EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Incarcerated and Indoctrinated: How to Tackle Extremism in Prisons
DATE: 1st March 3:00pm – 4:00pm
SPEAKERS: Ian Acheson, Phil Gurski
EVENT MODERATOR: Eilish O’Gara
Eilish O’Gara 00:03
Good afternoon, everyone. I’d like to welcome you on behalf of Henry Jackson society. My name is Eilish O’Gara, and I’m a research fellow here at the Centre for radicalization and terrorism. Today I want to speak about a timely subject. It’s about prisons and extremism within prisons. We’re going to look at the perspective from the UK and we’re also going to look across the Atlantic towards North America, including Canada also. My two speakers, fabulous speakers are Mr. Ian Acheson, and Mr. Phil Gurski. Now I’m going to introduce them shortly, but I just quickly want to do a little bit of housekeeping before we start. We’ve got quite a number of viewers today, so, if you want to leave your questions for me in the question-and-answer panel at the bottom here, I’ll be able to read them and ask the panellists at the end of the discussion. So, without further ado, I’m going to introduce our speakers today, Ian Atchison has extensive experience in the prison arena, a colourful career within the prison system and worked at a variety of prisons, including HMP, Wandsworth, and quickly rose up the ranks to become governor. In 2015 Ian lead an independent review on Islamist extremism for the UK government in prisons and probation. He produced almost 70 recommendations for the tactical and strategic management of terrorist defenders. Ian has advised governments in Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East on countering violent extremism specifically focused around the prison systems. He currently works as a senior advisor to the US based counter extremism project and is a visiting professor at Staffordshire University. Our second speaker is Phil Gurski. Phil is the president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a senior strategic analyst for the Canadian security intelligence services from 2008 and 2013, specialising in Al Qaeda, Islamic State inspired violent extremism and radicalization. He’s wrote on a number of topics including extremist ideologies, one including the threat from within recognizing Al Qaeda inspired radicalization and terrorism from the west. And has also spoken and consulted on the threat of terrorism from returning fighters. He has his own podcast called “An Intelligent Look at Terrorism,” where he’s discussed the topic of prison radicalization at length. So, we’re going to begin by just really quickly discussing why we’re here talking about the prison situation and extremism within our prison system. And I want to firstly talk about the timely review by Jonathan Hall HQ, which is going to look at terrorism within the prison system, specifically across the United Kingdom. And this has come as a result undoubtedly of a number of tracks with traceable links back to the prison system. In November 2019, Osman Khan killed two people on London Bridge, after being released from prison. He was trusted and was able to commit his attack while still on tag. Sudesh Amman just a few months later in early 2020, attacked people on Stratham High Street in London, despite intelligence indicating that he’d been watching Islamist extremist propaganda within the prison system. He was deemed as such a threat that the intelligence services and CT policing were indeed following him and were able to mitigate the threat before it lost any British lives. Khairi Saadallah just a few months later in Reading in June 2020, just as the end of the weekend, as we came out of the first lockdown, killed three innocent men in a Reading Park. Khairi Saadallah had spent a significant amount of time in and out of prison and had had interaction with radical extremist preacher Omar Brooks whilst at HMP Bullingdon. We’ve also seen attacks increasing within the prisoner estate by radicalised inmates. In 2020, also at HMP Whitemoor, a prison officer was almost killed by two radicalised inmates, one of which was in on terror offences himself. He was only spared his life by the bravery of other staff who came to his help. Now whilst most of the literature focuses on Europe and its prison system. This event is about looking at not only the British system, but also the systems across the water in America and Canada. And we want to look firstly at how we might be able to improve the prison system to best tackle extremism, radicalization and prevent terror attacks by prison releases and those also within the prison system. So, my first question is to Mr. Ian Acheson, who I previously introduced, and I want to focus specifically on his Islamist radicalization and extremism within the Prison Estate Report. And my first question to you, Ian is what were the most concerning findings of your 2016-17 report? What did you find in your review that concerns you most about the prison system with regards to extremism? And a second question on top of that was what were the most important recommendations you gave in that review? And how many were really and truly acted upon do you feel?
Ian Acheson 05:14
Well, I thank you very much Eilish for that introduction, I hope you can hear me okay. I’m afraid I’ve been suffering from croaky zoom voice, so I hope I can make myself understood. Welcome to everybody else, from across the UK and beyond who are here to listen to me. And I’ll certainly be really interested in hearing what Phil has to say with the Canadian and wider perspective and all the experience he has. In terms of answering your question in 2015, the then Secretary of State for justice Michael Gove, asked me to investigate the phenomenon of Islamist extremism in the prisons, probation and youth justice system. And to see whether those were equal to the task of countering whatever threat existed inside the prisoner probation system and to make recommendations to improve that. So as a result of myself and a small expert team that I had assembled, visiting dozens of prisons, interviewing frontline staff, managers, bureaucrats released terrorist prisoners and a whole host of other stakeholders. We came to some very firm conclusions, which were then published and the government ultimately had to respond to those inclusions, which we will come to later. But just in terms of the headlines of what we discovered. So, we saw clearly that the problem of Islamist extremism in prisons was growing largely unopposed, where you have charismatic hate preachers with easy access to violent and credulous recruits from the mainstream prison population. Frontline staff, these are prison officers who are the engine room of any rehabilitative security function inside our prisons, and they were very poorly equipped to identify, still less challenge, hateful ideologies being freely promoted on prison landings. They lacked the training, they lacked confidence, they lacked the operational tactics, and the management support and leadership to do so. Often actually, because they feared being accused of being, labelled racist, if they tried to do their jobs or tried to intervene. Intelligence gathering systems to be able to detect and (inaudible) Islamist extremism across the system were extremely crude, and the prison system started with a very large credibility problem, I’m sorry to say, with the police and the security service. With many senior prison managers in charge of national security related functions at the time, having little or even no operational experience. Muslim Imams who should have been at the heart of the philosophical challenge against Islamist ideology, lack the capability and frankly, sometimes they like the will to be able to do so. Many prison chaplaincies have extremist, sectarian, homophobic literature freely available to prisoners who just wandered in and took these texts, many of which were sent from Saudi Arabia, and they have no quality control over their content at all. And at the corporate level, at the headquarters, we saw that the prison services response to the threat was what I characterised quite bluntly, I make no apology for it, as a lethal combination of denial, arrogance and ineptitude. Which was in fact so pronounced I coined the phrase institutional timidity to be able to describe it. So, out of those findings, we assimilated four threat scenarios, for want of a better expression. The first was a threat to rehabilitation and that was because the presence of an entrenched oppositional culture of Islamic extremism in our high security prisons, for example. Combined with widespread violence and instability across the system, seriously impeded the prison services primary mission statement, if you’d like, to stop reoffending. The second threat was a threat of an external terrorist attack directed from inside the prison. The third scenario was the threat of an attack against a prison, where high value Islamists, for example, were freed by an assault on places that frankly were largely designed to keep people in and not stopping them from getting in from the outside. The fourth scenario, which I hope to return to later, in view of your comments in Whitemoor prison was by far the most serious one that we identified. And that was the threat of a hostage taking situation inside a prison, where a member of staff would be taken hostage, not to be bargained with but to be murdered, and if possible, that to be disseminated through the internet, or some illicit means, because mobile phones as we know proliferate inside our prison system. That was obviously one of the most disturbing threats which is there, but for the grace of God in January last year almost materialised. So, as you alluded to, the solutions were had to be many and various. I made 69 recommendations. The second step then was Michael Gove accepted 68 of them. And then by some mysterious alchemy, that I played no part in at all, they were compilated into 11 Super recommendations of which it was adopted. And they included, principally my recommendation that the most subversive Islamist extremists need to be completely incapacitated from the mainstream prison population in specially designed and staffed separation units. Where they could be held apart and offered the prospect of reducing the dangerousness, I don’t tend to talk about deradicalization anymore, I don’t know whether Phil agrees with me, but it’s a term that’s lost almost all of its meaning. I prefer to talk about desistance and disengagement, disengagement from hateful ideologies being the Golden Fleece, that may take many years may not be possible. Desistance being a more functional way of frankly, stopping somebody who’s still intent on committing harm from being able to do so. But the separation units were the big recommendation that was subsequently adopted, with a varying degree of success you might want to come to later on. A new director of counter terrorism is created in prisons. The prison service committed to the Ministry of Justice improving the tactical response to terrorist incidents, which a lot of the recommendations that I made in the report that could not be made public for national security reasons. But a lot of those recommendations focused on trying to beef up the operational capability of the response of the prison service to the incident, like the one that occurred, unfortunately, just over a year ago. And the other recommendations included improved training, tightened vetting for prison Imams and the removal of extremist literature. I will stop there, because I do want to kind of hog the thing. But I hope that’s given you a bit of a picture of what I saw and what we recommend and whether or not those recommendations and to the extent that they were adopted is really something that we can come back to later.
Eilish O’Gara 12:27
And that was brilliant answer Ian, thank you. Ian raised a lot of really interesting points there and I’m going to come back to them with further questions. Just taking on board what Ian’s just discussed there, and specifically about the actual makeup of the prison system itself. I want to turn to you, Phil. Phil, you’ve spoken about prison radicalization, just following on from Ian’s comments, can you say anything about the situation in North America and Canada specifically? We seem to have a bit of a problem here in Europe with extremism in our prisons. Is this something that we also see across the Atlantic? Do you have the same sort of attack plots and an extremist networks within your prison systems? And just secondary on the back of that comment, you’ve spoken a lot about radicalization, specifically with regards to al Qaeda, how does today’s ideologies you know, with regards to ISIS and such things, how do you think we can aim to tackle those ideologies? How are they different from the ideologies, you know, we became almost used to tackling?
Phil Gurski 13:36
Wow, great questions. I’ll answer the second one first; we can’t. But I’ll get back to that at the end a little bit. No, thank you very much for the opportunity. And Ian, I agree with everything you said 100%, especially on deradicalization a term I’ve come to loathe as people use it, because as I’ve always said, I don’t know about you, but my crystal balls been in the shop for a long time, I can’t read people’s minds. In fairness, to the listeners, I will focus on the Canadian penitentiary system because I am a Canadian. And I think the Americans have a very different way of doing things. My understanding of the American prison system is that if you’re found guilty of terrorism offences, they put you in a supermax, end of story, and that’s the end of your life. So, I think it’s I think it’s very different. Here in Canada, we’re actually quite fortunate in the sense that in terms of numbers, we are nowhere near the scale of the problem you are in the UK. If I would just do a quick count of the number of prisoners currently incarcerated in my country, having been convicted of terrorism charges, two hands would be sufficient. Now, having said that, that does not mean that radicalization in prison is not a concern when I was with the security service, so CSIS is the equivalent of MI5 in Canada. I went across the country, very big country, Canada, meeting with prisons officials at two different levels. So, in my country, there are two prison systems; there’s a federal system, which is for anybody that’s convicted of an offence longer than 24 months, and a provincial system which is less than two years as well as those in remand impending trial. What we found from the security services perspective was a willful ignorance in terms of radicalization to violence and violent Islamist extremism. And I think the reason for that is, as I’ve already alluded to, in fact, I just wrote a book called The Peaceable Kingdom, which looks at the history of terrorism in Canada, from Confederation in 1867. To the present, we’ve only had a few dozen attacks in 153 years. So, it’s a relatively smaller problem in my country than it is in your country. I found that prison official simply hadn’t been exposed to the possibility of radicalization in prison. And let me cite an example for you which, when I found out about this in around 2005, I was quite concerned. There was a gentleman who was found guilty of plotting a terrorist act in Toronto in 1991. He was a member of Jamaat Al Fuqra, and he and his friends were going to blow up a Hindu temple and a Hindu theatre in Toronto. They were stopped, he was given a 15-year sentence and in the course of his incarceration, I talked to a prison official in 2005, he had converted 50 people to Islam within the prison system. Now, I’m not saying that they converted to radical Islam or they’re going to become terrorists but it’s interesting that the prison system didn’t see this as a problem of a convicted Islamist extremist being able to have that kind of remit and that kind of access to the prison system. We do have one, I guess, Supermax equivalent in Canada. It’s called the special handling unit. It’s located in Quebec, and several of the members of the Toronto 18, as well as Momin Khawaja, that was Operation Crevice, you may recall from the sort of early 2000s, a UK plot, they were held there, they are held in isolation, as much as for their own protection as for the protection of other prisoners and the staff. What we found, interestingly is that Islamist extremist terrorist prisoners tend to be most at risk from other prisoners. They don’t like who they are, and they don’t like their views. They’re very dogmatic. They’re very arrogant. They’re very dismissive of other views and there have been cases of other prisoners who basically put the boots to Islamist extremist prisoners. So, I guess isolated, is the due course. We have yet to see actually any attack planning from within prison to the best of my knowledge. Although further to Ian’s point about de radicalization. We did have a member of the Toronto 18 who got out of prison was so called deradicalized, and a year later, he left to go join ISIS and was killed in an attack in 2012. Pointing to the fact that he wasn’t de-radicalised, he hadn’t even disengaged for that matter. I think moving forward that the relatively small number of plots here in Canada probably preclude a massive strategy in the sense of the report that Ian wrote for the UK Government. I can’t imagine a similar report being written for the Canadian government. Yes, there are ongoing presentations and sharing of information between the security services and Correctional Services Canada, which is the federal one, as well as the provincial systems. The other thing I think that a lot of people are starting to talk about is, you know, ISIS and Al Qaeda are still around and will be around for quite some time, Donald Trump’s statement of victory against ISIS notwithstanding. What do you do if you start incarcerating neo-Nazis, white supremacists? Are you going to be able to deal with the prison system from that perspective? So, in other words, will the far-right extremists who have received prison sentences, will they start to radicalize within the prison system? I would imagine and I have no numbers to back this up, there are far more so-called white supremacists behind bars in Canada than there Islamist extremists. I have no insight in terms of the concerns of the prison staff, whether that they’re spreading the ideology within the system. So overall, a relatively good news scenario from my country, given the relative paucity of attack finding we’ve had. But nevertheless, there is definitely a need to keep training staff. Even if you only see it once in your lifetime that could be a tragic turn of events. If a person does radicalize inside or an incarcerated terrorist does encourage someone to commit an attack against the guard and other inmates. So never say never but Fingers crossed, so far, it’s not bad in my country.
Eilish O’Gara 19:16
Thank you, Phil that’s really interesting and again, I’m going to come back to some of those points you made. Just a gentle reminder, if you want to just pop your questions in the bar below, and we’ll endeavour to answer them for you do let me know who you want the questions directed at if it’s someone specific. So, Ian I just want to get back to yourself and just lightly touch on again, your review. You recommended that as a last resort, the only viable option now was to separate out extremists from the general prison population. And just to give our viewers a little bit of background information if you don’t already know, there are various methods by which you can incarcerate TACT offenders. So, there are three main ways; they are dispersal, which is sort of what is used in the vast majority of European cases and that is the process by which offenders, terrorist offenders, are dispersed amongst the general prison population. Containment is another option and has been used on and off by various nations not too successfully. It is the process by which all TACT offenders are put together in a separate unit. And they are allowed to basically live-in prison like they would amongst the general population, but they are separated from that population. The final option is separation and that is when TACT offenders are taken from the general prison population. They are placed in separation units, and they are given counter extremism initiatives in order to help them, but they are also mostly separated from each other. It can be quite a controversial policy, but it’s one that Ian and you said was probably the only viable option left and with your review for the government. I just want to ask quickly; do you still think this is the best option viable? And what challenges might we face in implementing, meaningfully implementing separation and counter extremism interventions? And why do you think this is still the best way forward? And just a second question on the back of that before I let you speak, because I do like giving double questions out. I want you to talk a little bit about the counter extremism project with Staffordshire University you’re doing it’s called Disguise Compliance in Terrorist Offending. I want you to talk a little bit about that, that project you’re working on and how you think it might impact the current deradicalization initiatives that are used in prisons currently. Thank you.
Ian Acheson 21:50
Okay. Wow, that’s a big load of questions, I will attempt to, to get a good answer to you. On the separation. It’s really important for people listening to understand that the separation, first of all, as I said to ministers at the time, separation of the most subversive and that’s the important that the most subversive terrorist offenders, not all terrorist defenders, not all Muslims, you know, that this has been wilfully misunderstood sometimes by the popular press as the worst possible answer, apart from all of the alternatives. We spent more time looking out on stress testing, the idea of separating those most highly subversive proselytising Islamist extremists who are spreading hateful ideologies and trying to indoctrinate credulous and vulnerable, violent young man who are searching for meaning, who are easily available to them, but almost anything else that we considered. Other reasons, of course, for doing so was because of the Northern Ireland experience. And you can probably tell from my accent, and even just listening that doesn’t know me, I am from Northern Ireland, and I visited the place where separation is widely regarded as having failed, which was Maghaberry prison, the high security prison in Northern Ireland. Incidentally, you pull up a sandbag later, and I’ll tell you some stories. I was also at HMP Maze when it was an operational terrorist prison, where loyalist and Republican paramilitaries were separated as well. Going back to Maghaberry, everybody said, well, you cannot have separation because it’s simply toxified and reinforces the problems. But they failed to understand the huge differences in terms of ideological commitment in terms of numbers in terms of scale, in terms of all sorts of things between dissident republican terrorists who comprise most of the separated prison population in Northern Ireland and Islamist extremists. The reason why the current system we felt of dispersal that was operating before our review had failed is there were sufficient numbers of adherence to an Islamist ideology across all of the available high security prisons where high value Islamist prisoners and the most charismatic ones were being sent to that dispersing them in the general population and even moving them round that constrained number of prisons was akin to metastasizing cancer. So, in other words, the virus of extremism was already well embedded and even if these people were moved to a different prison, their hinterland was well established, their control systems are well established, and their means of recruiting others was well established. So, something fundamentally different was needed. A quick other thing to mention about separation before I come on to your second point, it has been mentioned by people who are opposed to the concept of separation, that I will be frank here, I believe some of them comprise the senior management within the prison system at the minute and I’ve got good reason to believe so, but some of the people who are opposed conceptually to the idea. Will quote the fact that some of the people that are separated now, and we’ve only got one we believe, because we’re not told the information publicly, one item of potential for units operating all those mothballed. But it’s the people that get selected to be sent there refused to participate in any programmes to tackle their offending behaviour, tried to reduce their dangerousness try to intervene in the pathology of their trajectory into extremist offending and therefore out of it again. For me, if you’ve got the right person based on intelligence, and you have the will, to be able to separate people, if they refuse to comply, that’s not a defeat, you are still isolating that person on the basis of intelligence that you’ve gathered for as long as you believe that they are dangerous. Like for some people, who if they’re the right people who’ve been isolated in separation units, who are, let’s say in inverted commas, ideologically bulletproof. Mind you we don’t know about the relationship between desistance and time for this new generation of terrorist defenders because they haven’t been banged up for long enough. But if you if you simply look at the people who are refusing to engage with the staff, those people might need to be in separation units for years, potentially some of them if you’ve got the right people for the whole of their sentence, which may be a whole life sentence given the seriousness of some of the offending. And that’s okay, as far as I’m concerned, what we of course want to aim for, is to be able to using that cognitive break between the preacher and the adherent tackle both sides of this equation, so be able to try to offer hope and the possibility of change and redemption for the people who are the most charismatic and subversive offenders, but also be able to interject the power base that they’ve built up outside in the mainstream prison estate. But I’d always factored in the possibility that there would be a large number of people who simply would be, at least for the present, who would be unassailable in terms of doing anything different with them. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying with those people and it’s not to say that, you know, that the encounters that staff have with them in particular, will tell us very interesting and useful things about the psychology of extremist offending. We cannot speak to dead terrorists, so we are we are left in terms of combating violent extremism, to exploiting the opportunity of having these very special types of offenders available to us to be able to talk to. Second point about Sky’s compliance. One of the things that I think is emerging and is very troubling about the recent ways that the prison service has failed to manage terrorist offenders is, to be fair to prison service in the UK, this is something that we’ve seen in France in Denmark, and of course, most recently, in in Vienna, where very skilled and sophisticated and manipulative terrorist prisoners have basically fooled the people who are engaged in interventions into believing that they have recounted their ideologies, that they are safe, in exchange for perhaps being left alone, or perhaps a reduction in time in prison, or being able to take the spotlight of surveillance away from them. In order to be able to continue terrorist events and that sort of deception, we think, just simply hasn’t had enough investigation. What we want to try to do at Staffordshire University on the violent extremism project is really driven to disguise compliance, deception, credibility, sincerity, and see if there are ways better ways that we can skill up practitioners who are working with these offenders, to be able to discern their true motivation. I don’t think to finish off the point, I mean I could go on about this forever, but I don’t think we have the intervention programs at the moment that we’ll be able to do that. Or indeed, we have the staff available, or the organisation available to be able to really make a dent in that, because that’s the way that we will prevent future outrages from happening. We won’t prevent them completely, of course, but I think we could do much better than we’re currently doing at spotting deception and being able to do something about it.
Eilish O’Gara 29:27
Brilliant, thank you Ian, feel free to talk for as long as you want. We are actually ahead of schedule; we’ve got some really interesting questions coming in. I’m just turning to Phil very quickly and Ian’s obviously talked about the project he’s working on at the moment. With your experience and your understanding of extremism, both ISIS and Al Qaeda. Do you actually think there’s ever going to be a perfect practice or a perfect science in helping intelligence services, but specifically the prison systems be able to predict what offenders, or indeed, which individuals will go on to perpetrate acts of violence. Do you think this is something that we’ll ever be able to have a perfect, (inaudible)? The second question on the back of that as well, is, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing prison systems with regards to extremism going forward? You spoke a little bit about extreme right wing and indeed, we do have that problem here in Europe as well. But what do you think are going to be the main issues for the prison services going forward from now?
Phil Gurski 30:33
Okay, well, in answer to your first question, it’s an easy one. Sadly, no, there’ll be no perfect system ever, for the simple reason that humans are unpredictable. You know, I’ve seen lots of threat risk assessment models, they’re all very good, insofar as they can give you a snapshot as to what a person is like and what they may do. I do commend Ian for his comments and, you know, as somebody who spent 32 years in intelligence, I spent 17 and a half years in the Canadian equivalent of GCHQ before I joined the security service, that made me just an eternal sceptic, when it comes to human behaviour. And as somebody who is a practitioner, who realises the resources required to actually keep Canadians safe, an incarcerated terrorist is someone don’t have to worry about outside, he may pose a danger to those on the inside. That’s an important issue but Canadians are safe as long as they’re in. So, my default position is going to sound cruel, but my default position is once a terrorist, always a terrorist. That means that there is simply no perfect system for determining whether or not somebody is going to reoffend, and Ian has made some great points about disengagement and desistance. Who knows what any of that stuff means? Really. People lie all the time people tell whatever story, the old joke goes, if you talk to 100 people in prison, how many are guilty? None. None of them are guilty. They were all falsely incarcerated. Why would you believe anybody who tells a different story that oh, I’ve, you know, I’ve ejected this ideology? I think what worries me going forward, is from a Canadian perspective, I think, the longer you go without cases that i.e., actual foiled terrorist plots, where trials are held, people are found guilty and incarcerated, the more the system forgets, and that applies to Canada, writ large, you know, the last terrorist attack we had in this country from an Islamist extremist’s perspective, was back in 2018. And thankfully, nobody died. So as years go on, people say, well, is this really a threat anymore? Do we really have to worry? Should we really have our security services worried about this. So, the fewer cases you have, which, of course, is a very good development, you want fewer cases, you don’t want more. You know, I used to when I compare the my security service to the United Kingdom, MI5, I used to think I don’t know how you guys go to work in the morning, in terms of just the numbers of priorities, you know, they have 1000s and 1000s of cases, we had hundreds at best, and they had, you know, serious threats to life plots, which we didn’t have to the same extent in Canada. So, I think moving forward, there will constantly be this, this, I guess, tugging or this this push or pull, where I think Ian alluded to it a bit earlier. You know, our populations don’t want to see people sent away forever. It’s very rare in Canada for someone to be sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. People expect you to be released at some point. Now, if you’ve you know, if you’ve been in prison for 10, 15, 20 years, whatever, do you actually reject the ideology that got you in the first place? Or are you a threat 10, 15, 20 years down the road. Now, in fairness, I have spoken to several Al Qaeda inspired terrorists in Canada, who on the inside, I did interview them, with my intelligence, scepticism hat on. But in all fairness, not one so far, to the best of my knowledge has re-engaged in that particular ideology or activity, since his release. Now, I don’t have any intelligence to back that up necessarily. But there’s been no front-page headlines, you know, former convicts killed three in Toronto, or that kind of thing. It hasn’t happened to date. So, I think it’d be this constant pressure in a liberal democratic society, like Canada, where the expectation is that people will not put people away forever, that we’re going to have to deal with them. And further to Ian’s point, you know, we have the three systems as well, we have that special sort of a special handling unit, which is sort of separation, we have dispersed them amongst various prison populations, and we kept them all in the same facility. And they all have their pluses and minuses. But there will be this constant pressure, I think, from civil society, that we have to give these guys a chance, we have to allow them to at least claim that they’re no longer the men they were when they were incarcerated and to allow them a second lease on life, then they fall back on the security services sort of perimeter. Worst case scenario, if something bad happens, they’re going to be fingers pointed at all kinds of levels, the security service, the prison system, etc. the government writ large. So again, to go back to your first question, there is no perfect system. You know, the old adage when you work in security intelligence is very simple. You’re only as good as your last failure. Nobody cares when you get it right. Everybody points the fingers at you when you get it wrong.
Eilish O’Gara 35:08
Thank you Phil and I absolutely agree with you, it’s certainly not a desirable position to be in it as one unfortunately that a number of people find themselves in through no fault of their own and working as hard as they possibly can. We’re going to turn now to questions, we’ve had quite a number of questions. And what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do this is we’re going to unmute the mic of a person that I am, I’ve read through the questions, and we’re going to unmute the mic and that person is going to say, what the question is, and ideally who it’s directed at. If it’s directed at both speakers, then absolutely fine. If not, please specify who the question is for. We’re going to start with David Conway, and your question on disengagement and radicalization. Perhaps we might come back to David, then. Okay. The next person we’re going to look at forgive me is, and let me open up these questions again, at Robert Blakebrough and it’s your question on extreme violence.
Robert Blakebrough 36:38
I’m here. Thanks. It was just a simple question. We’ve been talking about male terrorists, and we know that there have been female Islamic terrorists as well. So really, the question was, what were the issues related to female terrorists?
Phil Gurski 36:59
I’ll go, perhaps because I have a very simple answer to the best of my knowledge. There’s only one in Canada; there was an ISIS supporter who failed to join the group. She got as far as Turkey before she was turned back. She carried out an attack in 2018 at a hardware store in Canada, she swung a golf club at a bunch of staff, not very Canadian should have been a hockey stick, if you’re a real Canadian, she didn’t really injure anybody. She was found guilty of terrorism and is now serving in a penitentiary, but I have no knowledge as to what her status is. Obviously, we have prisons for women in this country. But I must plead ignorance that she’s the only one to date that has been successfully convicted for a terrorism offence in Canada.
Ian Acheson 37:44
Well, we don’t actually have in terms of scale, many more female convicted violent extremists. I’m struggling to, to think that there was certainly the woman who stabbed Stephen Timm’s the MP. She was in prison for certainly a terrorist related offense. There are a couple of others who were involved in, in recent plots, who’ve also been imprisoned, and they are held in female prisons that are in what’s called restricted status. So, there’s two or three prisons around the country for women that have slightly higher levels of security. But in terms of scale, I don’t think the two compares. Where there is a more interesting philosophical debate. There’s about dozens of young women, including Shamima Begum, who travelled to ISIS territory, at the time ISIS controlled territory in in north-eastern Syria. To become assistants to, or certainly who were embroiled in, ISIS, in terms of support, and so on and what we do with them, and what obligations we have to them, and how our criminal justice system works for them and for us, primarily, if they are to be repatriated. But I think, Phil, you were talking before we started the programme, that that was a whole other debate that we should have about the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters. It’s a big issue. So, like Canada, we don’t have so far as we know, in terms of scale, a comparable threat. And that goes across the ideological spectrum as well. I think there are there are a very small number of the 25% or so of the current 240 odd TACT prisoners that we have in custody who are women who’ve got an extreme right-wing ideology as well.
Eilish O’Gara 39:46
Thank you very much. And I do you actually want to come back to David Conway’s question although he can’t come on the microphone, and because it’s really actually very interesting. I’m going to ask you it and Ian it’s particularly for you actually, he says what the difference between de-radicalization and disengagement from a hateful ideology?
Ian Acheson 40:07
Well, I mean, the thing that I would say about this, I wonder if Phil would agree with me is that there’s an enormous word salad of different terminologies that get used in different ways. I’ve stopped using as has Phil talking clearly about deradicalization because it feels pretty meaningless. It also implies a kind of binary process, which fits in with generic shifted interventions, frankly, where you’ve done this, you’ve ticked all the boxes, therefore, you’re not a danger anymore. What I tend to think about is, as I’ve said earlier, and probably will try to explain a bit better, is desistance, and disengagement. So, what desistance mean to me in terms of intervening with terrorist offenders? That, to me is, as I said, a sort of functional set of responses. And they might include, for example, the securitized response that comes with terrorist offenders at the minute, who are released into the community and are subject to supervision by the I would say, wholly inadequate system we have at the minute, the multi-agency public protection arrangements, where license conditions and other forms of controls and surveillance are put in place, in an attempt to stop the offender from causing more harm on as you’ve said, in terms of the (inaudible) attack, you could see that working in its extremist form, where that offender was so dangerous, he was effectively man marked by armed officers, up to the point where he at the first available opportunity tried to murder shoppers on the Streatham high street and was shot dead. So that’s an extreme form of desistance, obviously, but desistance to me does not imply a voluntary attempt by the offender to change his life or to realise the ideology that he’s been involved in is bogus and is destructive, and he wants, or she wants to change. That’s disengagement. And the problem with disengagement is it may be, you know, I’m going to come back to what Phil said, here, it may be a sort of Holy Grail that’s unfindable. We certainly can’t ever know with 100% certainty if or to what extent people have changed, fundamentally changed, and their sincerity in that change, if they recant hateful ideologies. I think we can do very much better than we’re doing at the moment, though, to be able to manage that process. That involves, incidentally, in my opinion, the replacement of this very Heath Robinson, fractured pipeline of handles across the extremist journey through custody, which includes the courts, probation staff, prison staff, security staff, police, and the parole board, potentially, which is completely unsatisfactory. What we need, in fact, in my opinion, to be able to manage this risk, and to be able to have a better chance at aiming for disengagement is to have one executive authority that manages the pathway of that offender all the way through, and it’s not a multi-agency shotgun marriage, it’s actually a multi-disciplinary unit, which has the right people being able to, for example, create the right sort of interventions, not the generic shift of interventions, we’ve designed very cheaply, the psychosocial interventions that are applied to people who believe they’ve got divine permission to murder children. You know, for example, very calibrated individualised treatment programmes for those offenders over a very long period of time when trusted relationships can be built. Then the back end of that is something that we haven’t talked about at all and that is that in the United Kingdom, certainly, anyway, in terms of the resettlement of offenders, ideologically inspired offenders after custody, the state has the monopoly on the controls. So going back to what I said before about license conditions, and surveillance, and so on, we don’t seem to like other countries in Europe, put any stock in the community or civil society being involved in that reintegration. And that seems to me to be a fundamental mistake, if you want to get people to recant their toxic ideologies, who better to help them do so than the communities that they’re from. I accept that that’s fraught with problems and difficulties, but at the moment, we completely shut out those communities. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if many people for example, in the Muslim community or Muslim communities in this country felt disenfranchised by being shut out of that national security endeavour if you’d like. And I think there’s been research particularly recently from the Crest think tank that says that, for example in relation to Prevent, which is a strand of our counterterrorism approach that they largely, Muslim people support, Prevent, and want a robust counterterrorism approach because it threatens them as well. So, I think involving communities in resettlement and reintegration is absolutely key. And if you do so, you certainly boost the chances of getting the to the final end point, which is a disengagement and disengagement of one terrorist offenders. And I know some people, (inaudible). So, I believe your redemption is possible even with terrorist defenders because I had a lifelong friendship with one of them. I have got a working colleague, Jesse Morton, who is an Islamist recruiter who has completely changed his life. Terrorists hate people who recant their ideology, it’s kryptonite to them. It’s worth 1000 security officers, no offense Phil. So, what we ought to be trying to do at least is get into a position where we can help one or two people, the spectacular few. There’s one further thing if I may, I want to say quickly, do I get a chance, it’s about stats. I’m just going to bore you for a minute. The statistics are based on the latest data from government. There are about 240 offenders in custody fought for terror related offences, and that was back some months, the stats are static, and the throughput is a bit dynamic. But approximately that one of the one of the reasons for not doing too much with these offenders who are a tiny fraction of our 84-83,000 prison population is because of their size. And because there has been some research, at least that suggests the recidivism rate for terrorist offenders is significantly lower than for ordinary offenders and runs at about 5%. But just think of that for a moment. And this is this is a reason to sort of tone down our response societally and organizationally to violent extremism. But if there was a recidivism rate of 5%, for some of these really dangerous, ruthless and utterly determined people who are, you know, completely ad hoc with a death cult, you’re talking about, roughly speaking, if I can do the math here, 12 or 13 further Reading Park incidents. It’s not something that we can tolerate. When people talk about scale, what they forget, when they’re trying to minimise the impact of ideological offending is the massively disproportionate effect it has on community morale. Right now, Phil, Canada have been lucky that they have escaped a lot of that. But I can tell you, Phil, on something you said struck me about, you know, the general population, civic societies desire to have these people rehabilitated. I think, in this country, there is a huge and outraged desire to see a much more robust and assertive approach by the prison service to managing these highly dangerous and risky people. The prison service needs to re-find its Mojo. It’s a law enforcement agency with a public protection priority. And one of the things I think that is regrettable in the extreme is it still hasn’t found that and what we’ve seen emerge then are conditions where in a prison that’s supposed to be that the highest secure prison in this country, under conditions of extreme surveillance, you had a prison officer who was seconds and millimetres away just a year ago, from being murdered. I’m absolutely clear that he was going to be taken hostage to be murdered. The evidence also suggests that, and if those people could have done that, they would have disseminated that grotesque killing through social media in order to break the rule of law in prison, right. So, this is the reason why, despite the size of the problem, we must take it seriously. We must do better.
Phil Gurski 49:07
I don’t disagree with you. Just very quickly, I may just be an old practitioner and an academic but to me, disengagement is observable because its behaviour, de-radicalization is not. You can easily observe behaviour, you can’t observe ideology, only indirectly.
Eilish O’Gara 49:24
Thank you both. And got an interesting question here actually, and quite timely with everything to do with foreign fighters and on and the global issue with those people. And the question is from Julia O’Shaughnessy, is there any way we can get you?
Julia O’Shaughnessy 50:03
I first put what interventions within, without of prisons have you found to be most successful for disengagement and desistance. But the other bit that you’re probably referring to was, I was wondering about the women and children that are in is the Al Hol, the camp kind of thing? Is there any interest from the international community in undergoing disengagement, desistance programmes within the camp so that because they’re obviously going to be there a long time. So that when they do eventually go back to whichever country, there’s a chance of, you know, then them not really engaging in terrorism or recruiting etc.
Phil Gurski 50:56
I’ll jump into very quickly. I don’t know that the locals have the resources or the knowledge to do that. I think they’re overwhelmed with the numbers. I think they’re also still fighting a war, ISIS is still attacking on a regular basis, as are other terrorist groups. And in all honesty, I don’t think there’s the interest. I think that these people that are incarcerated women and children, and men are seen as the enemy, I don’t think they really want to afford them any kind of, you know, training or programming. For the record. I’ve always stated the children should be repatriated ASAP. I’ve also stated that they should be removed from their parents who are clearly unfit parents for having joined a terrorist group, and other women should stand trial. I know it’s difficult to Iraq and Syria. But that’s been my solution to the foreign fighter programme. But it is a huge question. And I thought maybe you know, more than I do, Ian, but I just don’t think that the Kurds or the Iraqis, or the Syrians, really have the wherewithal to be addressing these issues within the Al Hol camp or other facilities in the north of the country.
Ian Acheson 51:53
I agree with you. On that point. For sure. I think we’ve got a moral obligation, frankly, to return our citizens to this country, and to be able to have the confidence to be able to put them through our criminal justice system and bring them to justice, if necessary, and have them punished. And I would agree with Phil, absolutely. But in cases where our nationals have brought children, they should be removed from the children, they’re completely unfit mothers. Just on the on the question of interventions. What I was trying to say before is, I think we need to do much more work and interventions. And I think the ones that are most likely to work, involve this executive unit that I’m talking about doing the deepest, most biographical analysis of the offender, I’m a great advocate of a way of looking at the radicalization process that was designed by colleagues of mine that worked for The Counter extremism project, including Jesse Morton and a former head of intelligence for NYPD who talked about the pure radicalization space and used the example of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, if you like, and basically said, the roots out of his radicalised behaviour and the roots into it lay as the antecedents, in his formative years, because so many things happened to him, which tended, and you can apply the other theories like the staircase theory, that tended to make him more susceptible to being drawn into violent extremism. So, I think what we need to do is look, look at people as individuals and prescribe individual treatment programmes. So, some people go back to what you’ve said, Phil their offending is motivated purely by ideology. And I’ve always thought that Islamism cannot be defeated without Islam. Going back to the point of having theologically competent and assertive Imams working against that ideology in prisons is huge. But on this, there’s a lot of research to suggest that other offenders perhaps even within the same ideology, are motivated much more by a failure of identity, or past disappointments in life or trauma that’s happened in life is that is projecting them into the path of people who’ve groomed them into a terrorist ideology. So, we’ve got apples and oranges and what we need to do is look at an individual and say, well, that person needs a theological intervention, that person needs a psychological intervention, a family intervention, a drug misuse intervention, drug misuse is very important as well. So, we need to base our, our response on that individualised biography the trajectory into or therefore out of offending, but I’ll tell you something, that’s bloody expensive and that’s the issue.
Eilish O’Gara 54:49
It is incredibly so. We only have three minutes left. So, Noor Dahri if you want to give your question very quickly, maybe just choose one of them and We’ll get we’ll get an answer for you before the before the time’s up. Thank you.
Noor Dahri 55:13
Okay, I’ll ask one question. Imams. What I have seen there is not any, particularly any organisation or government semi government that introduce any Imam trainings, because as far as I know, some Imams, they work for the prison services. And but they are more interested to convert the people rather than rehabilitate. And Imams, in most amounts, they have theological knowledge about Islam, but they have no knowledge about what extremism is, what terrorism is, and how people drawn into extremism or how the ideologies that they have. So, on the one hand, they have knowledge of Islam, but they don’t have any knowledge about terrorism. And when they recruited by recruited by prison services, they are more interested in implementing Islam rather than deradicalizing people.
Ian Acheson 56:16
Well, I’m going to let Phil round things off, because I don’t want to monopolise things. But I’ve been really impressed by your work in a great follower of yours. And you’re absolutely right. There is, I believe, some light at the end of the tunnel where the prison service at least has said that they’re recruiting a new set of Imams who will go into prison specifically to be able to counter hateful ideologies, hateful Islamist ideology. The question lies in the training and support that they are given, because you’re absolutely right there is a difference between religious competence and the ability to take on very sophisticated entrenched ideological beliefs. And you need people you need a very special blend of resilience and an intellect there. And, you know, if we get that, right, they could be hugely important in our fight against extremism.
Phil Gurski 57:15
So very quickly, I thank you for the question. Noor, you’re absolutely right. Imams are a big part of the solution. Two things we found, generally speaking, that the Imams in Canada, the security service knew more about extremism than the Imams did, because we had been studying it for years. And secondly, of course, there’s always the danger, you hire the wrong Imam. And we have those in Canada, Imams who themselves are extremists and get positions within the within the prison system. So absolutely. let’s engage the Imams, lets engage Muslim communities. But let’s vet them very, very carefully for fear of making the situation worse.
Eilish O’Gara 57:46
Okay. Thank you very much. Guys we could talk about this all day, but unfortunately, we’ve come to the end and we’re about to get cut off, so I thank you both so much for doing this with me today. I hope that it was enjoyable for you both also. And of course, to our question askers as well. Thank you very much. Thank you.