Pejac, from 'Redemption' series

This essay, on the debate about deradicalisation and redemption in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the shooting dead of rape suspects in India.) It was published on 8 December 2019, under the headline ‘Redemption defines a civilised society. We must not forsake the idea’.

Can terrorists be deradicalised? Do all offenders, even those who commit the most abhorrent of crimes, deserve a second chance? Those two key questions remain at the heart of the case of Usman Khan, the London Bridge killer.

In the immediate aftermath of the recent terror attack, and against the background of the election campaign, the debate centred largely on operational issues. Boris Johnson made much of the early release of Khan, which he blamed on the last Labour government. Labour highlighted cuts in the prison and probation services, which, it suggested, had led to a failure of rehabilitation and of monitoring.

The debates around both sentencing and funding are important. The horrific case of serial rapist Joseph McCann reveals their wider significance with the criminal justice system. McCann was released from prison in error largely because of failures within the probation service that many attribute to budget cuts and staff shortages.

Yet even had Khan served a full 16-year sentence, he would still eventually have been released and we might well have had this same debate eight years down the line. And however well funded the prison and probation services may be, the question of whether ‘deradicalisation’ programmes work, and whether terrorists deserve a second chance, remains.

The responses to these deeper questions are, though, as polarised as those to the operational issues. For some, deradicalisation programmes are an essential component of any coherent response to terrorism. For others, they reveal the naivety of liberal criminology. For some, all offenders can be rehabilitated; this is broadly the message of Learning Together, the Cambridge University programme that brought together academics and inmates for research and rehabilitation. Khan had been invited to a Learning Together event and the two people he murdered, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, were an organiser and a volunteer for the programme. For others, those murders expose the failure to recognise the unique challenges posed by Islamist terrorists.

Deradicalisation programmes have been pursued for more than 20 years and in at least 15 countries, from Denmark to China. They range from authoritarian attempts at ‘brainwashing’ to initiatives more akin to individual counselling.

In Britain, the main programme aimed at ‘extremist offenders’ is the Healthy Identity Intervention (HII). It ‘encourages and empowers participants to disengage from an extremist group, cause or ideology’ and ‘to “move on” with their lives, embrace new commitments and feel empowered to “walk away”.’

Khan is reported to have taken part in an HII programme, though his solicitor has claimed that he was unable to get ‘intervention by a deradicaliser‘. Whatever the truth, is there any evidence that such programmes actually work? Not much. Few experts can agree on what deradicalisation means and, as John Horgan, one of the world’s leading researchers in the psychology of terrorism, observes: ‘There’s paltry evidence to suggest that people stay out of terrorism because they have been taught to ‘think different’ about the legitimacy of their views.’

It’s not surprising that there’s so little consensus about deradicalisation when the idea of radicalisation itself is fraught. Most of the popular explanations about the causes – from the nature of Islam to western foreign policy – are false, while more complex understandings of why some individuals are drawn to jihadist groups are rarely absorbed by politicians. It’s difficult to slay a dragon if you don’t know what a dragon is.

What of the argument that certain individuals are so corrupted that they can’t be redeemed, nor should society seek to do so? It is true that those who might indiscriminately bomb cafes or mosques, and whose aim is simply to sow terror, are morally different from burglars or fraudsters. Many jihadists, I have suggested, inhabit a different moral universe, in which they can commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

The possibility of redemption is, however, defined not by the nature of the crime committed but by the fact we are human beings, and moral agents, and as such can change ourselves. It does not mean that everyone is capable of redemption. But neither does it mean that even those who have carried out particularly heinous acts are incapable of change.

There is little evidence that deradicalisation programmes work. But to acknowledge the possibility of redemption is the mark of a civilised society. Not to do so would be to take a black-and-white view of human nature uncomfortably close to the worldview of someone such as Usman Khan.



The image is from the Spanish artist Pejac‘s ‘Redemption’ series.


  1. This article seems to me intrinsically confused.

    On the one hand, KM argues that no one is beyond redemption. On the other, he is aware that for followers of Islam, in all its varieties, they are already acting righteously, & with complete conviction, when they carry out what they believe to be the requirements of their religion.

    That is as true for Da’eshis as for the Ahmadis who stand on London Bridge offering their condolences. Jihadists just interpret the concept of redemption differently.

    Usman Khan parrotted all the right phrases, as we can see from the quotations derived from this poster-boy for “deradicalisation”. The problem was that he didn’t mean them, as he had a prior – and far more compelling and glamorous – allegiance.

    • I fear that it’s you that’s ‘intrinsically confused’. I wrote: ‘It does not mean that everyone is capable of redemption.’ Since when does that translate into ‘KM argues that no one is beyond redemption’?

      In what way was Usman Khan a ‘poster boy for “deradicalization”? Especially as we don’t even know whether he actually took part in a deradicalization course.

      As for Muslims believing that they are ‘acting righteously’, that is obviously true, but then it’s equally true of any religious believer, whatever their religion, and indeed is true of most people with strong political views, too. What Ahmadis think is righteous is very different from what Usman Khan imagined was righteous. Why any of these trite observations should reveal the article to be ‘intrinsically confused’, I have no idea. On that question, you’re right, I am confused.

  2. damon

    I am all for redemption and giving people a second chance – if they are truly sorry for what they’ve done.
    That’s not so easy to work out often though. Apparently (according to something I heard soon after the latest London Bridge attack) this convicted terrorist and longtime Islamist troll Usman Khan, was asking to go on de-radicalisation programmes almost straight after he was first sent to prison.
    By the way, when I refer to “Islamist troll” I mean those mostly youngish Muslims who mix in Islamist extremist circles in the U.K. and who might have attended those “Cut the heads off those who insult Islam” protests, and the next Saturday, are back in their local area with a stall in the high street, with the books and the leaflets extolling the wonders of their religion. Many of the young men who went off to join ISIS had hung around in those kind of groups. There’s a photo of Khan doing just that.

    Just for that blatant trolling alone, I’d be very disinclined to give someone like that the benefit of any doubt.
    At least not until a long time had passed. More than eight years. Which was a bit of a joke sentence.
    He was still a young man when he was let out. Not even thirty. It should have been more like forty years old for him.
    Then you could ask him did he want the chance to make something more of his life.

    I’ve looked up someone that was linked to in this article – Simon Cottee – and he does seem to know what he’s talking about.
    But then you have a person like Dr Rob Faure Walker, who was on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme last week, and he seems to be one of those pathetic liberals which has brought this country to its knees.

    He’s totally opposed to the Prevent Strategy. For reasons I can’t even describe properly.
    But it’s “unjust” in his eyes.
    We are a very divided society, and because of that we are very weak. We can’t get things done.
    Not Brexit, nor new high speed rail lines or airport runways.
    And certainly not our prisons and criminal justice system. We are too weak and useless to actually do anything bold and radical.
    We are too hamstrung to even try to fix and transform one single prison that has problems – like HMP Birmingham for example.

    There was an interesting GMTV discussion that I saw on YouTube about this case, with Michael Mansfield QC giving some very clear details about how Khan got to be released. Also on the programme was “Cage” spokesman Moazzam Begg. Why anyone listens to him and his organisation is another of those signs of pathetic U.K. weakness. And that woman in the studio, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, what is she even saying?
    Why do we have people like that on the TV?

  3. damon

    While I’m all for redemption, there is little evidence of remorse amongst the general population of British prisons it would seem. But we’re releasing these people back into society every day. Criminals who are completely unreformed, but who have served half of their pretty light sentences.
    This is our Wandsworth prison in London. It’s a shambles.

    I thought the prisoner shown at 4:00 minutes in was particularly noteworthy.
    He looks like a violent psychopath, with “Allah is the Greatest” written on his cell wall.
    But he was probably let out of prison since that was shown. We’re all just expected to accept the risk.
    Otherwise it would be unfair for his human rights.

    There was another prison documentary from several years ago that still sticks in my mind.
    Called “Feltham Sings” about the prison for young men in west London.
    The greater majority are not worthy of redemption as they are too immature to be able to achieve that.
    They are still arguing and fighting and will probably stay being like that till they get much older.
    Letting them out after a year or two just lets them make more innocent people their victims, and wastes everyone’s time, as the police try to catch them all over again.
    This was part 6. And part 5 was worth looking at too.
    Here we have a violent little bragger, who says he would do a legit job, but would want at least £60,000 a year to consider it. Why should he be let out of prison with that attitude?

    I’ve heard of these young guys reflecting in prison a bit, and when they are getting fed up with that life and also getting a bit older and looking for a way out, I’ve heard them saying they would like to become paid youth reform workers, where their “Original Gangster” reputation would stand them in good stead.
    I’ve heard frustrated “OG’s” ringing up the radio station and complaining about how the government shouldn’t be passing them over, when they could be “using their experience” with younger people still stuck in the dead end of the gang culture.
    Being a paid youth worker of that kind certainly seems a lot more appealing than getting a job loading trucks in a warehouse, which is the kind of thing a lot of honest guys who’ve always earned their own money have to do. I’ve always thought that it was still them looking for the easy way through life.
    They commit their crimes and harm people without a care, or even just for fun; and will do that till they either make lots of money, or they go and ask for help for a “soft exit” from their criminal life.
    I’ve never had much sympathy for those guys. I’ve always thought that should get the job at the warehouse first and earn some redemption that way. I’ve worked with several people doing just that. They can turn out to be very decent guys. But they’re older by then. In their 30s and 40s.

    We could try to do something better with prisoners, but we underfund the system and also are not confident enough or united enough as a country to do things which could really improve things.
    I do find it a bit bizarre, that while not so long ago it was seen as OK to use corporal punishment on school children, doing anything like that to violent juveniles in prison now, would cause a huge outcry of rage from the chattering classes.

    This picture from several years ago sums up our situation in Britain.
    A Guantanamo prisoner protest outside the American embassy in London.
    It’s totally pathetic.

  4. damon

    I’m sure that de-radicalisation can work – and as I’ve said, it’s always good to offer redemption to people who really want it. But the numbers are against us too. There are just too many Islamists.
    Both on the non-violent side and the potentially violent side too.
    We’re comprised. Penetrated. Screwed long term.

    It’s difficult to always draw the line between the different kinds of Islamists. They merge into each other and it becomes difficult to tell one kind from the other. They tend to move around in the same environment.
    There’s far too many “people of concern” for the security services to monitor properly and our prisons can’t even stop further radicalisation of people locked up in prison. Even petty criminal non-Islamists can become infected by it inside prison. The community as a whole don’t like it when they feel they’re coming under scrutiny.
    Like when police CCTV cameras were put up in parts of Birmingham. There were complaints about it, and I think they had to be removed. Even though some people in the security services had thought they would be useful for building up anti-terrorist intelligence.

    For every person de-radicalised or persuaded not to become extreme in the first place, there’s dozens of others who go completely unnoticed. Becoming radicalised for a time, can even be a common phase in the lives of many Muslim teenagers. Like something they go through in the normal way of teenage alienation and rebellion, but with the unfortunate Islamic twist.
    Although hopefully the fascination with Al-Qaeda and ISIS videos is past its high point of five and ten years ago. But there was a time I think where a lot of teenage British boys were watching those barbaric conflict videos and thinking they were cool or funny. It’s not a sign of a healthy society.
    In thirty years time, when the Muslim population of the U.K. is bigger still, there will still be the most reactionary of backward Islamic fundamentalists being produced in the country.
    It’s just one of the downsides of diversity. You get all sorts.

  5. damon

    Edit, I wrote “comprised” but I meant to say “compromised”.
    I’m not sure if that’s not too harsh a thing to say though.

    Mehdi Hasan would surely think it was.
    This is what he tweeted about the election result:
    “Dark day for minorities in the UK. Especially for British Muslims who watched as a man who said “Islam was the problem,” mocked veiled Muslim women, & also turned a blind eye to massive anti-Muslim hatred in his party, was just given a landslide majority by their fellow Britons.”

    A diverse society can become a very divided one.
    Even to mock something as backward as the burka can be seen as a racist or sectarian attack on a whole community.

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