A counter-terrorism expert has accused the criminal justice system of playing Russian roulette with public safety, after the revelation that the London Bridge attacker was a former terrorist who had only recently been released from prison.
The comments by Chris Phillips, former head of the UK national counter-terrorism security office, raise serious questions about oversight of convicted terrorists by probation officers and the designation of risk by security services.
“The criminal justice system needs to look at itself,” Mr Phillips told the Press Association. “We’re letting people out of prison, we’re convicting people for very, very serious offences and then they are releasing them back into society when they are still radicalised.
“We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, letting convicted, known, radicalised Jihadi criminals walk about our streets.”
Usman Khan, who murdered two people and injured three others before being shot dead by police, left prison last December after serving seven years for his involvement in a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange and set up a military training madrassa in Pakistan.
The 28-year-old, who had been living in Stafford, in the West Midlands, was considered by his sentencing judge to be a “serious jihadi” and was wearing a tag subject to curfew restrictions. He would have been managed by a multi-agency group of police, probation and prison officers and is likely to have been engaged in a Home Office-run deradicalisation programme called Desistance and Disengagement, which is designed to divert convicted extremists away from dangerous ideology through intensive mentoring and support.
Despite these precautions, Khan travelled to London on Friday as the guest of a Cambridge University criminology conference on prisoner education. One person with knowledge of the probation service told the Financial Times that his tagging restrictions would have required permission to travel. Given his previous involvement in the London Stock Exchange plot, it is hard to see why such permission was granted, the individual said.
The attack has raised wider judicial policy questions. Brandon Lewis, security minister, said on Saturday that the length of sentences being given to serious criminals should come under review. But if anything, jail time can accelerate and intensify radicalisation. The bigger issue is how to manage former terrorists when they come to be released.
Managing complex and risky cases requires time and commitment. Cuts to the probation service under austerity have resulted in staff being overworked, raising the likelihood of former criminals slipping through the net.
The Ministry of Justice experienced a “real-terms cumulative decrease” of 40 per cent in its funding between 2010 and 2017. Khan would have been under the management of the National Probation Service’s Midlands team. An inspection report on this team from last December raised concerns about staff being stretched and overworked.
“There are substantial staff shortages, impacting on probation officer workloads and the quality of service delivery,” inspectors warned. “NPS Midlands has plans to recruit and train new staff to tackle the shortfall of probation officers within the next two years, but meanwhile its ability to deliver consistently good work is hindered”.
Harry Fletcher, former head of the probation union Napo, said the internal investigation would now focus on what level of support, supervision and surveillance Khan had been under, to ensure he didn’t re-engage with terrorist activity on his release.
“He was clearly a candidate for 24-hour surveillance, but there just aren’t the resources to keep all those who pose a threat under the level of scrutiny that we might want,” Mr Fletcher said. It is estimated that 24-hour surveillance requires at least 12 police officers, depending on the nature of the risk posed.
For police and security services, managing potential suspects relies on constant and evolving assessments of risk. MI5 may be monitoring some 3,000 people they consider to pose a serious threat, but the service can only engage in 500 active operations.
The coroner’s report into the 2017 London Bridge attack suggested that the rise of relatively unsophisticated plots — involving knives, as used by Khan, rather than guns or bombs — resulted in an “unprecedented challenge” to MI5 and counterterror police. “Although attack methodologies of low sophistication may often result in lower tallies of dead and injured, they can be harder to detect in the planning and preparation phases,” the report read.
In the absence of physical surveillance, former terrorists are overseen by probation officers and enrolled in the Desistance and Disengagement programme.
However, the DDP is only in its infancy, and critics say it has no solid evidence base. The Home Office’s Prevent deradicalisation programme, on which DDP is based, has proved relatively easy to subvert. Lewis Ludlow, who was imprisoned last year for plotting an attack on Oxford Street, was engaging positively with his mentors while simultaneously scoping out bombing locations.
Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the challenge of counter-terrorism operations was the fact that extremist ideology “can stay with people for a long time, and our systems are not always able to sustain engagement”.
“The biggest difficulty is managing residual risk in an ever-growing pool of people, where only a fraction might ultimately re-emerge as threats,” Mr Pantucci says. “But when they do, it can end up like what we have seen on London Bridge.”