The attack in Streatham on Sunday carried out by Sudesh Amman – recently released from prison after serving time for terrorist-related offences – raises again the question of how to make prison more effective in dealing with this sort of offender. Inevitably there have been renewed calls for longer sentences and more police on the street.
Yet evidence from elsewhere does not suggest that this would stop similar attacks. First, no society can be entirely free from terrorism, just as no society can be entirely free from any other form of serious crime. Second, having more police on the street is not likely to prevent the sort of attack committed by Amman, who took a knife from a shop and immediately started attacking passers-by. Indeed in this case, armed police were not only right behind him but watching his every move. Third, there is scant evidence that longer prison sentences lead to lower rates of reoffending. And fourth, no prison deradicalisation programme anywhere in the world has proven consistently successful.
There is scant evidence that longer prison sentences lead to lower rates of reoffending
As an illustration of the difficulties, there is not even a consensus among prison services in western democracies as to whether terrorist prisoners should be kept segregated from other inmates or allowed to mingle among the general prison population. On one hand, prisons are concerned that violent extremists may radicalise fellow inmates, many of whom are young and impressionable. On the other, if all terrorist prisoners are held together, the chances of any individual abandoning the shared cause is less likely.
Certainly deradicalisation programmes in prisons could be better; so could reform programmes for other categories of prisoner. But resources will always be a crucial factor. Prisons are very effective as places of incarceration and in providing society with a measure of protection and a sense of retributive justice, but they are neither designed nor resourced to deal with the very personal circumstances that lead individuals to become violent extremists.
Case studies show that the success of organisations such as Islamic State lies not so much in the specific encouragement they give to people to attack their fellow citizens but in their creation of a motive to do so. This is done by exploiting individual grievances and suggesting that they are caused by a deeper and more general anti-Islam prejudice – and that the only way to resolve this is through violence.
The crucial work of immunisation against this insidious persuasion has to take place before an individual is exposed to extremist propaganda, by offering more attractive and available ways to achieve the sense of purpose and belonging that so many terrorist recruits appear to seek.
Once an individual has found the worldview promoted by extremist propagandists appealing – whether from the extreme right or from a violent religious cult – it has proven hard to change his or her mind. This is why the government’s Channel programme is designed to spot early signs of vulnerability to radicalisation, so that an appropriate intervention can take place in a timely fashion.
Yet it is rare that all it takes to set someone back on the “right” track is to point out the looming dangers of being on the “wrong” one. The circumstances that make an individual vulnerable to the allure of violent extremism are inevitably complex, and deeply personal. Two brothers brought up in exactly the same environment may take diametrically opposite paths in life. Understanding why they do so, and doing something about it, requires a great deal of skill and patience.
There has been some discussion of deradicalisation programmes outside Britain, and there are now many countries in the world where such programmes exist. But all are highly tailored to the culture and resources available, and none is 100% guaranteed to work. In recognition of this, all continue to evolve, and the one direction that appears to be common among them is towards the greater involvement of local communities, both in pre-empting radicalisation and in attempting effective deradicalisation.
This makes sense on every level. It is, after all, the community that is most likely to spot the warning signs. It is rare that anyone becomes radicalised to violence purely online and without showing any sign of change or expressing their radical outlook to contacts in the real world. Furthermore, it is the community to which any convicted terrorist must return. However, there are enough appalling stories of failure in other areas of social dysfunction to know that even the most supportive, active and well-trained community will be unable to deliver a failsafe counter-radicalisation programme.
This leads to two conclusions: first that attacks such as the one perpetrated by Amman will continue to occur, even though they are extremely rare; and second that although the solution lies in the community as well as in the prisons, the community needs resources, leadership and instruction.
Ultimately, at all levels, we need to think more about why people believe that by attacking strangers in a public place and inviting death by armed police, they will satisfy their grievances and become anything more than a sad footnote to our contemporary social history.
• Richard Barrett is is a former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6 and director of the Global Strategy Network