UK Terrorism Watchdog Launches Inquiry into Inmate Radicalization

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Flowers for victims of the 2017 London Terror Attack, Photo by Philip Robins via Flickr

Following growing concerns of British prisoners being radicalized while spending time in prisons, the government’s terrorism watchdog is opening an inquiry into the way the penal facilities deal with convicted terrorists once they’re behind bars,  The Times of London reports. 

This comes as experts and prison officers have been taking to the media for months warning that prisons are a “nightmare” to work in because of the constant threat of radicalization of the general inmate population, and the increase in threats of beheadings against prison officers from extremists, The Independent and BBC News explains. 

Around 75 percent of terrorist prisoners in Britain are categorized as Islamist extremists, 19 percent as “far-right,” and 6 percent as “other,” The Independent details. 

Breaking the latest story, Jonathan Hall QC, the United Kingdom’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, told The Times that there has been an alarming amount of links between individuals who spent time in prison and terrorist attacks in the country. 

Hall continued to say that offenders in the prison population are not being properly punished for owning or consuming radical material, preaching extremism to others, and inciting violence while behind bars. 

In Hall’s own words, he told The Times, “There has been a steady drumbeat over recent years of terrorist attacks against prison officers, and an increasing number of individuals who may well have formed their terrorist intent in prison under the influence of high-status terrorist prisoners.” 

“If terrorism exists [in prison] then it ought to be dealt with,” he continued. “We need scrutiny of how prisons operate to either contain, or worse encourage, terrorism.”

Hall’s discussion with The Times follows a series of high-profile terrorism cases unfolding in the United Kingdom, particularly the 2019 London Bridge Attack when Usman Khan stabbed two people to death, and the 2020 case of Brusthom Ziamai who was convicted of attempted murder for trying to hack an officer to death in a maximum security jail.

Ziamai was already serving a 19-year sentence for plotting to behead a British soldier, but further turned to violence while behind bars, the Guardian details. 

Hall explained that he has “been amazed” at the way terrorist prisoners are regarded by other inmates, mentioning that they’re not outcast or feared — instead, they’re praised. 

“I find it astonishing that someone should go to prison for plotting a terrorist atrocity and the concern is not that they themselves are at risk of attack, like a pedophile is often at risk of attack because prisoners generally say what they’ve done is terrible,” Hall said, as quoted by the Guardian.

“Terrorists automatically achieve a sort of status,” he concluded. 

Warnings of Radicalization

At the end of 2020, The Independent reported that the United Kingdom saw four terror attacks, each carried out by serving or released inmates who were radicalized while inside “chaotic jails.” 

Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, wrote an opinion piece for The Spectator saying the disjointed leadership and integrated prison population created the perfect incubation conditions for hate preachers to target and manipulate “weak people searching for meaning and purpose,” to be radicalized. 

Acheson said little has been done to stop notorious terrorists from “dripping poison into the ears of those locked up alongside [them].” 

Last September, prison officers spoke to The Independent in exchange for anonymity discussing the terrifying attacks and constant threats on the staff that leave them “powerless.” One officer said the prisons are “run on chaos” and that they have seen new officers come in, complete one shift, and quit on the spot. 

In January of 2020, Brusthom Ziamani, 25, and Baz Hockton, 26, armed with makeshift bladed weapons, tried to murder prison officer, Neil Trundle, at a maximum security jail, BBC News details. Prison staff from the same facility say they were under “constant threat” from inmates who said they intended to “behead” the guards and live-stream the violence online. 

A former inmate spoke to BBC News saying that while he was incarcerated, radicalized inmates spoke freely about the Islamic State, and tried to “bully” other inmates into believing they needed their protection — and that if they didn’t join their cause, they’d be attacked too. 

Following the attempted attack on Trundle last year, the maximum security jail facility finally separated the radical inmates away from the general prison population — a move that prison officers have been asking The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to make for months. 

After news of the latest inquiry spearheaded by Hall, an MoJ spokesperson told The Times that the department has trained over 29,000 prison officers to better spot signs of extremism, while also planning to increase the number of specialist counter-terrorism staff and separating “the most subversive prisoners” when necessary.

“Our tough measures to stop extremists spreading their poisonous ideologies in prison have been stepped up,” the spokesperson said, as quoted by the Guardian.

They concluded, “We ended the automatic early release of terrorists and our new legislation means they will also face tougher sentences and monitoring on release.”

Additional Reading: ‘You Can’t Solve Domestic Terrorism with an Algorithm’

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