Terrorists may not be “cured” by prison deradicalisation programmes, the psychologist behind the main scheme has admitted.
Christopher Dean designed the Healthy Identity Intervention (HII) course, which the London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, attended before his release.
It involves terror offenders discussing their motivations, beliefs, identity and relationship with society with a psychologist.
Mr Dean said the programme aims “to make individuals less willing to commit offences on behalf of a violent extremist group, cause or ideology”.
“We’re asking people re-examine the identity commitments in their life,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Sometimes people move up two rungs, sometimes individuals may say, ‘I’ve had my doubts about this or that’, and they may be willing to speak to people, but equally they may go down rungs as well.
“They may come into contact with individuals, they may go through a spell in life where they may feel, let’s say, aggrieved again, where they may begin to re-engage with groups or causes or ideologies associated with their offending behaviour.”
Khan had been jailed for his part in an al-Qaeda-inspired bombing plot in 2012 and was released from prison in December 2018 on licence.
He undertook HII and ideological mentoring under the government’s Desistance and Disengagement scheme, as well as by Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme.
After his release, Khan was monitored by MI5 and subjected to multi-agency public protection arrangements involving police and probation.
On 29 November, the 28-year-old murdered Learning Together coordinator Jack Merritt and volunteer Saskia Jones during an event at Fishmongers’ Hall in London.
Mr Dean did not discuss Khan’s individual case, but admitted that “you can never be sure” someone has been deradicalised.
“People can get more reassured and confident about change and progress that people are making, but I think we have to be very careful about saying someone has totally changed or has been cured,” he said.
Critics of the HII scheme point to the fact that its effects have never been formally tested, and argue that terror convicts require a greater focus on religious intervention than other offenders.
A 2018 analysis commissioned by the prison service said HII participants “reported that the programmes helped them gain an understanding of their motivations for offending and develop strategies to facilitate desistance”.
They are based on research suggesting that extremists are driven by reasons including perceived injustices and a wish to find meaning, purpose or status.
A study of 33 extremists, including 14 influenced by al-Qaeda, found “overwhelmingly positive” results but warned that Islamists needed separate work to address their religion and ideology.
Ian Acheson, who carried out a review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016, said the programme “cannot accommodate the theological foundations of violent extremism”.
He said officials who gave evidence to his review said HII was “easy to game or manipulate” by prisoners making “pragmatic decisions” about their safety and release.
“There was a degree of false compliance with the Healthy Identity Intervention course, which meant that it would appear that people had improved or made progress when in fact they might simply have been disguising their intentions,” he added.
“I think we must accept that there may be a small number of people who are potentially ideologically bulletproof and do not wish to recant their hateful views and we must actually start looking at them through the lens of public protection and national security rather than perhaps create unrealistic expectations of rehabilitation.”
There are currently about 220 terrorist prisoners in custody in the UK, with 77 per cent holding Islamist views and 17 per cent far-right views.
More than 350 have been released since 2012 and, although there are no publicly available statistics on reoffending, at least one man is known to have served two prison sentences for similar crimes.
The laws used to sentence terrorists do not always indicate their level of extremism or threat, because low-level crimes can be committed by hardened ideologues while attack plots can be mounted by vulnerable people with little connection to terrorism.
Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the al-Muhajiroun Islamist network linked to numerous plots and radicalisation across Europe, was jailed for just five-and-a-half years in 2016 for inviting support for Isis.
Khan’s attack raised fresh questions over processes for deradicalising terror offenders in prison, assessing the risk they pose and monitoring them upon release.
Four days after the attack, a separation centre designed to hold the most dangerous terrorist prisoners was closed.
The Ministry of Justice is reviewing Khan’s case and those of other terrorists released on licence, while the Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating the force charged with monitoring him.