Ian Acheson

Usman Khan’s time in prison could hold the key to explaining his murderous attack

Usman Khan's time in prison could hold the key to explaining his murderous attack
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London Bridge terrorist Usman Khan appears to have spent some of his final months behind bars at HMP Whitemoor, a high-security prison near Peterborough, where some of the country’s most dangerous people are held. The prison's chequered history could be relevant to the horrific events that unfolded in the capital last week.

I last visited Whitemoor near the beginning of 2016. This ‘new build’ prison, finished in 1992 with space for around 450 inmates, was designed to be escape proof. Two years later, five IRA terrorists and a gangster brutally disabused this notion by escaping over the perimeter wall armed with a gun that had been smuggled into the ‘supermax’ special secure unit where they were held. A prison officer was shot during the escape.

The withering official report into what happened was a masterpiece of bureaucratic skewering. The author of this review Sir John Woodcock spoke of prison staff in the control room having their evening game of Scrabble interrupted by the sight on CCTV of the prisoners going over the wall. He blamed all levels of the prison service from top to bottom for creating ‘a disaster waiting to happen.’ I often use this report when teaching students and lecturing on combatting extremism in prisons to illustrate the challenges of complacency.

Going back to the IRA escape, Woodcock wrote about an environment where the ‘tail wagged the dog’ with staff beaten down psychologically and conditioned not to confront prisoners who were constantly pushing the boundaries of control. An ethos of concession and a lack of positive staff leadership had created the conditions where frightened officers were reduced to passive onlookers while terrorists took advantage of this vacuum to plot their escape. Making a prison physically secure is a relatively simple exercise – invest in technology, perfect processes, test regularly. Making a prison holding terrorists a psychologically secure is a much more subjective and fraught process.

While Whitemoor has improved greatly since this report (there have been no further escapes in the 25 years since), its staff have an unbelievably challenging task in dealing with some of the most sophisticated and dangerous ideological offenders in western Europe.

We need to know much more about what Khan did in his time there and what was done to him to understand the gestation of his murderous rampage. It is inconceivable his eight years in custody had nothing to do with his eleven months on release. Or with his final, fateful decision to launch a terrorist attack.

HMP Whitemoor has undergone a striking demographic shift in the time since the mass escape that so embarrassed officials and ministers. Muslims now make up 42 per cent of the prison population, compared to 41 per cent who are Christian.

Whitemoor also holds a number of Islamist terrorist offenders like Khan. Behind bars, postcode and ethnic identity gangs vie for control. Serious organised crime and ideological extremism mix together, creating lethal possibilities for dangerous new allegiances. It’s an extraordinarily difficult place to manage at the best of times.

The prison service very rarely releases prisoners directly into the community from high security prisons at the end of their custodial sentence, as appears to be the case with Khan. Normally prisoners progress through the system over a number of years in decreasing levels of security and control until they can be tested in open conditions in a Category D (low security) jail.

It is very important to establish why Khan did not take this route. Unlike countries such as Spain, we don’t have a special designation of terrorist prisoners in this country – one of my recommendations in my 2016 extremism report to the government was to adopt this approach – so this standard process of being moved to other prisons ought to have applied to him. It’s reasonable to infer that because this did not happen, he was still judged to be a high risk within the prison system and in need of the most secure confinement right up to the point where he had to be released. This ought to have had profound implications for his risk management in the community.

There have been conflicting reports about whether and how Khan engaged with efforts to address his toxic ideology in the eight years he was in custody, at least some of those final years at Whitemoor.

My concern is that, in an echo of the past illustrated by the Woodcock report, we have become too passive about the treatment of violent extremists as their numbers in prison have steadily increased. There is widespread instability across the prison estate and although high-security prisons such as Whitemoor have been better protected against this, they are not immune.

Category A Long Lartin prison, for example, suffered serious disturbances in 2018 and 2019. HMP Woodhill, another high-security prison Khan reportedly spent time in, is plagued by homicides, suicides and chronic staff shortages. Sometimes pragmatic decisions about maintaining order in a very difficult, complex and volatile environment means prisoners, including terrorists who appear to be complying with the regime, will be left alone.

We ought to know what (if any) assertive action was taken to explore, understand and counter Usman Khan’s malign jihadist worldview. Or was he simply ignored?

Prison staff who worked with terrorists at Whitemoor spoke candidly with me in 2016 about a lack of protection and training. This made them vulnerable to attack by jihadist prisoners and also impotent to challenge their warped views. Their governor, a talented old colleague of mine, was determined to keep his prison safe. But on the front line, prison officers revealed with chilling matter-of-factness the risks they faced every day. Their overriding fear was being taken hostage and killed by terrorists, who saw them as easily available and vulnerable agents of a state they were determined to bring down, regardless of their incarceration. Jihad, after all, does not stop at the jail gates.

One of the issues I highlighted in my 2016 report was the use of the Healthy Identity Intervention (HII), a tool designed to change the mindset of terrorist offenders. Usman Khan is said to have participated in this. It was obvious from the evidence we gathered that this in-house intervention, while well intentioned, could easily be ‘gamed’ to provide the right answers and that offenders on it were probably sharing experiences in order to successfully complete the course. We concluded that this generic course was probably unsuitable for many offenders in denial or who perceived their actions to be rational. An individualised approach tailored to need would work better. But that, of course, is hugely expensive.

Whoever wins the election and is tasked with cutting through the bureaucratic evasion and opposition I encountered in my original review has a huge task on their hands. The next government must drive through wholesale cultural and organisational reform in our prison and probation service. This is needed to assure voters that as far as violent extremists are concerned the tail has indeed stopped wagging the dog.

Institutional timidity is partly responsible for the events that created Usman Khan. So it's time to end the corporate hand-wringing of our protective services that has given many ordinary citizens the impression that their right to be safe on our streets is eternally subordinate to the rights of terrorist offenders.

The inevitable response to this approach from the criminal justice commentariat will be that you can’t beat terrorism by punitive and oppressive measures. I wholeheartedly agree.

My friendship with the late Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA killer who repented his past life and worked tirelessly to counter violent extremism, tells me redemption is possible, even with terrorists. He would be the first to say that violent extremism thrives in places where the state retreats from its primary obligation to protect its citizens. He would also say that Jeremy Corbyn and any government led by him would be profoundly unequal to the task of restoring confidence in our national security. And I agree.

Ian Acheson is a former prison governor