Is the change in Terror legislation enough?

By Philip Ingram MBE

Sudesh Amman, arrested and jailed for preparing acts of terrorism in May 2018 and under the then Terror Legislation was automatically released on license after having served half of his sentence. Ten days later, at the beginning of February 2020, attacked two people on Streatham High Street before being shot dead by a police undercover surveillance team who had been tailing him. That legislation was changed today with the introduction of the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill.

This was the third attack in so many months after an attack at Fishmongers’ Hall on London Bridge in December by Usman Khan. He had been released half-way through a 16-year sentence for terror offences. Then in January there was attack on prison officers at Whitemoor Prison in which at least one prisoner found guilty of a terrorist offence is understood to have been involved

Another terror attack on the streets of our capital city but this one has raised so many additional questions. Why, if Amman was so dangerous, was he released from prison? With this being the second In London attack from a newly released terror convict, in 3 months, how many more are due for release? Can the police and security services cope? What else can be done to protect the general public? Is the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill the answer?

The numbers are horrific, 20,000 people have over the years come to feature on a terror database, 3000 are current persons of interest and there are over 800 active investigations going on today.  In addition, as at February 2020 there are 224 convicted terrorists in jail in Great Britain and six are due for early release by March and up to another 50 at some stage in 2020.

As at the end of February, with the change in legislation those 50 must now serve at least two thirds of their prison term before being considered for release. The one individual who was due for release in the coming days, Mohammed Zahir Khan who was jailed in 2018 for four years for encouraging terrorism, stirring up religious hatred and disseminating a terror publication must serve another year.

Before Kahn and any of the other 50 prisoners impacted this year by the change in the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill can be released, they will also need to pass a review by a panel of specialist judges and psychiatrists at the Parole Board.  However, if these individuals pass, they will be released and if they don’t, at the end of their sentences they will be released.

It takes over 30 highly trained specialist surveillance officers to monitor one person and the head of UK counter-terror policing Neil Basu  warned the threat from terrorism was not diminishing and that the number of subjects of interest and convicted terrorists due for release meant “we cannot watch all of them, all the time,” he said.  So, priorities have to be made and resources allocated appropriately.

There is a perception from films and TV series that the police and Security Services can sit in a big control room and track people remotely using the over 600,000 CCTV cameras in London alone, one for every 14 people, using facial recognition capabilities, seamlessly tracking suspects and keeping surveillance operators informed. Unfortunately, that capability isn’t available outside the TV or film set, and surveillance remains a manpower intensive job.

The Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 amongst many other measures was launched to ensure sentencing for certain terrorism offences can properly reflect the severity of the crimes, as well as preventing re-offending and disrupting terrorist activity more rapidly.

This new legislation builds on what had already been introduced for the most dangerous terrorists with a minimum sentence of 14 years but seems to be just pushing the real problem into the future with a little more oversight.  There is nothing obvious from additional deradicalization measures or even a realisation that potentially some convicted terrorists may never be deradicalized. It has and will continue to generate debate and it is unlikely to be long before human rights groups challenge this new legislation.

One thing is clear, the debate will continue, as Lord Carlile, a former reviewer of terror legislation from 2001 to 2011 suggested the plans might have gone too far and warned of a risk of legal challenge to their retrospective nature.

The clamour to find better ways of identifying potential terrorists, deradicalizing those already in the system if that is possible and monitoring those that remain a threat whilst in prison and when eventually released, will continue to increase. Maybe it is also time to recognise that current criminal law is not applicable for some terrorists who can never be deradicalized? However, that would have huge human rights implications in a free and democratic society built on the rule of law.