Will those convicted of jihadi-related terror offenses pose a danger once they are released from prison? (a) This article explores that question by looking at conflicting findings from research examining what to expect from terrorists who have served their sentences. Next, it presents quantitative data on those involved with jihadi plots in the United States over the past three decades. Given the small numbers of jihadi re-offenders with a link to terrorist plotting in the United States, the article then gives a qualitative description of each. Lastly, it discusses possible lessons that may be gleaned from the documented cases of jihadi plot recidivism in the United States.
Why Study Jihadi Recidivism Rates?
In the United States alone, there have been over 500 prosecutions of those with ties to international terrorism post 9/11. (1) Although the rate of terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions in the United States has slowed since they peaked in 2015-2016, 191 have been charged in plots related to the Islamic State since 2014 alone. (2) Well over 200 convicted terrorists in the United States have already completed their sentences and been released. (3) Over 50 who are currently incarcerated in the United States on terrorism charges are scheduled to be released in the next five years. (4) Years of studies show criminals in the United States re-offend at rates between 25 and 83 percent. (b) Similar high recidivism rates (45-55 percent) have been reported in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. (5)
There has long been concern about jihadi recidivism. A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated that 27 percent of prisoners released from the Guantanamo Bay detention center had returned to the fight. (6) The terrorism analyst Dennis Pluchinsky noted that "there is an apparent tendency for global jihadists to become recidivists" (7) and that "the propensity for reform is less likely for global jihadists than secular terrorists." (8) Most recently, researchers Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, and John Horgan studied the autobiographies of individuals involved in terrorist activities that were affiliated with known perpetrator groups and came to the conclusion that "terrorist reengagement and recidivism rates are relatively high" (9) and are even, "slightly higher than criminal recidivism rates." (10)
If convicted jihadis are indeed more dangerous than secular terrorists and recidivism rates among them approach those of common criminals, then there is a significant problem looming on the horizon. The potential problem may be even worse in Europe where foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State have returned in large numbers, many to countries where criminal sentences of all types tend to be much shorter than in the United States. (11) Even if convicted, many will be back on the streets within a few short years.
Yet, there are some reasons to hope that those convicted of terrorism-related offenses might be less prone to repeat offense than more common criminals. For instance, two studies on those involved in militant groups on both sides of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland found recidivism rates to be much lower than the general criminal population. While 11 percent of those convicted were later re-arrested, only 3-3.6 percent (depending on the study) of these were convicted of paramilitary-related crimes. (12) This does not necessarily mean that a very high proportion of these former convicts are "reformed" in the sense that they have given up their underlying ideological commitment to violent manifestations of either the Republican or Unionist cause, (c) only that they are no longer engaged in the terrorism-related illegal behaviors that led to their initial criminal convictions. As John Horgan finds, disengagement is more common and often just as important as deradicalization. (13)
Whether or not convicted jihadis represent an increased risk of danger should be open to empirical observation, yet few studies have actually tested the premise. To date, only two studies have looked at terrorist recidivism in the United States. (14)
Most recently, a report from the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) looked into disengagement from ideological extremism. (15) The eye-catching headline in the report's description reads "New data shows risk of recidivism is high among extremists." At first glance, the numbers in the report are alarming. Of the 300 extremists examined in the START sample, 49 percent re-offended after their first known instance of ideologically motivated crime. (16) If taken to mean that nearly half of convicted terrorists will return to terrorism, this would be a true cause for concern.
But a closer look shows that this is not what the numbers imply. First, the report does not have recidivism as its primary research question. Its main concern is with why some leave extremism and the barriers to exit they encounter. Second, the report looked at "re-offending," which is conceived as a much broader category than recidivism. In other words, the report is not necessarily talking about a convicted terrorist completing his sentence, being released, and then returning to terrorism-related crimes. Lastly, according to the primary author of the report, very few jihadis were included in the sample of 300 and the vast majority of those "re-offending" were right-wing extremists. (17) In other words, this report should not be taken to mean that a high danger exists from convicted Islamist extremists.
The most thorough study so far on terror-related recidivism in the United States is from Omi Hodwitz's Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS), which examined 561 individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses in the United States after 9/11. (18) The underlying data is not at this time publicly available, leaving several unanswered questions. (19) For instance, the author does not make it clear if it includes all terror offenses, even those prosecuted as non-ideological due to the prevalence of plea bargaining in the United States. The study also excludes arrests that did not proceed to conviction, which increases the probability that unprosecuted cooperating witnesses who later were involved in terrorist plots would not be seen as recidivists. Moreover, by focusing exclusively on post-prison release convictions, the study may have overlooked individuals who had prior terror-related convictions, were involved in later plots, but who were never prosecuted for a variety of reasons.
Even with these caveats, the study is important as the first to systematically examine terrorist recidivism rates in the United States. Of 297 ideologically motivated extremists released from prison, only nine were charged with crimes post-conviction, yielding a recidivism rate of 1.6 percent. This figure is far below that of non-ideologically motivated crimes, however measured. A closer look indicates an even lower number may be more accurate. Five of the nine were charged while still in prison, mostly of crimes unrelated to terrorism. Only four individuals were charged with crimes post-release, none of them for terrorism-related offenses.
To reemphasize, the TRS study found no individuals in the United States who were convicted of terrorism, released from prison, and then were later convicted of a terrorism-related crime.
Measuring Recidivism Among Those Linked to Jihadi Attack Plots in the United States
So, are would-be jihadis in the United States committed life-long ideologues who are likely to return to their former ways upon release? Or are convicted jihadis much more likely to become deradicalized or disengaged during or after incarceration than once feared?
Some answers can...