14 May 2018

We need to treat released terror extremists like sex offenders


Official figures show that since 9/11, 695 people in this country have been convicted of terrorism-related offences. The latest Ministry of Justice statistics tell us that 213 extremists are currently in custody. That leaves a substantial number of released offenders back in our communities. We should be very bothered about how they are doing.

We know very little about the fates of released extremists. An optimist would point to the relatively low rates of reoffending and suppose that the statutory agencies supervising these offenders were fully on top of controlling their risks. However, there are signs that we could and should be doing more to manage the ongoing risks ideologically inspired offenders pose to us all.

I’ve published a paper today on behalf of the anti-extremism charity Faith Matters. Faith, Hope and Clarity explores the journey of the extremist offender into and out of our creaking criminal justice system. The police and security services are getting ever better at detecting terrorist activity further and further upstream of an attack. Widening the scope of terrorist offences has also scooped up many “bit players” from the pool of violent extremists.

Increasing detections and convictions on this basis will create numbers of new offenders who are sentenced for relatively short prison terms or, in an increasing number of cases, community penalties. These offenders will pass through a system beset with problems. Our prisons are chaotic, disordered incubators of grievance where radical gangs are an attractive means of finding meaning, staying safe and asserting power. The numbers of those who become vulnerable to radicalisation in prison are startling – 700 in the most recent figures released.

Moreover, the National Probation Service, which is charged with supervision of dangerous ex-offenders after prison, is plainly struggling to cope after a series of disastrous structural reforms and burgeoning caseloads of “ordinary” offenders.

A recent study by the well-regarded RAND corporation carried out anonymous interviews with probation staff who supervised terrorist offenders. It was plain that many felt ill-equipped to the task, lacking the skills and the life experience to manage people who were motivated to offend by ideologies – particularly Islamist extremism which motivates the vast majority of our terrorist offenders.

The most dangerous members of this cohort are supervised by what is known as MAPP arrangements. Multi-agency statutory services produce plans to control the offender’s risk. Unlike many European countries, our state has the monopoly on the management of extremists after custody. In other jurisdictions charities and communities play a much greater role in reintegration of such offenders.

Why should we care? We ought to for a safer future. We can’t assume that ex-offenders will, with little and ineffectual support, simply recant the toxic ideologies which led them to offend. We know the security services are stretched to control what the Director of MI5 only this morning called “devastating” and “complex” threats from IS terrorists. The successful reintegration of terrorist offenders can’t just rely on the state. We need radical solutions for an evolving threat.

Terrorist offenders leaving custody or being supervised in the community after conviction face a complex and specific number of challenges. They may suffer feelings of shame, isolation, rejection and alienation from friends, co-workers and family. They will have obvious and particular problems accessing housing, education and employment. They will also be likely to face stringent additional control measures imposed by the state to stop them reoffending. In these respects they are remarkably similar as a cohort to released sex offenders.

Again, why should we care? It’s hard to feel any sympathy for people who have planned for and too often succeeded with plots to cause us grievous harm. But it’s precisely because of this potential we must care.

Prison and state controls after prison are ways which control behaviour. But this alone won’t change beliefs – in fact it may simply harden hatreds. Desisting from terrorist offending is not the same thing as disengagement from the deformed beliefs and ideologies that animate that destructive behaviour. We must not limit our ambitions to merely boxing in terrorist offenders – we should aim for transformation of their beliefs. One recanted extremist is worth a thousand police officers.

In my paper, I argue for a radical approach to reintegration which marries an existing and successful strategy for controlling harm with a new community initiative. Using the Muslim community as an example, I have suggested the creation of a local network of carefully selected volunteers who support, monitor and try to change the mindset of extremist offenders. The “Sunnah” network is based on a concept which is used to support released sex-offenders in their host community.

Circles of Support and Accountability were established in North America in 1994 as models of reintegration based on volunteers in a circle “around” the offender with professional support. These volunteers provided close practical support and “pro-social” mentoring around the offender to keep him (and therefore citizens) safe and assist him to plan for and live a positive future free from crime.

There is much evidence to demonstrate the success of long-term, meaningful relationships with significant peers as a way to reduce reoffending. The Sunnah approach could be adopted, for example, by the local mosque an Islamist extremist offender was attached to. There are other obvious benefits in this approach – communities which are sometimes regarded with suspicion might now, through this concept, have an opportunity to work in partnership with the state to safeguard our national security. And this is key.

My concept is designed to work separately from but in partnership with all the other statutory controls. They are an absolutely necessary but – in my view – insufficient means of keeping us safe from very dangerous people.

Is this risky? You bet. Many people will simply not be able to stomach the additional resources and support that I am suggesting released extremist offenders need. Others will say the model is flawed or that there are huge security risks involved in bringing the community into the heart of the shadowy and secretive world of counter-extremism. All these arguments are understandable, but we cannot risk complacency with regard to bad people who have gone through the maw of our criminal justice system and been ejected worse.

We must mobilise our communities to shoulder the burden of national security as never before.  We can’t afford to do otherwise. The numbers of eligible offenders are within a manageable scale. The risks of doing nothing to change their behaviour are obvious.

The chilling IRA statement after the 1984 Brighton bomb comes to mind: “Remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

Ian Acheson led the Government's 2016 review of violent extremism in custody.