9 November 2021

Hiding in plain sight? How terrorists are gaming the system to get away with murder


How do we stop terrorist offenders from deceiving well-meaning but naïve professionals responsible for managing their risk?

That’s something I have been puzzling over recently along with an international panel of experts on violent extremism ranging from reformed jihadists to forensic psychiatrists. Today, my organisation, the Counter Extremism Project launches a discussion paper, ‘Hiding in plain sight?’, that seeks, if not to fully answer the question, at least to start an urgent debate.

Deception has been with us since the Garden of Eden of course, but the way it is used by ideologically inspired offenders is a relatively new twist. In particular over recent years we have seen terrorists manipulating and conditioning prison and probation staff in order to have the latitude to carry out attacks. Inside the jail walls, dangerous jihadis have used compliant behaviour to lull incompetent officials into thinking they have reformed.

Usman Khan, who murdered two young people at Fishmongers Hall in 2019 was risk assessed as a still committed extremist in prison yet he somehow managed to convert himself into an establishment ‘poster boy’ for deradicalisation.  Shortly after his rampage in London, at the same High Security prison he had graduated with honours from, a convicted terrorist and another he had radicalised in custody came seconds from murdering a prison officer. At the trial it was revealed that the lead attacker was about to receive a certificate of achievement from a forensic psychologist  for ‘good engagement’ in a counter-terror course.

The threat is not confined to the UK. In France there have been several brutal knife attacks on prison staff by Jihadis using feigned illness or friendly behaviour to get their targets to drop their guard. In Vienna just over a year ago, after a Jihadi had killed four people in a gun rampage, Austria’s Interior Minister – in a moment of candour quite notable for its rarity – admitted the assailant, Kujtim Fejzulai, had ‘fooled’ the system’s deradicalisation programme to get early release from prison.

These are just a few examples of how terrorists disguise their true intentions to murderous effect. If you were building a risk management system to assist them in this malign objective, you’d be hard pushed to do better than what we have at present in England and Wales. Multiple hand-offs between different agencies with different levels of competence and even philosophical outlooks mean that it’s all but impossible to build up the crucial rich biographical and behavioural profile of the most risky extremists to give us the advantage.

Our public protection system is so hopelessly fractured, confused and bureaucratised that the jury in Usman Khan’s inquest said there were ‘serious deficiencies’ in it at every level. The answer is not to tinker with what is broken but to recognise that the dangers of ‘new generation’ terrorism, dominated in ambition and lethality by Islamist extremists often acting alone but inspired online, requires a radical change. A single, multi-disciplinary national extremist risk management authority with executive powers and resources to determine every aspect of the terrorist’s journey, from conviction to reintegration, is the blindingly obvious answer.

What does change look like?

This is merely the starting point for our recommendations. We say that the lead therapist model with one key caseworker in deradicalisation programmes, based on a classical criminology approach, is ripe for manipulation by sophisticated subversives. We should replace this with a blended approach that involves other personnel and technology to lessen the chances of deception.

Our report argues that there should be much more research and training around counter-measures, both those employed by terrorists to evade detection and the tactics used by practitioners to defeat them. Rather than a passive, reactive containment model of imprisonment for terrorists, we envisage a  much more active and assertive approach where professionals abandon strict neutrality and challenge toxic ideologies with authenticity testing.

We  see much more scope for the use of technology to assist risk managers – not so much in lie detection as the greater use of bio and location data, for example, to help determine the ‘steady state’ of dangerous offenders in the community and so better detect deviation into violence.

We advocate the ending of generic ‘sheep dip’ deradicalisation interventions, which are far too easy to game, and their replacement with individualised treatment programmes calibrated to specific needs and pathologies. We also encourage the development of experimental, perhaps controversial, approaches to risk, such as carefully controlled encounters between offenders from different ideologies and using further and higher education as a means to expose often cognitively ‘stiff’ offenders to the world beyond the prison walls and allow positive change.

Finally we see some merit in preventative detention for very high-risk offenders who are not otherwise amenable and controllable by the criminal law. This is fraught with the historic overtones of internment and civil liberties implications, but we see such initiatives in the context of a system that is currently too weighted towards the rights of the terrorist offender and not enough towards the rights of citizens not to be murdered doing their shopping.

All of these initiatives have one objective – to reduce the possibility of terrorists or those who develop an extremist mindset in custody pretending they have changed their ways as a means to carry out further harm. We will never eliminate the threat entirely. The only way we could do so is effectively by completing the terrorists’ task for them by abolishing the liberal democracy they despise. This is why we must get upstream of the problem –  and quickly. The next Usman Khan is in the pipeline. 

‘Hiding in Plain sight? Disguised compliance in terrorist offenders’ is launched today. See www.counterextremism.com or @FightExtremism for details

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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.