11 February 2020

The prison service must get a grip on its Jihadist finishing schools

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The system for managing the threat posed by violent extremists in prison and those at risk of becoming so is broken. That much was again laid bare at the trial of Mohiussunnath Chowdhury, who was this week convicted of preparing acts of terrorism, including plots to massacre ‘unbelievers’ at London tourist hot spots and kill marchers at London Pride using a vehicle, knives and guns.

Chowdhury had been previously detained on remand for an earlier terror charge at HMP Belmarsh, one of our high security prisons. Far from dealing with the threat Chowdhury posed, it seems his time inside was effectively a ‘finishing school’ for the plot he was later found guilty of.

By his own account, he freely associated with other convicted jihadis like Ahmad Hassan, who was jailed for life with a minimum term of 34 years for the Parsons Green tube train attack in 2017. He gained knowledge, learning a lot from ‘likeminded’ Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman, and deepened his resolve. Chowdhury regarded the crude deradicalisation programmes aimed at reforming his fellow jihadists as ‘laughable.’ Within days of his release, he was planning a new attack and waiting for the release of another convicted prisoner to carry it out.

We’ve become quite inured to these lurid tales of bad people sent to prison who become much, much worse as a consequence. Except, of course when they result in carnage on London Bridge or suburban streets.  Prisons are incubators of violent extremism with all the ingredients necessary – a supply of alienation, grievance and latent violence and a demand for meaning and excitement. My key proposal to government for dealing with this challenge – separating the predators who want to weaponise this potential in the name of Jihad – has often been misunderstood.

Separation units, as I conceived them, were places where the most subversive and intransigent hate preachers would be completely incapacitated from radicalising others. They were to be separated on the basis of intelligence and held in those units with successful participation in interventions a precondition for their return to normal location. The intervention philosophy was to be assertive, challenging and individualised.

The routes into – and therefore out of – violent extremism are unique to the individual offender. That means that secular, ‘sheep dip’ and generic psycho-social interventions delivered by professionals often in a different moral universe to the offender are unlikely to succeed. A tailored approach is necessary to reflect the diversity of prisoners background and backstory – losers to high achievers, street thugs to young professionals, migrants to UK citizens. One-size-fits-all will not work here.

These are not the ‘Jihadi Jails’ of fevered tabloid imagination. I saw them as quiet, highly controlled and secure environments run by highly trained staff, where the goal was to reduce the danger posed by the individual, with therapies aligned to need. The primary purpose of these units was to serve national security, not rehabilitation. The other by-product of such patient intervention would be a flow of intelligence as staff developed rapport with prisoners and what made them tick. We can’t speak to dead terrorists and therefore the only realistic way we have to prevent further atrocities is to build up the richest possible behavioural profiles of those available to us in custody.

Another important aspect of these units was what I called a ‘humanised’ regime. These units could not be more austere or punitive than ordinary custody, except in the sense of very high levels of control and safety. While there might be atavistic satisfaction in throwing grotesquely cruel terrorists into the dungeons of popular imagination, it’s wrong for a whole host of ethical and operational reasons. It would deprive us of the chance to study and influence them and almost certainly feed into a sense of grievance that might become lethally dangerous. Brutalising people in prisons turns out brutes. It’s as simple as that.

The prison service has adopted the bare bones of this recommendation, somewhat unwillingly. It eventually produced three separation units. One was mothballed even before it began operation, one lies empty and the third has barely a handful of residents. The arguments I have seen in defence of this state of affairs are pretty thin. While there are only around 220 people convicted of terrorist offences in a prison population of 85,000, all the evidence is that there are an unknown number of charismatic proselytisers operating across the prison system in lower security prisons, where surveillance and control is even more tenuous, who may not have been convicted of terrorist offences but are intent on spreading hateful ideologies unchecked.

So while these units should not be filled for the sake of it, I am deeply unconvinced that they are being fully utilised as I suggested. It is more likely that a fear of litigation – a fact of life when dealing with violent extremists – combined with an institutional reluctance to take on this threat has meant an important resource is not being used properly and we are less safe as a result.

The argument that people like Mohiussunnath Chowdhury would not be in such units in the first place is similarly misplaced. I never intended separation units to be a stand-alone response to the terror threat inside prison. Separating the preacher from his adherents was only the first stage in dealing with violent extremists.

Breaking the psychological chain of dependency between the two would create an opening for prisons to go after the ‘second tier’ enforcers for such people and close down their malign powerbases. These individuals are often involved in other challenges to power and control, such as the rampant drugs economy that fuels much of the violence in the system.

Moreover, the single terrorist prisoner risk management team that I envisaged would mean a well-developed picture of the risks posed by the likes of Chowdhury. His release from custody would have been tightly managed, stopping him from going straight from prison to planning his next attack.

The terminology  gratefully seized upon by the prison service to describe the philosophy of separation units is ‘safeguarding’ – a term more often used to refer to children at risk of harm. This is a revealing part of the problem. People like Chowdhury, Amman and Usman Khan aren’t the vulnerable ones. We are. This is a national security problem. If the prison service can’t or won’t step up to the plate and urgently get a grip on its Jihadist finishing schools, it must be divested of all responsibility for doing so.

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Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove