Lock The Bad Guys Up and Then Sleep Tight? The (Im)Possible Impacts Of The Terrorist Offenders Bill

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Lock The Bad Guys Up and Then Sleep Tight? The (Im)Possible Impacts Of The Terrorist Offenders Bill

Kutluer Karademir, PhD


Senior Research Fellow
Global Center for Security Studies
kutluer.karademir@gc4ss.org
Knife attacks perpetrated in recent years in London have raised great anxiety for good reason. Among others, the most striking similarity between the two attacks was that the perpetrators had been released from prison a short while in advance of the attacks. The UK government targeted this exact point in its policy response which has consisted of a piece of legislation, which is effective retrospectively, restricting the release periods of terrorism convicts. This paper is an attempt to analyse this policy within the scope of the new generation of Salafi-jihadist terrorism.
>1. What Happened

The first knife attack was perpetrated in Fishmongers Hall in central London on 20 November 2019 by Usman Khan who stabbed two to death and wounded three others before being shot dead by the police. Khan had been convicted in 2012 for training jihadists in a Pakistani Madrasah(1) and released on “Extensive License Conditions” in 2018. (2) The attack was perpetrated during a celebration event at the Fishmongers Hall within the scope of the Learning Together program conducted by Cambridge Institute of Criminology. The program aims to establish a connection between criminals and students of criminology to provide education to the offenders so that they can better integrate into society after they are released from prison. In fact, Khan was a former participant of the program and an invitee of the event where he would commit the attack. (3) The attack was claimed by ISIS the next day with a statement declaring that the attack had been perpetrated “in response to calls to target coalition countries.”(4)

The UK government apparently identifies the problem as the early release of the convicted terrorists

The second stabbing attack occurred on 2 February 2020 in London. The perpetrator, Sudesh Amman, stabbed and wounded 2 people and then shot dead by the police. Sudesh had been convicted of terrorism in 2018 and released after serving part of his sentence. It is also known that Sudesh had pledged allegiance to ISIS and was desperately eager for becoming a martyr. (5)

2. The Policy Response

There are several similarities between the two attacks, including the type of attack, number, sex, organisational affiliation and religion of the perpetrators and of course their end. However, the most striking similarity between the two attacks was that both of the perpetrators had been convicted of terrorism and released after serving a part of their sentences pursuant to extant laws in the UK. It was not until the outcrop of the second attack in February 2020 that the UK government decided to take policy action, probably to appease the public outrage over the issue. The response has been a piece of new legislation, The Terrorist Offenders Bill, addressing the most striking overlap between the two attacks, that is, the early release of notorious terrorists after serving half of their sentences in prison. (6) The Terrorist Offenders Bill proposes that those who are convicted of terrorism will not be released until serving two-thirds of their sentence in prison.

Holding prisoners in the prison system longer will prevent them from perpetrating attacks until they are released

Moreover, the legislation is proposed to be effective retrospectively, leading to controversies about the possible appeal processes to be claimed by the convicts and negative consequences thereof in the judicial system in future. (7)

Public policy refers to prescribing solutions to public problems by respective government agencies ideally in cooperation with a range of respective non-governmental actors. The key point in policy-making is to identify the problem correctly, covering all aspects of it as much as possible. (8) In this case, after two consecutive terror attacks in London by recently released terrorism convicts, who had several more features in common, the UK government apparently identifies the problem as the early release of the convicted terrorists as it has rapidly enacted a piece of legislation restricting the release terms of such convicts as a policy response. Furthermore, this new legislation will be effective retrospectively to not allow the early release of terrorism convicts whose release dates are due in a short while.

In the following section, I will attempt to make an alternative problem definition and then superpose this definition with the current policy of the UK government to estimate its future success. Then, an alternative policy implication will be proposed.


3. Will Longer Imprisonment Work ?

In the current system, terrorism convicts are held in 6 maximum security dispersal prisons and are transferred across these prisons on a regular basis lest they get into close contact with other prisoners and brainwash them. (9) The current system is criticized for paving the way for the radicalisation of young and gullible inmates because they contact with unruly charismatic terrorists in the prison environment. By the same token, the system is also seen unsuccessful in the rehabilitation of radical terrorists. (10) In a report issued in 2015 by the ICSR examining radicalisation across the prisons of 15 countries including the UK, it is stated that there is overcrowd and personnel shortage as well as lack of social facilities in the UK prisons, which are the catalyst for radicalisation.(11) UK government’s policy response against the new generation terrorist attacks in London apparently assumes that holding prisoners in the prison system longer will prevent them from perpetrating attacks until they are released. Seeing that the prison system is currently incapable of deradicalising terrorism convicts, making them stay longer in prison will not in itself yield any worthwhile benefits for the solution of the problem. Moreover, without any additional steps regarding the rehabilitation of the terrorism convicts, such an approach is problematic for it assumes that terrorism convicts will commit attacks when they are released. From such a perspective, the policy seems far from introducing a decisive resolution even to the most apparent aspect of the problem, which has other important dimensions to be explained below.

Seeing that the prison system is currently incapable of deradicalising terrorism convicts, making them stay longer in prison will not in itself yield any worthwhile benefits for the solution of the problem

4. The resilience of Jihadist Terrorist Organisations

In recent years, low scale Salafi-jihadist organisations are increasingly trying to affiliate themselves with large terrorist organisations as a survival strategy when they lose power due to military campaigns of governments. In this framework, they pledge allegiance to and/or affiliated with large terrorist organisations to put themselves under the aegis of large organisations, benefit from their brand names and eliminate intra-organisational problems. Two Salafi-jihadist terrorist organisations, namely ISIS and Al Qaeda, which have proven their resilience in the face of the destructive blows they took over the course of decades, continue to attract such small terrorist organisations that face serious survival problems as well as ‘freelance’ jihadists. In 2018, for example, ISIS received pledges of allegiance from terrorist organisations located in 26 different countries. (12) Establishing such affiliation relations have certain advantages for both the smaller and the larger organisation. Since large terrorist organisations are more resilient to counterterrorism campaigns, smaller groups who pledge allegiance to larger groups gain a significant amount of legitimacy, constancy, and higher prestige. (13) On the other hand, such affiliations between large and small terrorist organisations allow the larger organisation to reach a broader audience by adding new organisations that use its name and promote its reputation in different parts of the world. Such alliances also allow smaller organisations to gain a solid reputation in the eyes of their own audience. (14)

Modern terrorist organisations are agile enough to adapt to the new conditions and find other platforms on the limitless space of the internet

Thus, although having been considerably enervated by leader decapitations and loss of territory, both ISIS and Al Qaeda has proven themselves as highly resilient organisations that provide shelter and brand name to a myriad of smaller jihadist groups facing significant survival problems as well as freelance terrorists who want to make a name or break through their local groups. (15) This gives ISIS and Al Qaeda a great advantage to plot attacks in different parts of the world no matter how far the target is from their headquarters. Still worse is the fact that this capacity is far from declining given the above-cited figures showing the increasing amount of pledges of allegiance to these organisations.

5. The utilisation of the Internet by Jihadist Groups in Terrorist Activities

When the administration of the pledge of allegiance mechanism explained above as a mutual organisational resilience and promotion instrument for both small and large terrorist organisations couple with the obvious advantages the internet has to offer, the problem gains a much complex structure. The foremost advantage provided by the internet to large terrorist organisations such as ISIS is removing the geographical restrictions. Both Al Qaeda and ISIS use the Internet, especially social media, very effectively in line with their objectives. There are scores of websites, social media accounts and videos in circulation on the internet through which these organisations make propaganda and directly give orders to an anonymous mass of audience. (16) Especially the social media platforms set the ground for a global network of terrorism as those who stand at any point on the radicalisation spectrum from sympathiser to active jihadist can access the same digital environment and contact with one another. Obviously, this process ends up with the radicalisation of simple sympathisers, rather than the other way around.

Terrorist organisations are adaptive to both the deteriorating and the improving conditions in their environment

Moreover, as the state response to terrorist propaganda activities on the social media platforms start to increase, ISIS has shifted to advanced encrypted chat applications such as Telegram to conduct recruitment and propaganda activities and build up group identity among scores of its affiliates around the world. (17) Although counterterrorism measures are also extensively applied on the virtual space and give positive outcomes, modern terrorist organisations are agile enough to adapt to the new conditions and find other platforms on the limitless space of the internet.(18)

london attack

Catholic Church England

6. New Tactics: Simpler Types of Attacks

The traditional terrorism strategies and tactics require meticulous planning, coordination of some staff and equipment, acquisition and management of bulks of money, and of course, handling hereof without being discovered by sophisticated intelligence agencies of the enemy states. Al Qaeda was the first major terrorist organisation that had to shift from a hierarchical organisational structure to cell-type following the comprehensive campaigns launched by the US-led coalition forces after the 9/11 attacks. (19) Over the course of almost two decades since then, attacking strategies of terrorist organisations, especially those targeting Western countries with solid intelligence and counter-terrorism capacity, have undergone a significant transformation from sophisticated and complex to quick and simple. This is partly due to the pruned organisational capacities of the terrorist organisations within the scope of military campaigns, and partly to the rapidly improving IT and communications systems that rendered several previously vital requirements unnecessary for these organisations. In any case, it is apparent that terrorist organisations are adaptive to both the deteriorating and the improving conditions in their environment and use these for their organisational goals. (20) In this new generation of terrorism, new and rather effective forms of terrorist attacks have been, and still being, invented. These are generally perpetrated by a single terrorist that are referred to as “lone wolves” or “freelance terrorists” who may or may not have affiliation with a terrorist organisation. (21) In this form of terrorism, any ordinary device can be used as a weapon such as stabbing with knives or screwdrivers, driving into crowds, etc. (22) The place and time of the attack as well as the weapon to be used are totally up to the attacker. These attacks may be planned or totally spontaneous. It is much cheaper and easier to implement for the terrorists and hard to estimate, and therefore, prevent the intelligence and law enforcement authorities. In fact, Sudesh Amman had been followed by the police as his radical thoughts about martyrdom was known well, but this did not prevent him from perpetrating the attack. This new terror strategy has been unfolding as terror waves that outcrop every once in a while in Europe, i.e., the attacks by driving into crowds in 2017 in London, attacks to night clubs in Paris and Turkey, and the most recent stabbing attacks in London. As a matter of fact, in a recently published report by the Dutch intelligence and security agency AIVD, it is stated that more jihadist attacks should be expected across Europe. According to the report, the most important reason behind their expectation in the increase in jihadist attacks in Europe is the dominance of Salafi ideology in the extracurricular Islamic education which engrains anti-democratic and anti-Western thoughts to children and inoculates hostility. Another source of concern, according to the report, is the approaching release dates of incarcerated terrorists who will most probably continue their terrorist activities thanks to their increased terrorist networks inside the prison. (23)

Policy responses should eliminate the underlying causes of the respective problem. Otherwise, the new policy may lead to further problems

7. Conclusion

In this paper, I attempt to analyse the policy response of the UK government to two new-generation freelance terrorist attacks in London. As mentioned above, although there are different definitions, policymaking can be summarised as a state response to public problems. Put it differently, policy responses should eliminate the underlying causes of the respective problem. Otherwise, the new policy may lead to further problems, and since policymaking is a cumbersome process and the same window of opportunity may not be opened once again soon, the problem may remain unaddressed for a long time. (24

The focal point of the problem is the coupling of radicalisation with the simple and unexpectedly attacking strategy.

Big crises such as terrorist attacks generally trigger great public outrage and push policymakers to take action. Two terrorist attacks were perpetrated in November 2019 and February 2020 in London by convicted terrorists affiliated to ISIS who had been released from prison pursuant to extant laws in the UK. The government did not make any remarkable policy response after the former attack; however, it rapidly prepared a bill restricting the release terms of terrorism convicts after the latter. As it is explained above, such an approach will only defer the possible threats posed by notorious terrorists for a certain period and is far from bringing an ultimate solution to the root causes and wide impact area of the problem. It may even contribute to the problem since this new legislation can be used as a propaganda tool among terrorist organisations towards their young followers.

Focusing on the duration of incarceration of the terrorism convicts will be nothing but sweeping the dust under the rug.

When the said terrorist attacks are examined from a broader perspective, it is seen that the problem has more dimensions to cover than merely holding the convicted terrorist behind bars for longer periods. First of all, the two largest Salafi jihadist terrorist organisations in the world, namely Al Qaeda and ISIS, are gaining more resilience and expanding their area of influence by the pledge of allegiance mechanism they benefit. This allows them to use the local terror networks for reaching out their respective audiences. Secondly, these organisations use the internet and various platforms on the internet, such as social media or encrypted chat applications, to communicate their messages with the audience regardless of the geographical distance. Thirdly, having lost their organisational capacities in the traditional sense, both ISIS and Al Qaeda have changed their strategies and adopted simpler and less costly, but still effective tactics. Taken together, these three characteristics of modern jihadist terrorism function together and have the potential to affect a large mass of Muslim community all across the world, especially in Europe. That is, ISIS and Al Qaeda pose as the primary spearheads of the global jihad having proven their resilience in the face of several destructive blows they have taken so far. These are the main narrative makers of the Salafi-jihadist ideology and its translation into terrorism. These narratives are communicated to a certain audience all across the world. Moreover, this is a multidirectional process allowing the narrative makers to get instant feedback and make responses to convince their correspondents through one-on-one or group conversations via chat applications. The final phase is the translation of this radicalisation process into terrorist attacks that can now be carried out by a single perpetrator anytime, anywhere weaponising any material, without reporting to or getting permission from any hierarchical structure. Such a multi-dimensional radicalisation process would require a policy response at the same level. In its current form, the policy response of the UK government for the new wave of terrorism that seems to remain a lingering threat in Europe and the US in future is insufficient.

8. Alternative Policy Implications

The preceding analysis shows that the Salafi-jihadist problem in the UK, and Europe, has transformed into a simpler yet effective form as a consequence of the collective functioning of the three major components explained above. As long as the two major narrative maker organisations sustain their existence with the support they get from smaller local organisations, they will continue to reach a considerable audience through the internet, influence some of them and convince a few of them to take destructive action for the cause. In other words, the focal point of the problem is the coupling of radicalisation with the simple and unexpectedly attacking strategy. Therefore, focusing on the duration of incarceration of the terrorism convicts will be nothing but sweeping the dust under the rug. On the other hand, the most powerful policy response will be launching comprehensive de-radicalisation programs featuring Muslim NGOs or groups that adopt and can communicate the moderate interpretation of Islam. These programs should definitely target the prisons where radicalisation takes place widely, but the general Muslim population who may be vulnerable to terrorist propaganda in one way or another definitely should not be neglected.

The most powerful policy response will be launching comprehensive de-radicalisation programs featuring Muslim NGOs or groups that adopt and can communicate the moderate interpretation of Islam.

References

(1) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/10/islamist-extremism-remains-dominant-uk-terror-threat-say-experts
(2) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50623646
(3) https://www.bbc.com/news/live/uk-50601491
(4) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/world/europe/london-bridge-attack.html
(5) https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/02/streatham-attacker-was-released-terror-offender-sudesh-amman
(6) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-51453418
(7) https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-51365970
(8) Kingdon, John (2003). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
(9) https://www.isdglobal.org/radicalisation-in-british-prisons-innovation-not-isolation/
(10) https://news.sky.com/story/why-uk-prisons-are-incubators-for-terrorism-11925843
(11) Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalization and De-Radicalization in 15 Countries. ICSR Report Accessed Via: https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Prisons-and-terrorism-15-countries.pdf
(12) Annex of Statistical Information Country Reports on Terrorism,” United States State Department, Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/DSG-Statistical-Annex-2018.pdf .
(13) T.Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows or Brothers in Arms: Why Terrorist Groups Ally,” Dissertation, Georgetown University, 2013.
(14) D. Byman, “Buddies or Burdens? Understanding the Al Qaeda Relationship with Its Affiliate Organisations,” Security Studies, Vol. 23, No.3 (2014).
(15) https://icct.nl/update/what-we-can-learn-from-isis-about-using-the-internet-to-counter-terrorism/
(16) G. Baumberger, “ISIS Online: Analyzing ISIS’s Use of the Internet as a Method of Legitimation,” Say Something Theological: The Student Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2019. Available at https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/saysomethingtheological/vol2/iss1/2
(17) M. Bloom & C. Dymon, “Assessing the Future Threat: ISIS's Virtual Caliphate” Orbis, Vol.62, No:3, 2018.
(18) https://warontherocks.com/2018/03/terror-online-and-off-recent-trends-in-islamic-state-propaganda-operations/
(19) J. Skovgaard-Petersen, “Heirs of Abu Bakr: On the Ideology and Conception of History in al-Qaeda and Islamic State.” Connections: The Quarterly Journal 16, No. 1, 2017, p. 27.
(20) K. Zimmerman, “Terrorism Tactics and Transformation: the West vs the Salafi-Jihadi Movement” Retrieved from: https://www.criticalthreats.org/reports/terrorism-tactics-and-transformation-the-west-vs-the-salafi-jihadi-movement#
(21) https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2014/07/07/freelance-jihadist-fights-for-his-cause-i-am-on-my-own-and-not-linked-to-any-terror-cells-says-malay (22) https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/freelance-jihad
(23) R. E. Abigail. “Is Europe Facing Another Decade of Jihad?” The Algemeiner, January 3, 2020. Accessed via: https://www.algemeiner.com/2020/01/03/is-europe-facing-another-decade-of-jihad/
(24)Kingdon, John (2003). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
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Kutluer Karademir
Kutluer Karademir
PhD, George Mason University Schar Ms, American University SIS BA Turkish National Police Academy

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