More draconian laws and harsher sentencing will not tackle the issue of domestic terrorism, writes Moazzam Begg.
When terror-related attacks take place in Britain the response by certain politicians and media outlets has become painfully predictable. Calls for the use of treason laws, capital punishment and more surveillance have all been suggested following the murders of Jack Merrit and Saskia Jones by Usman Khan on London Bridge last Friday. On cue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he has a bill “ready to go” about harsher sentences if his party wins the general election, because “some prisoners can never be de-radicalised.”
Earlier this week, I was invited onto ITV’s Good Morning Britain show to discuss why Khan was released from prison. Chief host, Piers Morgan, argued that we must “lock up and throw away the key” for people like Khan. Morgan further cited that gangland murderers like the “Kray Twins” or serial killers like “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe, were never released because of the threat they posed to society. Essentially, he was saying that anyone convicted of a terrorist offence is like them and should never see the light of day.
Morgan’s views made little sense. Criminals are sent to prison to both protect society, and reform and rehabilitate them. Further, unlike the Krays or Sutcliffe, Khan and his accomplices had been prevented from carrying out any of the mass-casualty attacks they had considered, and there was an opportunity to change in prison.
In truth, the majority of terrorism convictions in Britain don’t relate to violent plots and pose little actual threat to the British public.
As I explained to Morgan, in 2014 I was arrested by British counter-terrorism police and was placed on remand as a Category A prisoner in HMP Belmarsh pending prosecution. The crown wanted to prosecute me as a terrorist for sending a £180 electricity generator to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) associates, at a time when our government was funding and sending non-lethal aid to the FSA.
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The case was dropped before going to court but, had they succeeded calls for never releasing terrorism prisoners would have applied to me too. In fact, if that’s how all societies dealt with terrorism Nelson Mandela would never have been released, and there’d be no Good Friday Agreement with the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
I told Morgan that I was in Belmarsh the day he came to visit his friend, Andy Coulson, who’d been convicted and imprisoned for conspiracy to hack phones.
Usman Khan had also been in Belmarsh. In 2012, he wrote a letter from his cell explaining his road to reform:
“…I don’t carry the views I had before my arrest and also I can prove that at the time I was immature, and now I am much more mature and want to live my life as a good Muslim and also a good citizen of Britain.”
I spent seven months in Belmarsh and spoke extensively to people serving various sentences on terror charges. Some of them were for fighting in Syria with a proscribed terror group while others were serving time for possessing “terrorist literature” but, a handful were serving life sentences for actual violent plots.
One of them was a teen who’d intended to emulate Michael Adebolajo by beheading a British soldier. I explained to him, detailing my experiences in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Syria that his understanding of Islam and the reality on the ground was very flawed.
Killing people on the streets you live in and seeking to be killed on those streets is murder and suicide – two of the greatest crimes in Islam. I’d tell such prisoners about friendships I’d built with US soldiers who’d guarded me in Guantanamo and how they’d visited me after I was freed and stayed at my house- all on the Islamic basis of being just and not always hating those who oppose you. I told them that my oppressor cannot become my teacher.
I met one prisoner serving life for a terror plot who had come to the same conclusion. He had understood that what he did was fuelled by rage and vengeance. Now, he has a lifetime to discover and teach mercy and understanding. It is this mercy that I believed drove Khan’s victims, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt to become such strong advocates of rehabilitation. And though it may have failed in the case of Khan, it was convicted murderer James Ford who risked his life to disarm Khan before he was killed.
In 2017, Khurram Butt and two others killed eight people on London Bridge in a knife attack. Like Khan, they wore fake suicide vests and were subsequently shot dead by police. They were seeking death. Butt’s brother was a counter-extremism Prevent adviser to police but couldn’t stop his own brother.
The United Nations actually stated that the government’s counter-extremism strategy, which was passed as statutory law in 2015, “could end up promoting extremism” instead of stopping it.
Prevent is in operation in schools, colleges, universities and prisons across the UK but it hasn’t stopped any attacks.
Usman Khan was amongst the most surveilled and scrutinised people in the country.
The police, CPS, prison service, probation service, MI5 and Prevent officers were all part of the process that caught him, prosecuted him, imprisoned him, monitored him, and then failed to recognise what twisted him to kill the only people who might have understood the desire he once had to reform.
Jack Merritt’s father said Boris Johnson’s response to his son’s murder was “beyond disgusting” because he sought to “make political gain from people’s death in a terror incident”. The best way to honour the memory of these victims is to respect the work they did and which ultimately they died defending.
Moazzam Begg is an author, rights activist and the outreach director of advocacy group CAGE. You can follow him on Twitter @Moazzam_Begg.