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.