Coming out of prison in south London after serving only half his three-year sentence for terrorism, Sudesh Amman, a 20-year-old Muslim, knew what he wanted to do. He was going to kill “unbelievers” – white non-Muslims – and die a “martyr” so that he could go to paradise. He outlined his intentions in a crude note to himself, and had already boasted to his fellow prisoners about the need to kill. He had even staged mock executions with his cell mate.
And that is what he did. Ten days after his release, he put on a fake suicide vest, broke into a shop, stole a knife and rushed out into the street to stab the first people he could see: a man and a woman. But undercover police, already concerned that he was still dangerous, had been watching him. Within a minute they were on the scene and shot him dead. Amman, as he wanted, was now a “martyr”. His victims, luckily, survived.
It was the second time in two months that a Muslim extremist had stabbed those around him within weeks of release from prison. In November a man who was attending a rehabilitation course on the treatment of ex-offenders suddenly produced a knife, killed the Cambridge student organising the course and a young woman, ran into the street and started stabbing people until he was overpowered by passers-by and by other ex-prisoners on the course. He too was shot dead – but he left three innocent people stabbed to death and several others badly wounded.
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What is going on in British prisons? Have they become training grounds for Muslim extremists? There was outrage when it was revealed that both men, serving sentences for plotting extremist atrocities or inciting others to terrorism, had been released early under a system that automatically allows prisoners to leave halfway through their sentence. No one assessed whether they were still dangerous. No probation officers was assigned to supervise them. Nothing could be done to keep them any longer in prison to protect the general public.
The British government immediately rushed emergency legislation through parliament to halt the early release of terrorists. It is now considering indefinite sentences for extremists plotting or engaging in terrorism – effectively jailing them for life unless it was proven that they had been deradicalised and no longer held Islamist beliefs. Some 224 people are still being held for terrorism-related offences, of which three quarters are Muslims.
But there was also uproar over what the two cases have revealed about conditions in Britain’s prisons – said to be among the worst in Europe. They are mostly very old Victorian buildings, with no proper toilets, bleak cramped cells, rats and vermin abundant and extremely overcrowded, with twice as many people being held in prisons as the numbers they were built for. The government has repeatedly refused to build new prisons, and with prison ministers changing almost every year, little attention has been given to the high rate of re-offending and the dangers of prisons making criminals more dangerous.
Rory Stewart, the former Conservative prisons minister who said he would resign if conditions did not improve within a year, wrote recently that in one wing of a prison in Liverpool “half the windows were broken. Prisoners could stick their hands straight out to take drugs from drones.” He said violence had tripled in five years. There were more than 10,000 assaults on prison officers a year.
In such conditions, extremist Muslims find it easy to recruit and brainwash prisoners – including white non-Muslims – who are bored, angry, locked for long periods in their cells and living in filthy conditions. Most prisons are meant to run deradicalisation programmes, getting Muslim clerics to preach against violence and convince extremists that the Koran does not endorse terrorist killings. But few such programmes work. There is little time or space to run them. There is no way of assessing whether the thinking of Muslim extremists has changed or whether they just pretend they are reformed in order to get better privileges in their cells and early release. And some of the imams working in prisons themselves do not believe in deradicalisation and are actually preaching extremist messages. Amman’s mother claimed that her son was effectively brainwashed by material he viewed online in prison.
Rory Stewart, who had previously worked as a British administrator in Iraq, said he saw how the mass incarceration in the Abu Graib prison created a terrorist training school. When the US army released these prisoners, many of them formed the core of the Islamic State terror organisation. He asked whether it was sensible to house all terrorists in the same place. Should they not be isolated from recruiters and scattered throughout the prison system? Or would this simply allow the cancer of extremism to metastersise across the whole system?
The shortage of prison staff, the cutting of budgets for probation officers and scrapping of several rehabilitation and training programmes to prepare prisoners for release have all made things worse. In many prisons, without supervision, fanatical self-styled emirs exert a radicalising influence over the Muslim prison population. Some inmates have report the existence of covert “Sharia” trials and the circulation of banned jihadist literature. Not enough attention is being given to this, especially as there is no money for one-to-one counselling services.
The danger of Islamist extremism getting a grip on Britain’s population of nearly 3 million Muslims, mostly descended from Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, has been a worry for British governments ever the since mass attacks on London’s underground railway in 2005. The Labour government at the time set up a comprehensive deradicalisation programme, which stopped the immigration of untrained Muslim imams from abroad, encouraged Muslims to report any signs of extremism among their children or relatives, increased the penalties for circulating terrorist propaganda or recruiting others to extremism and paid moderate Muslims to give talks in schools and colleges.
The programme has largely failed. Muslim communities say the government is trying to “spy” on them, and that people are pretending to be moderate leaders in order to earn extra money. Those speaking out against violence often do not have a thorough understanding of Islam, and so their message is not accepted by extremists who are often well acquainted with the teachings of Islam.
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The problem is that Muslims who show signs of extremism at an early age are often ignored. Their families have no wish to report them to the police. Non-Muslims have little idea of Muslim culture. And teachers or others who come into contact with them are reluctant to get involved in case they are accused of Islamophobia.
A number of those preaching extremism in mosques or online have already been imprisoned or sent back to their home countries. But more and more the extremist message, especially from groups such as Islamic State (Isis), is being transmitted by the internet. And internet providers are often slow to remove such dangerous messages. Young Muslims – often alienated from society and unable to get good jobs – are vulnerable, especially if they end up in prison.
Reforming Britain’s antiquated jails will cost a lot of money. But the dangers of leaving them as breeding grounds for terrorism and crime are obvious. Britain is looking enviously at Scandinavia, where prisons are well-run and effective in providing rehabilitation. Less than half the ex-offenders in Scandinavia return to crime. The rate in Britain is much higher – and terrorism is increasingly being planned, plotted and organised in prisons. Boris Johnson’s government has a big challenge to change things.