Important New Study on Terrorist Recidivism

A new Belgian study has found that terrorism convicts re-offend at a far lower rate than the general prison population following release.

The study has been published by CTC Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the United States military academy at West Point and reveals that less than five percent of those imprisoned for terror offences go on to commit a second terrorist offence upon their release.

Figures for western Europe show that there are more than 4,000 inmates in western Europe who are classified as returning foreign fighters, convicted terrorists, radicalised inmates or ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’. There are approximately 1,700 in France, of whom 90% will be released within five years, and 700 in the UK.

The new figures on rates of recidivism (tendency to reoffend) are supported by other academic studies that have consistently indicated a low rate of terrorist recidivism compared with average rates of general criminal recidivism, which are generally between 40% and 60% worldwide.

In England and Wales, 45 percent of prisoners reoffend within one year of release. In contrast, the CTC-published study, which used a sample of 557 Belgian cases, found that less than three percent of the released prisoners were later convicted for a second terror offence and less than five percent returned to any activities deemed extremist.

And Belgian counter-terrorism services’ research is also consistent with the new findings, revealing that 84 percent of male and 95 percent of female returnees from Syria have abstained from extremist activity since returning to Belgian society.

Britain recently passed a law ensuring that people convicted of serious terrorist offences are no longer automatically be released halfway through their sentences, following two attacks by men who had recently left prison that shocked the public.

In November 2019 Usman Khan stabbed two people to death near London Bridge, one year after being released on licence. Khan had been imprisoned in 2012 for his role in an al-Qaida-inspired plot to bomb high-profile public locations and chose a conference on prisoner rehabilitation to carry out his attack.

In February 2020, the south London suburb Streatham, Sudesh Amman was shot dead by police officers after stabbing two people. The 20-year-old had been released after serving half of his three-year sentence for the possession and distribution of extremist material. He was under active police surveillance.

An independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016 concluded that radicalisation in British prisons was a growing problem that was being poorly handled.

Prisons, such as the maximum-security Belmarsh in London (pictured above) are commonly described as “breeding grounds for radicalisation” and are shown in Tactics Institute’s major report on radicalisation as places where criminals can engage in skills exchanges and form support networks with similarly disgruntled individuals. There are other weaknesses inherent in the systems of rehabilitation of former prisoners, including inadequate therapeutic assistance, which are also discussed in the Tactics report.

The figures in the CTC report, of a 3-5 percent reoffending rate, should not be used to mask the seriousness of the atrocities that could be committed by this apparently low number. However, the insights provided by the report should provide pause for thought over the UK’s rush to end early release and to keep people imprisoned for longer. Punitive measures alone should never be seen as the answer to the ongoing and growing menace of terrorism as the UK and other western European countries absorb foreign fighters and released prisoners back into mainstream society. A holistic, nuanced and evidence-based approach is required, addressing both symptoms and causes.

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