Later today, two men will be sentenced for their part in the attempted murder of a prison officer at high security HMP Whitemoor in January 2020. Unfortunately, extreme violence against the men and women who put on the uniform has become almost normalised in a system beset with squalor, overcrowding and unchecked predatory behaviour. Even so, the particular characteristics of this incident are of huge concern.
The two prisoners were charged under terrorism legislation. In January this year, Brusthom Ziamani, a 25-year-old previously sentenced to 22 years in jail for a plot to behead a British soldier and Baz Hockton, a violent knife criminal who converted to Islam in prison and was radicalised by Ziamani, dressed up in fake suicide belts they had made in their cells and launched a ferocious attack on prison officer Neil Trundle, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ in what was clearly a carefully planned assault.
People who have little familiarity with prison life will ask themselves how it is possible for two men to orchestrate such a brazen assault in a place where the state has spent millions on their secure and allegedly safe incarceration. How it is possible for prisoners to make and possess improvised weapons and create fake suicide belts without detection. How a descent into jihad happened unnoticed, despite suspicions, in one of the most surveilled pieces of real estate on earth. How vulnerable staff can be exposed without adequate protection to an obvious and pervasive threat. How we can be sure that there aren’t other perpetrators who assisted them waiting to strike again.
I’ve seen chilling footage of terrorist-related attacks on prison staff before. Four years ago, the then-Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, asked me to look at the threat posed by Islamist extremists in our prison, probation and youth justice system. The most serious scenario we identified to ministers was the hostage taking of a prison officer by terrorists to be murdered, with the killing disseminated on the internet. I arrived at this conclusion after speaking in private with dozens of front-line uniformed staff who worked on wings were terrorists were held. This included staff at HMP Whitemoor. Their top concern had a chilling uniformity across all the places I visited. What officers feared most was being taken hostage – because to be taken hostage was to be killed.
Our hostage policy has not changed since I was a hostage negotiator trainer in the 1990s – don’t resist, build rapport with the hostage taker. We can thank our lucky stars that Officer Neil Trundle ignored this advice and instead fought for his life.
Having seen the CCTV footage and looked at the publicly available evidence I’m of the view that a hostage-killing was probably the real objective of the terrorists. We will probably never know for sure. Fake suicide belts are often worn by Islamist extremists to give themselves time and space to complete their subjugation of a target and hold off responders. The excuses provided by Ziamani, that his actions were intended to be a non-lethal protest to get a prison move were dismissed by the jury. Their view was that the two assailants were determined to kill the hapless officer, lured to his fate after getting one of them a replacement spoon. A catastrophe was avoided by mere seconds, millimetres.
There will be those, particularly in the upper echelons of the prison service, who will say that it is impossible to prevent this sort of extreme event. Moreover, those whose concern with prison reform is more about prisoner advocacy than public protection might argue that punitive responses after such an incident are counter-productive. But what if the unthinkable happens? Terrorists who remain active in custody are avid consumers of their environment. They have all day to observe routines, personalities, obstacles and opportunities. Those committed to an ideology that rewards martyrdom with paradise and have easy access to an endless supply of violent, credulous young men searching for meaning to help them, know how devastating such attacks on staff are. A lethal attack might even force panicked prison staff to withdraw to a place of safety on very understandable advice from their unions. Then what? The police and army are rather busy these days, I hear. Terrorist prisoners are also aware of just how primitive the current risk management regime is. Our Heath Robinson radicalisation screening process is used nowhere else in the world. Our crude interventions are laughed at by experienced jihadis. Our policy of containment verging on appeasement rather than assertive challenge, leaves the field wide open to sophisticated grooming.
The problems are serious, entrenched but not unfixable. Attacks of this nature must be relegated to ‘never’ events. The magnificent bravery of responding staff who threw themselves at Officer Trundle’s assailants, not knowing whether those explosive belts were real or fake shows that with the right leadership and resources we can make places like Whitemoor safer and better able to manage an exceptionally risky clientele. National security does not stop at the prison gates. British citizens live and work behind those walls and those in uniform must be given the tools to safely manage some of the most heinous and implacable enemies of civilised society. I am happy to revisit my review and give the Justice Secretary the confidence he needs to get this job done.
Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison Governor, a senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project, and author of the independent government review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016.