An officer keeps watch after Usman Khan committed a knife attack near London Bridge on Nov. 29, 2019. (British Transport Police)

Is Terrorist Rehabilitation a Farce? A New Study Suggests Sometimes Yes

A recent report released by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College in London found terrorists in captivity may be “faking” their rehabilitation to commit further terrorist acts.

“Prisons and Terrorism: Extremist Offender Management in 10 European Countries” looked at the imprisonment and rehabilitation of terrorists with nations using different rehabilitation programs, and found that despite low recidivism rates overall there was no way to guarantee that a terrorist had truly been rehabilitated, ultimately putting others at risk.

The study was based on a 2010 study also released by ICSR; however, it focuses on a narrower set of countries in Europe. The study provides an overview and analysis of trends within the extremist offender population; attacks and operational planning within prison systems; measures aimed at preventing radicalization and recruitment; prison regimes for extremist offenders; and reintegration and release policies.

Each country has different conditions based on their law that need to be met in order for a prisoner to be released. In every country, after a prisoner’s sentence comes to an end, they will be released. However, in some countries, such as Sweden, a prisoner has to exhibit “serious misbehavior” in order to have their release postponed. Many countries release prisoners on parole.

The rehabilitation programs vary from country to country. However, most countries have shifted toward focusing on disengagement (a change in behavior) rather than de‐radicalization (a change in ideas). The majority of the rehabilitations  follow the same basic principles: they begin with an assessment, are individually tailored, and involve a variety of interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mentoring, and structured dialogue tool. Many European countries chose to have the rehabilitation program be voluntary for the inmate. Only France and Britain’s programs are compulsory, the argument being that the programs can do no harm. France and Britain are again the outliers in terms of including ideological conversion in their programs, offering a deep analysis into prisoners’ beliefs and asking them to re-evaluate them.

In some countries, once a prisoner is granted parole, the former terrorists have to meet with an ideological mentor. The Netherlands has created a comprehensive post-release program specifically for those charged with terrorism. “The Dutch Probation Service’s Terrorism, Extremism and Radicalisation team works closely with the prison service, identifying inmates that are due for release, developing a relationship with offenders while they are still incarcerated and facilitating their transition back into society by helping with social, psychological, and ideological needs,” said the report.

These programs have varied success in stopping offenses once the prisoners have been rehabilitated. However, across Europe the rates of another offense range from 2 percent to 7 percent. This is a very low number, compared to some countries where the rate exceeds 50 percent. However, these numbers do not account for anyone who avoids conviction, anyone who dies while committing a terrorist attack, or those who have gone abroad. These numbers also only track those who were put in prison for the crime of terrorism, not those who may have been radicalized in prison or have been radicalizing others.

The study shared case studies of some prisoners who manipulated the system, showing remorse and getting out of their long sentences by exhibiting good behavior. One such prisoner was Usman Khan. Khan was originally arrested for his involvement in a terrorist plot. His sentence was at first indefinite; however, he was soon granted a lighter sentence due to his model behavior. He remained in prison for only eight years before being released on parole, serving the rest of his 16-year sentence on parole. Khan joined the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, a British government program that provides “mentoring, psychological support, theological and ideological advice.” Khan was actively in touch with his parole officer, and wore an ankle tag with his location. His behavior was so good that he was allowed to attend a conference by himself called “Learning Together” for rehabilitated prisoners. At the conference, he entered the bathroom and came out with a vest on, which had fake explosives, and two knives taped to his hands. He killed two people attending the conference, and was eventually forced out of the building. In the case of Usman Khan, these rehabilitation efforts failed as he played along with what was expected of him.

In Europe, while the rates of recidivism are generally low, there is very little way to guarantee that the rehabilitation has worked completely, as some prisoners are able to manipulate the system and ultimately are able to hurt others.

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Kalyna White is an Assistant Editor at HSToday for Climate Change Security and is the STEM Ambassador to the Board of Directors for Women in Homeland Security. She is the founder of LABUkraine, a non-profit organization that builds computer labs for orphans in Ukraine. Since 2011 she has worked with Women in Homeland Security to encourage middle and high school student to pursue STEM careers by organizing and supporting field trips to STEM missions throughout the homeland security enterprise. She is also President of the University of California, San Diego Pi Beta Phi chapter.

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