A rash of knife attacks by recently released terrorists has put Britain on edge and serves as a reminder that the United States needs to do more itself to prepare for the imminent release from prison of convicted terrorists. In order to avoid the current problems of the British government, which is rushing to pass emergency legislation, American lawmakers should take advantage of our federalist system to bring state and local resources to play in tracking released terrorists.
The British government is struggling to address the threat from dozens of convicted jihadi terrorists who are due to be released within months. Britain has seen several high-profile attacks from freed terrorists who received early release before serving even half their sentences.
Earlier this month, 20-year old Sudesh Amman strapped on a fake explosive vest before launching a knife attack on Streatham High Road in London. Despite being under direct police surveillance during the attack, the jihadist critically wounded one person. Amman had previously been sentenced to three years and four months in prison for multiple terrorism offenses in November 2018 related to distributing Islamic State propaganda.
The attack methodology of a fake suicide bomb vest and knives directly mirrored that of Usman Khan, another convicted terrorist, who in November 2019 killed two people on London Bridge. Prior to the attack, authorities had considered Khan a model rehabilitated prisoner. Khan was attending a deradicalization conference minutes before he launched his attack.
Official data show that the British government has reconvicted an additional six British jihadi terrorists released from prison between 2013 and 2019.
This newest wave of attacks is a reminder that the U.S. also faces a risk from previously convicted terrorists who are released; various “rehabilitation” schemes are highly suspect.
Aimen Dean, a former al-Qaeda member who later spied for Britain’s MI6, told The Telegraph, “there is no such thing as a rehabilitated jihadist.” Morton Storm, a Danish former al-Qaeda member who later helped to betray terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki to the CIA, agrees. Rehabilitation efforts, he says, ignore that jihadis are not confused or mentally ill, but are adherents of an ideology to which they are committed. “[D]eradicalizing the jihadists doesn’t work, because they’re religiously motivated,” Storm told the Associated Press in 2017, in response to a Danish rehabilitation program.
Nearly two decades after 9/11, even high-level terrorist leaders facing long sentences are becoming eligible for parole and may even complete their full sentences. While there is very little information available on recidivism rates among convicted terrorists, the recidivism rate of jihadist fighters released from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was nearly 17% in 2018, with another 13% also suspected of returning to active terrorism.
In 2017, a National Counterterrorism Center report noted, “more than 90 homegrown violent extremists incarcerated in the U.S. who are due to be released in the next five years will probably re-engage in terrorist activity.”
In order to address this challenge, U.S. federal, state, and local law enforcement need tools in order to prepare for released terrorists. One such tool would be a terrorism registry, which would provide law enforcement the ability to track the location of former terrorists in the same way police and the public can keep tabs on sex offenders — with legal sanction for failure to register. Louisiana successfully passed the first terrorism offender registry law in 2019, and several states have expressed interest in following suit.
A nation-wide network has also been proposed by Patrick Dunleavy, a specialist on terrorist activity in the prison system. Realistically, such a proposal requires both federal assistance with information-sharing, as well as state laws to establish the registries and allow state authorities to enforce them.
A nationwide system of state terrorism registries would also take advantage of American federalism, utilizing state and local law enforcement to help prevent federal counterterrorism agents from being overwhelmed with keeping tabs on prior offenders.
Public registries protect and empower the individual citizen without need for government controls. The Department of Justice maintains a public sex offender registry, which private companies often use as a database for websites and apps that alert citizens about rapists, stalkers, and molesters living in their neighborhoods.
Pseudoscience models of rehabilitation treat convicted terrorists as emotionally stunted unfortunates rather than committed ideologues willing to use violence for a political purpose. This has proven to be a disaster. Instead, the U.S. should implement a registry system for terrorists, bringing state and local law enforcement resources, as well as private enterprise, to bear and improving communication and cooperation for law enforcement in order to ensure that terrorist re-offenders do not slip through the net.
Kyle Shideler is the Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy.