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Psychology Isn’t Enough: The Failure to Prevent Individual Terror Attacks

Hardeep Matharu looks at how longer sentences and current counter-radicalisation policy fails to address the real risks.

Psychology Isn’t Enough
The Failure to Prevent Individual Terror Attacks

Hardeep Matharu looks at how longer sentences and current counter-radicalisation policy fails to address the real risks.

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The father of Jack Merritt, who was killed by Usman Khan in last year’s attack at London Bridge, has said he “hates what he has done” but believes understanding and tackling broader social factors, not just the psychology of individual terrorists, needs to be part of the response in tackling radicalisation.

Jack Merritt was murdered by Khan at Fishmongers’ Hall in central London on 29 November. The 28-year-old who was born in the UK was automatically released from prison, under supervision on licence, in December 2018, after serving half of his sentence for terrorism offences – including plans to bomb the London Stock Exchange, the Houses of Parliament and the US Embassy and to build a training camp on land owned by his family in Kashmir. He had spent time in Pakistan and was a supporter of the Al-Muhajiroun group, led by the hate preacher Anjem Choudary.

In his attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall, Khan stabbed Jack and his colleague Saskia Jones to death, while wearing a fake suicide vest, before being shot dead by police.

The incident has striking similarities to the attack in Streatham, south London, on Sunday, in which 20-year-old UK-born Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police after stabbing people wearing a fake suicide vest. He left prison a week ago, having been automatically released after serving half of a sentence for terror offences – including possessing documents containing terrorist information and disseminating terrorist publications.

Growing up as an Asian man in a northern town in Britain is probably not the easiest thing to do… Usman Khan was probably looking for a sense of belonging.

David Merritt

Following the proximity of both attacks, the Government has said it will introduce emergency legislation to end the automatic release of terrorist offenders at the half-way point of their sentence – a change which will apply to both future and current prisoners, and is part of the Boris Johnson Government’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda.

In an interview with Byline Times, Jack Merritt’s father David Merritt said he believes that the Government must take wider societal factors into account to confront radicalisation, not just focus on changing a person’s psychology.

“Obviously I hate what Khan’s done and I think it’s terribly sad that someone gets to the point in their life where they think ‘this is a worthwhile or a good thing to do,” he said. 

But, he added: “It’s all very well looking at the individual and looking at their psychology and their pathology, but he got to that point through a process of growing up in this country and Pakistan. He had been back to Pakistan and had obviously been radicalised to some extent there, he had been radicalised here by Anjem Choudary and others…

“It’s like anyone who gets brainwashed or dragged into a cult, the cults know who the easy prey are – they are vulnerable people with sh*t lives basically. I’m speculating, but growing up as an Asian man in a northern town in Britain is probably not the easiest thing to do… Khan was probably looking for a sense of belonging with a group who were like him. 

“How do I feel about him? I don’t feel anything about him really. I just hate what he did.”

While Mr Merritt welcomes some of the Government’s proposals since Jack’s murder – such as plans to double the number of specialist counter-terrorism probation staff and increase the number of specialist psychologists and trained imams – he doesn’t agree with increasing sentences.

“People become radicalised in prison and, if you’re going to let them out eventually, all you’re doing is moving it along a bit until they’re released – and probably worse for having been in there for longer if you’re not actually doing anything with them,” he told Byline Times. “You’re kicking the can down the road, so that worries me. The prison estate is horribly overcrowded so they don’t have any leeway to properly segregate people from other terrorist offenders so they’re all coming together and reinforcing their beliefs.”

The Government’s approach to deradicalisation, which focuses on a person’s ideology and the psychology of individuals, rather than the broader social factors which have helped shape them, has been criticised – including the Government’s controversial Prevent strategy, which aims to stop people becoming terrorists, and has been branded by some as racist and accused of being designed to primarily target Muslims.

Writing in her book The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain, former co-chair of the Tory Party and Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, questions why “ideology is more important than inequality, poverty, gang culture, Islamophobia, mental health and the whole basket of reasons given by experts” when it comes to looking at the drivers of radicalisation.

“I accept that for politicians it’s easier to sell ‘it’s their problem’ rather than ‘it’s our problem’ to the electorate,” she says. “Focusing on an abstract, difficult-to-define, confused concept such as Islamist ideology as opposed to statistics on discrimination, social mobility, criminality, mental health and the legality and success or our foreign policy positions is much easier. But by not dealing with real issues in real communities, I believe we are not only in the short-term making the matter worse but also prolonging the time we have to live with the scourge of terrorism.”

No Cure for Risk

Mr Merritt believes the Government should be honest with the public that the risk of terrorist attacks cannot be totally eliminated.

“If someone is absolutely determined to conceal their true feelings then how can you legislate against that?” he told Byline Times. “What can you do about that? All you can do is physically supervise and try and prevent ever being in the position where they can do something like that. And that’s very difficult.”

He said the Streatham attack and its similarity to how his son died, shows that “there are unknown numbers of people harbouring similar thoughts and intentions and it makes the ‘don’t be afraid’ calls from politicians, understandable as they are, somewhat meaningless”.

Politicians should be very wary of creating expectations that no civilised system of justice can deliver.

Peter Dawson

Whilst in prison, Usman Khan completed the Healthy Identity Intervention (HIH) Programme, the UK’s main rehabilitation scheme for those convicted of terrorism offences. The psychologist who came up with it, Christoper Dean, told the BBC after the deaths of Jack and Saskia: “I think we have to be very careful about ever saying that somebody no longer presents a risk of committing an offence. I don’t think you can ever be sure. We have to be very careful about saying someone has totally changed or has been cured… I think we need to be careful about suggesting that interventions in themselves are the solution.”

Mr Dean’s work with prisoners convicted of terrorism was also used to underpin the 22 ‘Extremism Risk Guidance’ factors used as part of the Prevent Strategy which aim to measure a person’s vulnerability to terrorism.

Mr Dean told the BBC that some offenders see deradicalisation as “’so you’re here to de-programme me?” 

“It’s almost like a robotic term in that we’re going to simply download everything in your head, and we’re going to pump it full of something else, he said. “And I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We’re asking people to kind of reconsider or re-examine the identity commitments in their life… Why they may have bought into a particular cause and support in violence on behalf of that cause. This is something you can’t force people to do. It isn’t about telling someone you have to be this way, or this is how you have to be. Human behaviour doesn’t work like that.”

Responding to the Government’s plans for emergency legislation, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that “risk cannot be completely eliminated and our powers of prediction are always imperfect”.

“Terrorism has always posed a very particular set of challenges for criminal justice systems,” he said. “There are examples from history both in this country and overseas where poorly thought through or disproportionate reactions are likely to have made things worse rather than better in the long run. Unfair treatment or disproportionate punishment are both effective recruiting sergeants.

“So politicians should be very wary of creating expectations that no civilised system of justice can deliver. Prison has its place but it cannot become a means to protect indefinitely.”

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