We learnt this weekend that the London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, had been jailed in 2012 along with eight other men for terrorism offences, and had close links to the group planning to bomb the London stock exchange, among other targets. If so, why was he allowed to travel to the heart of London while released on licence? It is highly likely that he would have been restricted from travel to London and that the probation service and possibly police therefore gave special permission for him to attend.
The Sunday Telegraph’s coverage indicated as much yesterday. So it looks as if there has been a fatal error here: Khan hoodwinked the authorities into letting him attend an event near London bridge presumably because its theme was rehabilitation and prison education. The Telegraph also says he attended a previous event – on Whitehall – earlier this year, but with a police minder on that occasion. That looks like a major lapse of judgement on the part of the probation service and police too. Since Khan had been involved in a plot to attack a London landmark, he should not have been let anywhere near central London until he had served the remainder of his sentence in the community. How close did he get, at the Whitehall event, to government ministers, for example?
The idea that Islamist extremists can be cunning when dealing with the authorities should not have come as a surprise. I was working for the Justice Secretary, then Liz Truss, when the Government published a major report on Islamist extremism in prisons and the probation service and recall the type of manipulative behaviour that was discussed at the highest levels of the Ministry of Justice. Islamist extremists, the report said, would exploit prison officers’ fear of being labelled 'racist'. They would pressurise staff at Friday prayers to leave the room so they could have unsupervised collective worship. Charismatic extremist prisoners would act as self-styled ‘emirs’ and exert a controlling and radicalising influence on the wider Muslim prison population.
In other words, the fact that Usman Khan was able to hoodwink the authorities in this case is a serious failing and will have to change how prisons and probation services treat offenders who behave as if they have genuinely seen the error of their ways.
Another institution is also worth examining. Did Cambridge University carry out enough due diligence for their event at Fishmongers’ Hall – and did it have enough security? It appears that one of the men who bravely tried to tackle Khan was himself a murderer out on day release from prison (so he must have been nearing the end of his sentence). This is quite a story. But how many other convicted killers and terrorists were in the room? Was this gathering properly thought through?
The Learning Together initiative is well known in justice reform circles and has achieved remarkable success in some cases. For example, at HMP Grendon, which is the nearest thing the UK has to a therapeutic prison, Cambridge undergraduates and prisoners have studied alongside each other. In 2016, a 28-year-old prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence outperformed the Cambridge students and came top of the class. These university-run schemes are to be applauded. Dame Sally Coates’s review into prison education, published three years ago, highlighted them as 'good practice in unlocking potential'. That said, the Government should consider reviewing its guidance to all universities and other organisations that gather together offenders who are serving their sentences in the community (or are on day release). Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, indicated in his Today interview this morning that prisoners released on licence would no longer be able to attend events like the one on Friday. That may disappoint academic researchers but it’s a wise call.
The response of the Government highlights the game-changing nature of Friday’s attack. Boris Johnson confirmed yesterday that 74 people jailed for terror offences have been released early and will have their licence conditions reviewed. This is the right approach. For a start, anyone who was convicted of London-related terrorism should not be allowed into the capital until they have served their full sentence.
Will Heaven is Director of Policy at Policy Exchange