The stabbing attack in London on Friday has thrust the issue of what to do with former terrorists back into the public spotlight, especially as hundreds more convicted offenders across Europe are due for release in the coming years.
On Friday, Usman Khan (freed of a terrorist attack where he was involved), the 28-year old stabbed to death two people on London Bridge before being shot dead by police. Although he was wearing an ankle bracelet, he’d been able to travel to London from his home in the English Midlands.
Khan’s lawyer, Vajahat Sharif, said there were no signs that he would re-offend. He had been a teenager when charged in 2010.
Sharif confirms his team received a letter and had advised his client to write it in the hope of meeting with a specialist intervention consultancy that focuses on rehabilitating individuals convicted of terrorist offenses.
In the letter, Khan writes: “As you are fully aware of my offence, which is a terrorism offence. It relates more to what I intended and the mindset at that time, also the views I carried. Which I realize now after spending some time to think were not according to Islam and its teachings.”
Sharif said limits on access to prisoners such as Khan prevented his client from being able to meet with a consultant from the rehab program.
Sharif said that soon before Khan’s release on license last year, “He wasn’t talking about politics. He wasn’t talking about jihad. He was talking in a positive way.”
It’s still unclear what changed, or whether Khan’s desire for rehabilitation was a ruse all along.
The Kashmir question
Khan and eight other defendants received long sentences early in 2012, after pleading guilty to preparing acts of terrorism and other terrorist-related offenses. Khan was part of an ambitious conspiracy that involved cells in Stoke-on-Trent, Cardiff and London who would meet in public parks in Wales. Khan talked about building pipe-bombs according to a formula in the online al Qaeda publication, Inspire.
The judge in the case said Khan and one other man “were keen to perform acts of terrorism in Kashmir.”
A political football
The attack by Usman Khan has become a major theme in the UK election campaign, with both main parties blaming the other for lax sentencing.
Khan had received a “custodial sentence” of 16 years, but that meant a minimum time in jail of just eight years.
But Khan was out on license, without any Parole Board hearing. The UK Justice Ministry has now launched an “urgent review” of the parole conditions for every convicted terrorist released in the UK. The review will apply to about 70 individuals.
Now, efforts to repatriate foreign fighters and their families to Europe from detention camps in Syria are being revived, partly at the Trump administration’s instigation. Trump claimed in October: “I actually said to them [the Europeans], if you don’t take them, I’m going to drop them right on your border.
In September, the research group Globsec examined in detail the cases of more than 300 European jihadists. Some had been killed, but 199 had been convicted of various terror offenses in 2015. Of that number 45 had already been released. A further 113 would be released from prison by the end of 2023.
Many of those allowed back into society will turn their back on terrorism, but others will have been hardened by their experiences, and become part of new networks. Globsec concludes that “such individuals are likely to return to their pre-arrest activities and once again attempt to engage in terrorism.”
Khan’s lawyer, Vajahat Sharif, is still trying to work out what went wrong with his client.