Is it possible to 'deradicalise' terrorists? Jonathan Hall QC, the government's terror watchdog, doesn’t think so. He may have a point, but it’s complicated. One of the institutional problems we have is a sort of misplaced arrogance based, in part, on the historic experience of counter-insurgency against violent Irish republicans. Until quite recently, the Ministry of Justice press office referred to our prison deradicalisation processes as ‘world-class.’ Hall himself only recently began looking at our distinctly Heath-Robinson terrorist risk management ‘system’ after London Bridge killer Usman Khan ran rings around it. Having enumerated its many obvious defects, he bizarrely concluded it was pretty much fit for purpose.
The IRA were enthusiastic human rights violators — but not even the most fanatical of them ever thought they had divine permission to commit their terror attacks. This lies at the heart of the challenge to our national security. Can we ever be sure that offenders who are motivated by such an ideology will be safe again? Are the risks of trying to reintegrate the most dangerous outweighed by their potential to kill? Do we have the systems, processes, resources and people in place to manage what is still a tiny fraction of the prison population who pose these special dangers? Who else is out there and how do we control that risk without undermining liberal democracy and doing the terrorists' job for them?
Combatting violent extremism has become big business globally with the usual share of snake oil salesmen who attach themselves to any social harm and sell glib solutions. The routes into and potentially out of ideological terrorism are as complex as the biographies of those who adopt its ways. Unfortunately, we don’t have a strong set of common denominators to design our response around. The UK's terrorist offender profile ranges from two-time losers to articulate university graduates. Deradicalisation implies a binary process where toxic worldviews that may have their pre-cursors in early life can simply be switched off. No-one who has genuinely recanted a belief in violent extremism — they do exist, I’ve met them — would agree with such a fatuous description.
I prefer to look at the management of ideologically motivated offenders in terms of ‘desistance’ and ‘disengagement'. These are terms used by the government already, though arguably not in the right way. They describe a process Khan was subjected to and then gamed to lethal effect.
‘Desistence’ requires voluntary or involuntary controls on behaviour — these are the sorts of robust security controls that must be imposed on the most dangerous offenders to prevent them from harming others. ‘Disengagement’ is the golden fleece. That is a voluntary and authentic rejection of extremist views. It probably requires long-term, trusted relationships with expert mentors who can help wean offenders off the dehumanising necessary for violence. It will also require a calibrated approach in custody and beyond that looks at the individual pathology of the terrorist and identifies ways to help him to change. It is probably a lifelong process and we ought to manage the most dangerous convicted terrorists in the same way we manage sex offenders, as has been previously been suggested by me and Dame Louise Casey. Disengagement must also involve the community as well as the necessary but (on its own) insufficient security monitoring response. This will be expensive and cannot guarantee success. We are still light years away from such a calibrated and sophisticated response. We need to wise up.
Mr Hall has said that there is ‘no magic bullet or special pill that you can take’ to deradicalise people. No serious commentator thinks there is a secret sauce to cure the moral and social deformities that produce modern jihadists and their far-right equivalents. But it is quite wrong to suggest that the ideologies that animate hatred, explain grievance, dehumanise others and ultimately mobilise extreme violence are immutable and can’t be replaced. Certainly, the crude, poorly evaluated psycho-social generic sheep dip interventions currently delivered by people a moral universe away from their subjects aren’t much use. There are huge and uncomfortable societal questions to ask here about why young Muslim men, who represent the most potent terrorist threat, want to kill their neighbours. Lie detectors aren’t going to be much use here. At the other end of the spectrum there are dedicated and committed terrorists who remain so dangerous that it is quite possible they should never be released from custody for as long as they remain a threat.
But who makes these decisions? Mr Hall has endorsed the current set of risk management handoffs and agencies throughout the prisoners’ custodial journey and into resettlement plainly not designed or philosophically equipped for this task, that are supposed to support prisoners’ throughout their custodial journey and into resettlement. I have argued consistently for one unified and multi-disciplinary taskforce that manages terrorist offenders from the moment of their conviction to the last day of community supervision. This would replace the roles of the probation service, prison service, police, security service and parole boards that currently have fragmentary involvement in risk management at various different points on that journey. A single entity would be far better at building a rich biographical picture of individual assailants. It could more efficiently direct evidence-based interventions calibrated to change their toxic worldview. It would more effectively manage risk-based reintegration ‘through the prison gate’ with intensive supervision. It would replace hopeful naivety with informed scepticism. That is the best possible way to ensure that fewer terrorists fall through the gaps.
It is also a way to build an extensive intelligence picture that can stop future terrorism and give us a better handle on the ways to reduce dangerousness. Lie detectors may help as deception is a huge issue for our overstretched protective services — but the fight against violent extremism can't be won with pseudo-science and an alphabet soup of agencies tripping over each other. If deradicalisation isn’t working, let's see if we can reframe the approach. Lives may depend on it. There’s nothing terrorists like more than a counsel of despair.
Professor Ian Acheson is a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project.