Jessica Davis is a former CSIS intelligence analyst, author of Women in Modern Terrorism and president of Insight Threat Intelligence.
On Nov. 29, Usman Khan killed two people and injured three others in a terrorist attack in London. Mr. Khan had been convicted of a terrorism offence in 2012 and released in 2018, partway through his 16-year sentence. Particularly controversial is the fact he was taking part in the British government’s desistance-and-disengagement program for terrorists at the time of the attack.
This, of course, raises questions about whether these programs work – and whether convicted terrorists can ever be safely released back into society. The knee-jerk reaction to this incident has many people suggesting that terrorists should never be released from prison. But this ignores the reality of legal systems in most democratic countries, as well as the reality of terrorist recidivism.
It is absolutely possible that someone convicted of terrorist offences could re-engage in terrorism once released from prison. But is it likely? No.
In Canada, Britain and elsewhere, convicted terrorists, like most other criminals, have finite sentences: They will eventually be released from prison. While recidivism is a serious concern, most terrorists will not re-engage in such activity. Over the past 18 years, of the 26 Canadians convicted of terrorism offences, only one has re-engaged.
That being said, there are concrete steps Canada can take to make it even less likely and lessons we can learn from Britain’s counterterrorism approach, despite the current criticism of its programs.
First, counterterrorism activities cannot stop once a terrorist has been jailed; we need to provide evidence-based programming for such prisoners. Terrorist disengagement and deradicalization programs are not without controversy. Internationally, some programs have demonstrated promise, but whether they can explain how and why they have been successful, and whether their methods can be applied in countries with different legal, geopolitical and cultural contexts, are open questions. In the Canadian context, this is entirely lacking, as Ottawa-based professor Reem Zaia’s research has demonstrated. Not providing programming is the criminal-justice equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.”
Second, because they will almost always be released from prison eventually, many convicted terrorists will require continuing monitoring. Doing so is time-consuming and expensive, however, with the recruitment of law enforcement and security personnel taking up resources, even when governments are willing to increase budgets proportionally to the risk and threat. But such services can anticipate prison releases and assign resources as needed. Parole conditions also need to be re-examined; some convicted terrorists have been released on the condition that they receive religious counselling, and there has been little evidence of its effectiveness in preventing a return to terrorism.
Third, we need to support monitoring with evidence-based tools. Understanding if and how an individual is likely to re-engage in terrorism (risk) and how they may prepare for a potential attack (threat) is critical to this process. These tools cannot be static, as terrorism methods continue to evolve. Appropriate analytic resources need to be assigned to maintain these tools.
Fourth, when terrorist incidents happen, we need to conduct postincident reviews. The British government is good at this: It analyzes what happened and often makes the results public. This allows for accountability, as well as lessons learned. In Canada, on the other hand, the last public postincident review of a terrorist incident was the 1985 Air India bombing, released a full 25 years after the incident and nine years after Canada’s counterterrorism laws were significantly altered following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While the results don’t always have to be made public, Canadians deserve to know that our law enforcement and security services are learning from their (inevitable) failures.
Finally, we need to foster the idea that resilience in the face of terrorism is a public good. The best systems in the world cannot prevent every terrorist attack, and while our security services strive for a 100-per-cent success rate, expecting this is unrealistic. Instead, Canadians need to understand that our responsibility is to avoid letting terrorist incidents compromise our values and respect for the rule of law, human rights and democracy.
Ultimately, terrorism is an unfortunate fact of life. How we as a society react to that threat – the steps we take to prevent it and how we respect democratic values in the process – is the ultimate test. Most terrorists hope their actions will trigger harsh responses that essentially undermine our values and ideals. We should not give them what they want.
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