Terrorists are not like other criminals

Our belief in rehabilitation should not mean letting dangerous jihadists loose.

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics UK

The facts of the London Bridge attack are hard to believe. Usman Khan murdered Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones on Friday and injured several others. Khan, Merritt and Jones, along with other practitioners, academics and ex-cons, were attending a conference run by the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, which was reportedly exploring the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The conference was taking place at Fishmongers’ Hall, which is next to London Bridge. When Khan made his way on to the bridge, wielding two knives, James Ford was reportedly one of the men who tackled him. Ford is a convicted murderer. He was jailed in 2004 for the murder of Amanda Champion. Champion, who suffered with learning difficulties, was found strangled in Ashford with her throat slit. Ford was out on Friday on day release from HMP Standford Hill, where he is serving the final days of his sentence.

Khan was released 11 months ago having pleaded guilty to preparing acts of terrorism in 2012. He had met with fellow militants in 2010, when they discussed blowing up pubs and carrying out ‘Mumbai-style attacks’ in the UK. They anticipated setting up a terrorist training camp in Kashmir and discussed how it might be funded. In the course of the conversations, Khan described ‘kuffars’, those who don’t believe in Islam, as ‘dogs’.

The judge, in sentencing Khan in 2012, concluded that he had a ‘commitment to long-term terrorist aims’. He imposed an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP), meaning Khan would never be released unless he could convince a parole board that he was no longer dangerous. But the Court of Appeal overturned Khan’s indeterminate sentence in 2013, and a less severe extended sentence for public protection (EPP) was imposed instead.

In 2008, Labour had removed the requirement for prisoners subject to EPPs to be subject to a decision of the parole-board prior to being released. This is why Khan was released without being reviewed. Reports suggest he was nonetheless a model prisoner and had claimed to have renounced his extremism while in prison.

When prime minister Boris Johnson was interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, he blamed Labour’s change in the law in 2008 for the fact that Khan was on the street. But the problem is not with the sentencing regime that Khan was convicted under. There are good practical reasons to release certain prisoners without having to subject them to consideration by the parole board. The problem is that we treat Khan and his fellow jihadists just like all other prisoners.

Criminals are our fellow citizens who breach the rules of our community. Sometimes, as in muderer James Ford’s case, they breach them horrifically with terrible consequences. From what we know about Ford’s crime, he has demonstrated a profound capacity for evil. He has never revealed his motive for the killing. Perhaps Ford should never be forgiven. But he has served the sentence which was due to him under the laws of our country. And his reported actions on London Bridge, in which he showed true bravery, suggest that he is perhaps capable of being rehabilitated and perhaps even redeemed.

Ford’s rehabilitation and redemption will continue to be contentious – the family of his victim understandably refuse to acknowledge his actions as ‘heroic’. But it is right that society give him the space to rehabilitate and to demonstrate that he has changed.

But in the case of Islamist terrorists, the considerations are different. Jihadists are politically committed to undermining our society and civilisation. Khan’s lawyer has claimed that his client asked for ‘help with deradicalisation’ while in prison, but this request now seems to have been entirely self-serving. Even if Khan was being genuine, there are real issues surrounding what deradicalisation is and what it should involve.

Even experts in ‘deradicalisation’ are unsure about how to measure its effects. Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies, said in a 2017 interview that there is no agreed definition of ‘recidivism’ where deradicalisation is concerned, meaning that it can be hard to say when someone is truly deradicalised.

Indeed, we seem confused as to what these terms even mean. Some are currently talking as if this is a case only of prison resources – that better support might have stopped Khan launching his attack. We seem to treat Islamists as entirely passive in how they are radicalised and deradicalised. We saw this in the labelling of Shamima Begum and others as ‘brainwashed’.

We have come to see jihadists as passive individuals with little or no moral agency. This is why the discussion seems focused not on their ability to change, but on whether or not the resources are available to provide the correct intervention and monitoring.

Whether or not Islamists can ever be redeemed is a complex question. But Khan had certainly not ‘deradicalised’. Nor had he rehabilitated. It is wrong that Khan and people like him are entitled to be released without any consideration of the risk that they still pose to the public.

We have to recognise that someone who plots to blow up pubs in the name of a foreign fighting force is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a citizen. Of course, we should still show humanity towards those accused of any crime. They are entitled to a fair trial on the evidence, which Khan avoided by pleading guilty. But when people are convicted, or when they plead guilty to being committed jihadists, then normal rules cannot continue to apply.

Our belief in people’s capacity for rehabilitation should not extend to letting murderous jihadists back on to our streets. James Ford appears to have made a decision to change his life. It is important that society helps him to do that. But Khan and his terrorist friends are not criminals – they are traitors. They demand to be treated differently.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author. His new book Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Coram Deo

2nd December 2019 at 10:41 pm

Bring back the death penalty.
‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’ Genesis 9:6

Claire D

3rd December 2019 at 2:03 pm

The terrorist is dead so who are are you going to execute ? Are you offering your services as a public executioner or do you expect someone else to take on the job ?

frank Kirk

2nd December 2019 at 7:27 pm

It’s not possible to de-radicalise a Islamic terrorist while still allowing them access to the Koran.

Pragmatix Pragmatix

2nd December 2019 at 6:00 pm

“Our belief in rehabilitation…”

You might, sadly I do not!

Muslims vent upon mayhem have been brainwashed since they were young. They could be “rehabilitated”, no more than could have Myra Hindley, Mad Frankie Mitchell (The Axe Murderer); or Dr Crippen!

The word “Terrorist” fails to properly describe what these people do; and their motivation. They seek to promote national revolution against a majority and the delegated authority of the state.

If they were classed as spies since the are not members of any acknowledged military force, then would be executed.

The spavined moronic idiocy of the bleeding heart Liberal Left has much to answer for…

William Murphy

2nd December 2019 at 5:45 pm

While the terrorists are serving their full life sentence….no Halal diet. This piece of supreme idiocy on the part of the prison authorities has been a clear incentive for some prisoners to convert to The Religion Of Peace. If you face a future of 20+ years of prison food, some people will profess a belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster to get better meals. As Theodore Dalrymple, a retired prison doctor noted, some prisoners convert to Islam for clearly anti-social reasons. It gives the fake impression of reformation and thus gains them possible brownie points for early release. And it is a form of vengeance on the society which has wronged them. No need to throw in tastier food as well.

Marvin Jones

2nd December 2019 at 3:54 pm

Terrorism and intent to murder as many innocent people as possible should be treated as treason, hence the sentence must be a full life sentence off 100 years minimum. The incentive will be no pain if they cause no trouble.

David Webb

2nd December 2019 at 3:53 pm

He cannot be a traitor – simply because he is not of British descent and there is no reason to expected loyalty to this country from such people. They simply shouldn’t be here.

Jim Lawrie

2nd December 2019 at 8:38 pm

I’m sure Mr Gittos did not agree with charging IRA men as traitors.

He is an enemy combatant. He should be tried in a military court, same as they are doing in Syria.

Claire D

2nd December 2019 at 2:02 pm

I just cannot understand how the authorities can equate a terrorist with a criminal. Terrorists are political/religious fanatics, they are mentally deranged and in a category of their own. Obviously some criminals are also mentally deranged, I realise that, but their derangement is more diverse and diffused.
I agree that all should be treated humanely, but the potential for a terrorist to cause overwhelming damage to both citizens and infrastructure is far greater than most criminals.
It seems incredibly naive to me to treat these people as if they are ordinary criminals or to assume ‘ de-radicalisation ‘ works. As for the solicitor and the authorities involved in this case to say they were ‘ deceived ‘, when did it become normal to believe anything a terrorist says ??

Far too much wishful thinking and woolly minded Liberalism taken to extremes. Be humane yes but extend that humanity first and foremost to the people who are not terrorists, safety must come before compassion, or we are lost.

Jim Lawrie

2nd December 2019 at 1:23 pm

Muslim terrorists are not like other terrorists.

Lord Anubis

2nd December 2019 at 12:53 pm

Goodness, you must have published this either just before or just after I had said much the same thing in the “Its time to get real” thread..

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