is not an option. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.