Ian Acheson

Are we any closer to stopping the next Usman Khan?

Are we any closer to stopping the next Usman Khan?
The site of the London Bridge attack, 2019 (photo: Getty)
Text settings

This weekend is the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack. Usman Khan murdered two young people at an event he was invited to, run by the ‘Learning Together’ scheme, which is part of the University of Cambridge. The conference was designed to celebrate the achievements of people like Khan who had joined the course while serving in high-security HMP Whitemoor. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were stabbed to death by the dedicated Islamist, supposedly on community supervision nearly a year after being released from prison for terrorism crimes. Twelve months later, are we any closer to understanding that fatal convergence of perpetrator and victims?

My organisation, the Counter Extremism Project, in association with the University of Staffordshire has just launched a year-long study into the phenomenon of ‘Disguised compliance’ in terrorist offenders. Disguised compliance is what we criminology types call ‘deception.’

It is highly likely that Usman Khan deceived a whole range of professional people on his journey to martyrdom. It is also clear that he is not alone in this lethal deceit. Only a few weeks ago, Austria’s Interior Minister revealed with the sort of candour that would be unheard of here, that the Vienna Islamist extremist Kujtim Fejzulai who murdered four people in a nine-minute rampage earlier this month had ‘fooled’ the professionals charged with his rehabilitation. In France a terrorist who attacked and almost killed two prison officers in the first crime of its kind there was considered a model prisoner. Closer to home in HMP Whitemoor, the extremist who led an attack that almost killed a prison officer in January was eight months into a year-long deradicalisation programme and had been given awards for his good behaviour. The list goes on.

The inquest into Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt scheduled for next April could provide a rare opportunity to understand the nature and extent of Khan’s murderous deception and to hold others to account for it. The Coroner has directed that the inquest will be held with a jury and is considering whether or not it should be an ‘Article 2’ inquest, which would examine whether the state was at fault for failing to protect life, under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The circumstances of Khan’s attack were clearly manufactured years before, when he was in prison and accepted on the ‘Learning Together’ scheme, where he developed a relationship with his victims. Ascertaining the existence and quality of the professional risk assessments that enabled this to happen and which allowed Khan to travel through deradicalisation programmes and into the community will be of crucial importance. The convoluted series of hand-offs between agencies within our inadequate terrorist prisoner management process is almost certain to have facilitated Khan’s deception. We must know the full extent of organisational failures to give the bereaved a full measure of justice and prevent future tragedies.

But there is also an important cultural question that is perhaps beyond the scope of any inquest. The Learning Together programme was enthusiastically and repeatedly endorsed by senior prison service managers who now have direct responsibility for counter terrorism and the operation of our high security prisons.

Unlike similar programmes operating successfully in other parts of the UK and abroad, Learning Together has accepted terrorists into its courses designed to allow criminology students from Cambridge University (and elsewhere) to sit side by side with some extremely dangerous offenders. Defenders of the programme will point to the transformative nature of such encounters. We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the two people who bravely took on Khan, who was armed with knives and wearing a fake suicide belt, were themselves ex-prisoners and graduates of the scheme.

But we should also ask questions about the penetration of what I call ‘Reclamation theology’ – an unshakable professional credo that believes everyone who offends is capable of redemption. This view has been in the ascendancy within the higher echelons of the prison service for some time. It is precisely the sort of philosophy that regards security and boundaries as subordinate to the rescue of human potential, real, imagined or confected.

Many of its senior managers have attended the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology Masters course – spoiler alert, so did I – which is regarded as something of a finishing school for ambitious careerists. It takes nothing away from the passionate commitment of Saskia and Jack to prison reform to also ask whether arrogance, recklessness or naivete on the part of those responsible for their safety might also have played a role in putting them into Usman Khan’s theatre of rage.

We need answers to ensure that the balance between rehabilitation and safety remains properly in sync. We need better ways, systems and people to authenticate the motives of dangerous, sophisticated and charismatic terrorists on either side of the prison walls. We can’t always be right – but I believe passionately that we can be much better. It is very sad that we must rely on an inquest into two bright stars killed by a deceptive terrorist to help us become so. We are learning the hard way that some people can’t be fixed – and some people don’t want to be.

Professor Ian Acheson is a Senior Advisor for the Counter Extremism Project. His BBC Radio 4 documentary on the London Bridge attack is here.