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3 February 2020

For years I questioned government on terrorist releases – Streatham shows it didn’t listen

Underfunded and poorly executed deradicalisation programmes in our prisons mean longer sentences will not tackle the root problem.

By Nazir Afzal

First and foremost, the responsibility for what happened in Streatham, south London – where an attacker was shot dead by police after stabbing two people on a busy high street – was entirely that of the criminal. A narcissist who wanted to make a name for himself. So I refuse to name him.

But could the attack have been prevented?

There will be questions of an operational nature for the police, but I don’t blame them at all. You’re damned if you do engage earlier and damned if you don’t.

The bigger question is whether something could have been done after his conviction in November 2018, when he pled guilty to six charges of possessing documents containing terrorist information and seven of disseminating terrorist publications.

In truth, we don’t know, but I suspect we could have.

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He was imprisoned the following month for three years and four months, and automatically released from Belmarsh prison at the end of January 2020, after serving half his sentence in jail.

Had he been given a longer sentence, we probably would only have delayed this inevitable crime by a few months. Where the sentence is less than four years, there is no formal mechanism to risk assess, though this is belatedly changing. Sentencing is a small part of the answer. It’s what happens during the sentence that matters. 

I and others have questioned whether the government were prepared for the imminent release of dozens of convicted terrorists. We have been telling them about this for years.

I do know that de-radicalisation and disengagement programmes in prison are largely underfunded and poorly executed. That’s a direct consequence of government policy to cut funding to probation and other rehabilitation programmes.

If you lock prisoners up for 23 hours a day, rehabilitation is less likely. As with all prisoners, if prison is just a revolving door then they are no less criminal when they are released. We reap what we sow.

Just think how much it costs to keep a released, still dangerous, extremist or terrorist under police surveillance, as was the case for the man in Streatham at the time of his attack. A small proportion of this cost could be used to fund preventative and de-radicalisation programmes such as the Jan Trust in London run by Sajda Mughal, herself a survivor of 2005’s 7/7 bombings on London transport. The trust’s funding has been depleted by the Home Office, just when we need its work more than ever.

Radicalisation involves an army of extremists grooming criminals, like the man in this case, to pursue these ends. De-radicalisation requires a community-based army working with people like him to challenge their desire to become significant in their eyes by doing these terrible acts. If we don’t give them a reason to live for, then there are others who will give them a reason to die for.

A psychological approach has been shown to work. There are excellent successful examples here in the UK where de-radicalised former extremists work tirelessly on others, but the government isn’t too keen on working with former extremists. The best programmes are in places like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Denmark: independently evaluated to show how successful they can be. 

The lesson is to follow what works and resource it properly. Don’t use the usual suspects but look for innovation. Money can’t be the reason why we do not do all we can to keep our citizens safe. 

I am not convinced the government is listening.

Nazir Afzal is the former chief crown prosecutor for north west England