Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy at Christian Concern, comments on the rise of Islamic extremism in UK prisons.
Recent terror attacks by former prisoners and the first terrorist attack inside a prison have served to highlight once again the problem of the Islamisation of our prisons. It appears that the government has no clear idea what to do.
High portion of Muslim prisoners
The latest prison population statistics show that 16.1% of the prison population is Muslim, up from 12% in 2009. This compares with around 5.6% of the UK population who identify as Muslim. As of 2018 there were 61 full-time equivalent Muslim prison ‘chaplains’ (nearly 40% of all chaplains working in prisons), compared with 157 Christian prison chaplains. This makes the Prison Service one of the largest employers of Muslim religious professionals in the country. Yet former prison governor Ian Acheson, when reviewing Islamist extremism in prisons, found that virtually none of the prison imams he asked even knew about their Prevent duty. He stated that selection and supervision of imams needs to be radically improved. He also found numerous examples of extremist religious literature being freely distributed across prisons.
Last year, the government stated that there were around 650 individuals in prison or on probation being managed through a counter terrorism process, because they are either convicted terrorists or they have been identified as showing signs of extremist views. Around 80% of these are Islamist related. There were 50% more terrorist related prisoners in England and Wales than three years before. There was no estimate of how many offenders might have been radicalised nor of the level of radicalisation by ideology.
Last December, it was reported that Islamist extremists are holding makeshift Sharia trials in prisons, circulating banned books, and openly grooming young Muslim inmates. A former prisoner recalled how he came to join a group of prisoners who pledged allegiance to Isis.
Terror attack in prison
In January, five prison officers were hospitalised after an attack by two inmates at HMP Whitemore. The men wore fake suicide belts and wielded bladed weapons. They slashed at prison staff, shouting Allahu Akbar. One of the attackers was jailed in 2015 for plotting to behead an army cadet. A witness to the attack said: “It was brutal. There was a lot of blood.” It is thought to be the first terror attack inside a British prison. The way things are going, it is unlikely to be the last.
Prison officers fear beheading on camera
Ian Acheson wrote a review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016. He now says that prison officers fear being taken hostage by Islamist prisoners and beheaded on camera as an act of terrorism. He says he predicted the sort of attack that occurred at Whitemore last month. I hope his prediction of a prison officer beheading does not come to pass, but I am not optimistic. He is sceptical that the government will implement his recommendations to prevent terrorist incidents in prisons.
One of Acheson’s recommendations was for Friday prayers to be carried out in prisoners’ cells rather than communally. There is compelling logic to this. It would stop men with the same radical ideology congregating together. The MoJ rejected this recommendation, saying that it did not want to alter the provision of worship in prisons. Political correctness and cultural sensitivity are therefore taking priority over the safety and wellbeing of prison staff. Meanwhile Wormwood Scrubs prison, where about a third of the prisoners are Muslim, reported “a sustained increase in violence linked to Friday prayers” in January.
Prison staff fear confronting Islamist ideology
When Acheson gave evidence to the Justice Committee in the House of Commons, he related that prison staff “perceived that, if they were to challenge openly on the landings behaviour that was blatantly and floridly anti-British or anti-democratic, they would be accused of racism.” He said that a survey of prison staff clearly showed that staff did not feel equipped or confident to challenge manifestations of Islamist extremism, and that they were afraid to get involved because they would be accused of being racist. One prison officer has said: “I have lost count of the number of times I have been called a kafir — the Muslim word for unbeliever. Others have taunted me over Islamic State atrocities … You bite your lip, otherwise you could end up on a charge.”
This is a shocking and ridiculous state of affairs. Prison officers are afraid to confront radical terrorists or would-be terrorists, for fear of being called racist. How many more attacks in prisons will it take for a change in mentality?
As the terrorist incident at HMP Whitemore emerged, the Met Police Counter Terrorism Command were keen to state: “However, we must stress that at this early stage of the investigation we are keeping an open mind with regards to any motives.” This was after five prison officers were hospitalised by a convicted Islamic terrorist shouting Allahu Akbar and the incident had been referred to counter-terrorism officers. But the counter-terrorism police want to stress that they have an open mind. Could it be the quality of the food? It would be so closed-minded to assume that it had anything to do with Islam, wouldn’t it?
There are also reports that in some prisons, Muslim prisoners receive preferential treatment from the prison staff and Muslim gangs have considerable power especially over other prisoners. Non-Muslim prisoners are being encouraged to convert by the Muslim inmates, and those who refuse can receive beatings.
Releasing dangerous prisoners
The latest example of how our prison system is failing is the attack by Sudesh Amman in Streatham earlier this month. After being convicted of terror offences, and just days after his release, he wore an imitation suicide belt and manged to stab two people before being shot by police who were watching him. Amman was known to be dangerous on his release from prison after serving half his sentence. So dangerous that he was placed under active police surveillance at great expense. How did we decide that it makes sense to let such dangerous people out of prison to put members of the public at risk and to monitor them 24-7 at huge cost?
Dozens more jihadi terrorists are due to be freed on early release in the next few months. The government wants to change the law so that they serve a minimum two-thirds of their sentence. This is likely to be challenged in court. Sir Mark Rowley, former head of National Counter Terror Policing says that more dangerous terrorists will return to the streets of Britain from prison than from Raqqa. He says that numbers of terrorists coming out of prison in the coming months is now into three figures, and “it would be foolish to hope that” counter-terrorism teams “can manage and prioritise ever-longer lists of terrorists.”
De-radicalisation programmes not working
Usman Khan killed two people and injured three others when out on license from prison last November (London Bridge stabbing). He had been convicted of terrorist offences in 2012. On conviction, the trial judge said:
“In my judgement, these offenders would remain, even after a lengthy term of imprisonment, of such a significant risk that the public could not be adequately protected by their being managed on licence in the community, subject to conditions, by reference to a preordained release date.”
However, the Court of Appeal changed the sentence to 16 years with automatic release on license after 8 years. Khan engaged with some counter-terrorism initiatives whilst in prison and had managed to persuade people that he was now de-radicalised. Not all were taken in, however. One Scotland Yard officer who was assigned to mentor Khan saw through his “suspiciously rehearsed” persona, and warned authorities about his aggressive behaviour some eight months ahead of the attack. He says that Khan would become enraged at the restrictions on his movements including electronic tagging and supervised access to the internet. The officer says he heard nothing back after warning the authorities about Khan.
Khan launched his attack on the first day he was allowed into London. A panel determined that he should be allowed to travel there unescorted. As a result, two people are dead and three more injured. Khan’s story shows how radical Muslims can sometimes play the system and use the right language to persuade people that they are no longer a threat.
While Usman Khan did engage with de-radicalisation programmes, Sudesh Amman did not. It has emerged that in some cases prisoners were advised by their solicitors not to participate in de-radicalisation programmes. A third of prisoners who were approached declined to take part. Should it really be optional for prisoners whether they participate in a de-radicalisation programme?
Former Al-Qaeda member, turned MI6 spy Aimen Dean is sceptical of de-radicalisation programmes. He goes so far as to say, “there is no such thing as a rehabilitated jihadist.” He says de-radicalisation programmes are “riddled with naivety and a lack of understanding.” The only real test of whether a person has really abandoned the jihadist mentality, he says, is whether they have done damage to that cause by informing on the networks that recruited them and supported them. He chose to abandon jihadism of his own volition. Others who are captured and convicted are less likely to change their ways, he says. Dean argues that we need longer prison sentences and less time for prisoners to congregate in prison.
Study into why prisoners convert to Islam blocked
In 2018, the government blocked plans for an academic study into why prisoners convert to Islam and how it can lead to radicalisation. The study was given the go-ahead in France and Switzerland, but not in the UK. Dr Matthew Wilkinson, senior research fellow in contemporary Islam at SOAS, University of London, said: “Prison governors want our independent research to discover what is actually happening on their prison wings; not what is feared or suspected to happen.” It appears that the government was afraid of what the study might have found. The reasons for radicalisation and its connection with Islam are too sensitive to openly discuss.
What can be done?
Here are some concrete proposals for how we could change the culture of our prison system.
- Recognise the Islamic religious motivation of most convicted terrorists. It may not be politically correct, but it is true. Islam, as measured by its teaching and the example of its founder, is not a peaceful religion. There are many peaceful Muslims, but some Muslims are inspired by the teaching of Islam to commit acts of violence. The first step is to understand this so that we can deal with it appropriately.
- Heavily restrict congregation of Muslim prisoners. Friday prayers should be held in cells rather than used as recruitment opportunities for Isis and Al-Qaeda. Known extremists should be kept separate from other prisoners.
- Encourage prison staff to openly challenge Islamic ideologies. Prison staff should be given training in how to challenge the claims of Islam when they conflict with British values. They should be encouraged and supported in challenging Islamic ideology, rather than left in fear of being called racist for doing so. Instead of being intimidated they should be emboldened.
- Vetting of prison Imams should be intense. The application process should be thorough, and must include an examination of teaching materials and listening to their mosque sermons. They should explain in detail how they will counter radical Islamist interpretations of the Qur’an. Imams should never be the lead chaplain in a prison with authority over Christian chaplains. This has resulted in the absurd situation of a prison Imam determining that the Alpha course was too extreme to be used in prison.
- There must be proper freedom of religion in prisons. Christian chaplains should be familiar with apologetics concerning Islam and be able to challenge the truth claims of Islam. Books, pamphlets and other resources which challenge the claims of Islam, from a Christian perspective should be openly provided in all prisons, including testimonies from Muslim converts to Christianity. If prisoners want to convert, they should be permitted to do so without fear.
- Dangerous terrorists should not be let out. Sudesh Amman was known to be so dangerous he was placed on intensive police surveillance as soon as he was released. Islamic terrorists who are known to be dangerous should not be let out in such circumstances at great risk to the public. We need to recognise that Islamist terrorists do not pose the same threat to public safety as other convicts. They therefore require stricter treatment. If a life sentence is not passed, on release these prisoners should be subject to house arrest as it is simply not safe for them to be in the community. The government does not have the resources to monitor these prisoners 24/7 unless they are confined to their homes.
- Control orders should be reinstated. Control orders came into effect with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. They were placed on individuals on the basis that it sometimes makes sense to restrict an individual’s liberty for the purpose of “protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism.” They could restrict where someone lives, and who they are allowed to see, amongst other things. They were abolished in 2011. The independent reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, said that control orders were effective in disrupting terrorist activity and protecting the public from acts of terrorism. They were replaced by Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures which are not as effective. With some thousands of potential terrorists already on our streets, and more to come as prisoners are released, it is impossible for the security services to effectively monitor everyone who poses a threat. Control orders mean that many dangerous terrorists can be effectively restricted and monitored without full police surveillance of each person.
- There should be a protection for those prisoners and prison officers that want to whistleblow, when there is corruption within prisons. Allegations should be taken seriously and properly investigated whilst protecting the identity of the informant.
Political correctness has allowed prisons to become a hotbed for Islamic extremism. This has to stop. There should be no more fear of confronting Islam. Policies like the ones above, if implemented with energy and enthusiasm, would do a lot to change the culture of our prisons and protect the public from further attacks. Until we find the moral courage to put in place policies like these, there will be more attacks and more deaths. A confident Christianity is required to inspire such moral courage.