It is only natural to feel alarmed following terrorist attacks such as the one that took place in Streatham, south London, on Sunday, when Sudesh Amman stabbed two people before being shot dead by police. The murderous, jihadist ideology that is assumed to have guided Amman’s actions is frightening. Details such as his having urged a girlfriend to murder her parents are horrifying. The fact that this 20-year-old man had been released from prison just over a week ago, after serving part of a sentence for possessing and distributing extremist material, makes the sequence of events that led to his death all the more unnerving.
The similarities between this attack, and the fatal stabbing of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones by another former prisoner, Usman Khan, at London Bridge, are extremely concerning. Episodes of Islamist terrorism have formed malign patterns in the past and are expected to again. In this context it is right that ministers should seek to reassure the public, and show themselves willing to take whatever action is necessary to reduce the danger. The toughest questions must be asked both of the prison service, who released Amman, and of the security services who thought the former prisoner so dangerous that they put armed officers on his tail.
But while it is understandable for anxious members of the public to look for quick fixes, the government should not rush into anything. A package of measures prompted by the London Bridge killings and trailed in the middle of the election campaign is less than two weeks old. This includes longer sentences for terrorists convicted of the most serious offences, doubling the number of counter-terrorist probation officers and increased funding for specialist police and victims. Previous changes to the rules governing the sentencing and monitoring of terrorist suspects and former prisoners led to a system that was arguably overly complex – with prisoners subject to differing regimes depending on when they were convicted. Khan, the London Bridge attacker, is an example of how such reconfigurations can cause as well as solve problems. Having been re-sentenced for terror offences under new rules following an appeal, he was released from prison in 2018 with no oversight from the Parole Board.
With such recent history in mind, it is hard to see pledge of emergency legislation by the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, as anything other than over-hasty. The aim is to make proposed changes to early release rules retrospective. The danger, even if such controversial changes were to be enacted, is that they fail to address underlying issues including ongoing effects of the disastrous probation service part-privatisation, and chronic resource issues in courts and prisons (indeterminate sentences were ruled illegal in 2012 because no rehabilitation was being offered).
The ideology that drove the Manchester bombing and others has not been extinguished. The security services keep tabs on around 3,000 subjects of interest. But the risk of future attacks by former prisoners should not be exaggerated. In a UK prison population of more than 80,000, just 224 are locked up for terror offences (around 80% of them Islamists). At around 30%, reoffending is a problem throughout the system. And while it isn’t easy to persuade people to abandon cultish ideas such as those promoted by Islamic State and its violence-obsessed offshoots, for the prime minister to claim that deradicalisation rarely works only boosts the recruiters. There is no cause for complacency. But there is no cause to panic either.