Why should we talk to bad people who want to kill us? I grew up in Northern Ireland in the border county of Fermanagh when the Troubles were running hot. In the 1980s, people in my minority unionist community suffered a murderous onslaught by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) designed to push Protestants away from isolated border settlements. The cruelty of republican violence made it impossible to see a face behind this mask of sectarian hatred. On the rare occasions when the state managed to take the fight to the terrorists and kill some, there was only a feeling of satisfaction.
Thirty-five years on from those grim times, countries face a threat of jihadi terrorism the scale of which makes the dirty work of Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries seem almost innocent by contrast. Yet that experience offers important lessons for today’s counter-extremist challenge.
A Prison Service Exposed to Radicalisation
In 2016, I led an independent government review of Islamist extremism in the UK custody and probation system. Our extensive research involved dozens of prison visits and conversations with ex-offenders, staff and the officials responsible for responding to this threat. Our expert team revealed a picture of a prison system exposed to growing radicalisation with no effective tools to respond to it—or, indeed, little awareness of its existence. Of the 201 prisoners detained for extremist-related offences, 93 per cent were inspired by Islamist ideology.
The diversity in age, gender and background of these people makes managing the risk they pose in custody a huge challenge. Hate preachers like Anjem Choudary join those mobilised by hatred to murder, like Michael Adebolajo and knife-attack plotter Safaa Boular. While the numbers of convicted terrorists remain relatively small in a prison population of around 83,000, the lethal risk radicalised prisoners represent to national security in and outside prisons means policymakers cannot be complacent.
At the time of our review, the corporate centre of the UK Prison Service was beset by a lethal and enduring combination of arrogance, complacency and ineptitude in response to these threats. The service was remote and disconnected from the spread of Islamist extremism in its establishments. Staff were woefully ill equipped to challenge hateful ideologies. In any case, they were fearful of being accused of racism for doing so. Some prison governors said they felt that raising concerns about Islamist extremism in their prisons would have career-limiting consequences.
Prison imams, who ought to have been on the front line of counter-radicalisation, were largely unable—and occasionally unwilling—to get stuck in. Extremist religious literature was freely available to vulnerable prisoners, and charismatic hate preachers had easy access to highly credulous and violent young recruits. Put bluntly, the Prison Service was more interested in protecting its own hide than robustly confronting a threat to national security.
The UK Prison Service was more interested in protecting its own hide than robustly confronting a threat to national security.”
A Humanised Regime
I made many recommendations in my review. The service needed to dramatically improve the capability of staff through training and managerial support to detect and confront violent extremism. The recruitment, selection, deployment and supervision of prison imams needed to be completely overhauled and taken back into corporate control. Extremist religious literature with sectarian, misogynist or homophobic content that was readily accessible to vulnerable and suggestible prisoners had to be removed immediately. The combating of prison terrorist incidents, in particular hostage taking, required a significant tactical boost. The extremism capability at a headquarters level needed proper operational experience. The service required a director-level head of counter-terrorism.
One of the most controversial recommendations was the complete separation of those few highly subversive Islamist extremists who posed a direct threat to national security by actively proselytising the ideology of ISIS and its ilk. Separation of extremist prisoners is a divisive issue, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland, where politically motivated prisoners lobbied for, and were provided with, separate accommodation. The potential for such prisoners to work together, feed off their pathologies and even deepen their extremist mindset is a real risk. Our review concluded that the threat posed by Islamist ideologues with relatively free access to radicalise the next generation of offenders was so great that only incapacitating them would work. The state needed to send a clear message to those intent on spreading the ISIS message in custody: “We will stop you.”
What I envisaged, however, was a place where hate preachers could at least have the possibility to reconsider their worldview, with support from experts. In this respect, the regime and conditions most likely to engender this transformation would be humanised rather than punitive. While security of the unit and staff would be paramount, skilled and motivated prison officers would keep themselves safe by developing relationships with their charges. Positive relationships patiently built would be the lever for change.
Talking to terrorists is one of the best ways of learning about their motivation. Understanding this is key to deflecting people on the way to radicalised violence. Not nearly enough is known about the catalyst that converts extremist thought into action. There are currently 218 people in UK prisons who have made that literal leap of faith. There is a captive audience that policymakers can learn from, influence and potentially change. The UK faces an unknown number of returning combat-experienced Britons out of the estimated 800 who the security service said went to join ISIS.
Talking to terrorists is one of the best ways of learning about their motivation. Understanding this is key to deflecting people on the way to radicalised violence.”
Creating an integration process that balances justice for crimes committed with the possibility of redemption could avoid future victims and even allow the possibility of a new life for extremist offenders. The disruption caused by separating preachers and adherents in custody could create an opening for new and better ways of thinking and allow rehabilitation to flourish. The other prize, beyond this massive intelligence gain, is the possibility of disengagement from a hateful ideology.
A humanised regime reflects the reality of increasing numbers of arrests and convictions for terrorist offences. In 2018, 41 per cent of convictions for terrorism-related offences were of sentences of four years or less. In particular, these lower-tariff prisoners enter a penal system severely disordered by overcrowding, squalor and insufficient staff. The prospect of them receiving treatment for their offending behaviour in this environment pales beside the pragmatic attraction of safety in religious or ideological groups that provide security, kudos and structure.
In this respect, prisons in the UK, in particular in England and Wales, have become incubators of extremism. Policymakers can and must at least remove those most able to capitalise on this chaos by spreading the message of violent extremism. Individuals who pose a threat must not be allowed to weaponise the grievances of those in search of meaning and excitement.
The Centrality of Communities
The paucity of effective prison deradicalisation programmes makes it all the more important to fundamentally change how terrorist offenders are reintegrated after custody. This would go some way to repairing some of this damage and preventing released extremists from engaging in more violence.
What is missing is a genuine partnership between the state and local communities to give each a complementary stake in managing the risk. Trusted local people could be used to provide a safety net and support those whose ability to find somewhere decent to live and something positive to do is severely curtailed. Enlisting communities in this way is risky and fraught with difficulty. However, the state alone cannot defeat a terrorist threat. Host communities have the biggest impact on desistence and disengagement.
The state alone cannot defeat a terrorist threat. Host communities have the biggest impact on desistence and disengagement.”
Enlightened separation of extremist ideologues in prison and community-based reintegration of offenders on release are new, more agile ways of dealing with this threat. We cannot speak to dead terrorists. We can speak for dead victims. They demand that policymakers take risks to ensure that the people who wish to harm us through a corrupt ideology are engaged, not shunned. This should happen not because states are weak, but because they are confident the strength of their values will ultimately prevail.
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Download all the essays in this collection as a PDF or read them online:
Talking to Terrorists: The Key to Solving Prison Radicalisation