Overblown: Exploring the Gap Between the Fear of Terrorist Recidivism and the Evidence.
The fear that terrorist offenders could go back to their 'old ways' after their release from prison is widely shared among security services and the public. Two recent attacks have just added to this fear. On November 29, 2019, Usman Khan stabbed two people to death near London Bridge, around a year after his release from prison. (1) He had been sentenced in 2012 for planning terrorist activities. (2) On February 2, 2020, Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police shortly after he started stabbing passersby in Streatham, South London, only 10 days after his release from prison. (3) He had been convicted in November 2018 to 40 months in jail for possession and dissemination of terrorist material, in connection with the Islamic State. (4)
For more than two years, European security services have been raising concerns about the planned release of hundreds of jihadis from prison. This is a "worrying threat that we are taking very seriously," a European official told Agence France-Presse in early 2018. (5) In its annual report published in 2018, the Belgian intelligence service, VSSE, warned of a potential new wave of terrorism resulting from a "recidivism surge" among released extremists. (6) The report observed that "many" terrorists convicted in Belgium between 2001-2011 had reoffended, while highlighting a "current and persistent trend of recidivism" among terrorist offenders. (7) Meanwhile, European prison and probation officers have discussed this issue on several occasions, in the context of the E.U.-wide Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN). (a)
Even before the recent London stabbing attacks, the management of released terrorist offenders had been identified as a political priority. The 2018 final report of the European Union's High-Level Commission Expert Group on Radicalisation (HLCEG-R) (b) warned that prison "may only delay" the threat posed by extremists. (8) In June 2019, the Council of the European Union, gathering all E.U. ministers of justice, adopted conclusions on "dealing with terrorist and violent extremist offenders after release." (9) In February 2020, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office, Vladimir Voronkov, stated that reducing the risk of recidivism for returning foreign fighters and terrorist offenders was a key priority for the United Nations. (10)
Clearly, the dominant perception is that a significant number of terrorists could potentially recidivate. However, in contrast with this perception, this article argues that though terrorist recidivism hits the headlines when it occurs, it is a very rare phenomenon.
This article starts with a review of the debate and data on terrorist recidivism. After defining (terrorist) recidivism, it highlights the main findings from the existing literature, which points to low rates of terrorist recidivism. Subsequently, this article introduces a new dataset on jihadi offenders in Belgium, including more than 500 terrorist convicts between January 1, 1990, and the end of 2019. The key finding is that there is a low rate of terrorist recidivism in Belgium, a similar conclusion to other studies in the literature.
Part One: The Debate and the Data So Far on Terrorist Recidivism
Terrorist recidivism is not a new phenomenon. A famous precedent was Cherif Kouachi, one of the co-perpetrators of the terrorist attack against the staff of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, killing 12. (11) Kouachi had been arrested in 2005 and sentenced in 2008 for his role in a network that had sent jihadi volunteers to fight in Iraq. However, he walked free of the trial as he had already served 18 months between 2005-2006. (12) Many other cases of terrorist reoffending could be cited. (c) Long before Amman, Khan, or Kouachi, one could, for instance, mention Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (jailed in 1993), (13) founder of al-Qa'ida in Iraq; or Ayman al-Zawahiri (jailed in 1981), (14) current leader of al-Qa'ida.
Given these remarkable precedents, the rising concerns about terrorist recidivism must be understood in light of the unprecedented magnitude of the jihadi threat, particularly in prison. There are currently more than 4,000 inmates in Western Europe that are either returning foreign fighters, convicted terrorists, radicalized inmates, or inmates "vulnerable to radicalization." (d) The planned release of a significant number of these inmates in the coming two years is a considerable source of concern. (For example, approximately 90 percent of the 1,700 terrorist convicts and radicalized inmates in France will be released by 2025. (15) )
The fear of recidivism is further reinforced by concerns about radicalization in prisons, which have been commonly described as "breeding ground for radicalization" or "universities of jihad." As Alain Grignard, (16) long a leading figure in Belgian counterterrorism, has argued "rarely do people come out of prison better than when they went in... they can come out even more motivated than before." (17) In the United Kingdom, an independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons concluded in 2016 that radicalization in prison was a "growing problem" that was poorly handled. (18) In France, new research claims that the jihadi movement is exploiting prisons to regroup. (19) According to this view, terrorist offenders tend to withhold or strengthen their extremist views in prison, or radicalize others, making them even more dangerous upon release.
Such assessments suggest there will be more Usman Khans and Sudesh Ammans to come. The problem, however, is that there is little more than anecdotal evidence to support these gloomy evaluations. In fact, the academic literature challenges such assumptions. As noted by Andrew Silke, radicalization in prison remains a marginal phenomenon, and the fear of potential radicalization is often higher than the actual radicalization. (20) The same can be said about recidivism, as this article will highlight.
Yet, policy discussions over radicalization in prison and terrorist recidivism are too often shaped by unsupported assumptions or misperceptions. Many analysts argue or assume, without evidence, that terrorists are likely to recidivate. As a result, policies tend to be more driven by fear than evidence. (e)
Recent discussions in the United Kingdom illustrate this. An emergency bill to restrict the release of terrorist offenders was passed by Parliament, following recent attacks. (21) This was approved despite evidence that Khan and Amman are more likely to be eye-catching outliers than a harbinger of things to come. Indeed, according to recently released fgures, only six terrorist offenders have been reconvicted of a further terrorist offense in England and Wales, out of 196 offenders released between January 2013 and December 2019 (3%). (22) While the concern about terrorist recidivism is understandable, particularly from the point of view of security services, it is unclear how longer prison sentences would reduce recidivism, or how this would address the correlated risk of radicalization in prison. Yet, fear and emotions seem to have dominated, and it is hard to see anything else than a knee-jerk (over)reaction recently in the United Kingdom.
What is Recidivism?
Before looking into the literature on terrorist recidivism, it is necessary to first clarify what is meant by recidivism. Indeed, there can be different understandings leading to very different results. In its traditional, narrow sense, recidivism can be conceived as two separate convictions, for distinct offenses. An even narrower definition focuses on individuals who recidivated during their period of probation or reprieve ("legal recidivism"). In these classical understandings, recidivism rates incorporate reconvictions for any type of offense (for instance, murder and tax fraud). These rates exclude, however, re-arrest that did not lead to reconviction.
Along these lines, terrorist recidivism can be conceived in two different manners. In one broad conception, it can be a person who is convicted (at least) twice, including at least once for a terrorism-related offense. This would include, for instance, a former terrorist offender reconvicted for a criminal offense. In a narrower conception, it can be defined as two distinct convictions for terrorism-related offenses.
Arguably, the latter definition encapsulates the main fear of security services and society, that is a released terrorist who would go back to terrorist activities and possibly seek to commit an attack. In contrast, the former definition encapsulates terrorists with a criminal past, or future, covering the so-called "crime-terror nexus," which is indeed a growing focus in the academic literature as well as in policy discussions. (23) This would include a larger group of individuals who are not the primary concern of intelligence services, such as former terrorists who returned to criminal activities. This broad definition is more likely to approach "ordinary" rates of recidivism, which equally do not distinguish between the type of offense.
Some researchers argue convincingly that what matters is not reconviction rates (recidivism), but whether an individual reengages in terrorist activities or not. After all, this is indeed the main security concern. Terrorist reengagement has been conceptualized as "a return to terrorism after a period of disengagement, regardless of whether the disengagement was involuntary or voluntary." (24) Involuntary disengagement can refer to imprisonment, not necessarily sanctioned by a judiciary decision, whereas voluntary disengagement occurs when a person distances itself from violence on its own initiative. This additional conceptualization is helpful and complementary with terrorist recidivism. It accounts for individuals who reengaged without being convicted. (f) For instance, Usman Khan and Sudesh Amman would not--under a definition looking at convictions--be counted...
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