The London Bridge Attack Shows We Must Bolster, Not Abolish, Offender Reintegration

The system didn’t fail Usman Khan, rather, he failed an otherwise well-informed and effective system, security expert Dr Julie Norman writes.

It is now well known that the London Bridge attacker was a former prisoner who had been convicted of terrorism related offences. Not surprisingly, the Conservative government is already calling for an end to early release policies that made it possible for Usman Khan to be at an education event in London with the University of Cambridge initiative, Learning Together. However, the attack only underscores the need to bolster, not abolish, the reintegration approach to working with extremist offenders.

As Friday’s tragic incident indicates, no policy is perfect, but the reintegration approach, combined with sophisticated risk assessment, has empirically been shown to be the most effective means of both reducing recidivism and preventing further radicalisation.

All EU member states have adopted general rehabilitation programmes, and the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) has consistently emphasised rehabilitation for extremist offenders as crucial for both disengagement (behavioural change) and de-radicalisation (cognitive shift). Further, in my research interviews, prison staff, parole officers, and social workers across Europe and the Middle East have underscored the particular importance of reintegration during the license/parole period.

“In the wake of Friday’s tragedy, it is more important than ever to stay committed to pragmatic solutions rather than emotional responses.”

There is still much discussion among policymakers and practitioners about which models work best, however, the approach used by England and Wales has been held up as a model. While early release is understandably controversial, it helps prevent “detention damage”, which can fuel the individual’s radicalisation process, and also helps prevent the spread of radical ideas within prisons, especially when they are overcrowded.

Early release is most effective when used with risk assessment tools that look at different indicators to determine an individual’s likelihood to re-offend. Developed by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the Extremism Risk Guidelines (ERG 22+) methodology used by England and Wales is based on learning from casework with offenders, and has been recommended for focusing on factors of identity rather than ideology (which is the main motivating factor in only a minority of cases).

Flowers and a pictures are left in memory of the victims of the terror attack on London Bridge
Flowers and a pictures are left in memory of the victims of the terror attack on London Bridge

Once released on license, individuals must comply with monitoring regulations, such as GPS tracking tags, and some, like Khan, are required to participate in the government’s Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP). Piloted in 2017 and added to CONTEST (the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy) in 2018, the initiative has been held up as a promising new practice by providing tailored interventions and practical support such as mentoring, psychological support, and theological advice to reduce re-offending and facilitate re-integration.

In accordance with best practice recommendations from RAN, the UK has also established so called Multi-Agency Centres (MACs) to improve information flows between related agencies and facilitate early interventions. Further, the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangement (MAPPA) aims to ensure that offenders’ rehabilitation needs are balanced with the risk they may pose to society.

Once released on license, parole officers in my research have stressed the importance of supported transition management, capacity building, and social and organization support. These priorities can help prevent the stigmatization that reinforces radicalized identities. The Learning Together initiative of which Khan was a part, which involved both prisoners and former prisoners in an education programme with Cambridge students and alumni, is an example of the type of initiative that provides both skills development and community reintegration.

In other words, in the case of Khan, the UK was doing most things right, or at least as right as we know how, based on research and best practices from across the EU. Indeed, Her Majesty’s Government, like many states, has responded to criticisms of earlier policies under the original Prevent programme to move towards more integrated approaches that have shown promise to be more effective.

So what went wrong? In the case of Khan, we may not ever know. He is not the first, and won’t be the last, to re-offend, even in the best rehabilitation systems. It is natural after a tragedy like Friday’s to condemn the policies that enabled Khan to be where he was, when he was, at that time, but that would be a mistake. Khan should be seen as an outlier, rather than emblematic, of a constantly evolving counter-terrorism strategy that has been overall effective.

Further, Friday’s attack should not be politically exploited to justify policy preferences terminating early releases and prison education programmes. Even David Merritt, the father of one of the victims, Jack Merritt, wrote on Twitter that his son “would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.”

Indeed, in the wake of Friday’s tragedy, it is more important than ever to stay committed to pragmatic solutions rather than emotional responses. The UK’s approach to rehabilitating and reintegrating extremist offenders has been improving, and it is not the time to derail that progress. The system didn’t fail Khan, rather, he failed an otherwise well-informed and effective system.

Julie Norman, PhD (@DrJulieNorman2) is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Relations at University College London (UCL) and a member of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN).


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