Argument: TerroristsLondon Bridge Attack: I Told Ministers We Were Treating Terrorist Prisoners with Jaw-Dropping Naivety. Did They Listen?

Published 2 December 2019

Usman Khan, a 28-year old terrorist who on Friday killed two people on the London Bridge before being killed by the police, served time in jail for “terrorist offenses” and was monitored by the British police. Ian Acheson, who, in 2016, at the request of then-Justice Minister Michael Gove, led a team of investigators who wrote a detailed and highly critical report about the way radicalized Islamist terrorists are managed in jail and after their release, writes: “What we found was so shockingly bad that I had to agree to the language in the original report being toned down. With hindsight, I’m not sure that was the right decision.”

Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and visiting professor of criminology at Staffordshire University – and the author of the forthcoming Screwed: Britain’s Prison Crisis and How To Escape It — writes in The Times that he knows a bit about the threat management of violent extremists. In 2015 Michael Gove, who was then justice secretary, asked Acheson to conduct an independent review of Islamist extremism in the prisons and probation system in England and Wales.

With the help of a small expert team, Acheson and his team visited dozens of prisons at home and abroad, and more than 1,000 prison staff corroborated our findings.

“What we found was so shockingly bad that I had to agree to the language in the original report being toned down,” he writes, adding:

There were serious deficiencies in almost every aspect of the management of terrorist offenders through the system that are relevant to Usman Khan [the terrorists perpetrating the London Bridge attack]. Frontline prison staff were vulnerable to attack and were ill-equipped to counter hateful extremism on prison landings for fear of being accused of racism. Prison imams did not possess the tools, and sometimes the will, to combat Islamist ideology. The prison service’s intelligence-gathering system was hopelessly fractured and ineffectual.


There was a toxic combination of arrogance, defensiveness and ineptitude across the corporate management of the threat. Screening tools to detect and programs to tackle radicalized behavior were rudimentary in-house creations with former terrorist offenders telling us how easy courses were to “game”. It was a shambles.

Acheson and his team proposed 69 recommendations aiming to bolster and improve the management of radicalized Islamist terrorists in prison. Gove accepted 68 of them – but Acheson is not sure how many have been implemented.

Acheson that better to protect British citizens from the threat posed by radicalized Islamist terrorists who are now in prison but who would eventually be released back into the community, what is needed are more than tinkering with management and improving training, although both are needed. What is required is a cultural change, and understanding that radicalized terrorists are not common criminals, and should be treated as such:

The multi-agency public protection arrangements, known as MAPPA, which deal with the management of such offenders, were intended for high-risk/high-harm sex offenders released into the community. The expertise in the National Probation Service to manage terrorist offenders in the community is still very much a work in progress.

The original philosophical approach of probation to “advise, assist and befriend”, although much modified, is unsuited to managing the risk of religious extremists with a martyrdom complex coming from a moral universe far away from the professionals responsible for their management.