As countries become better at detecting, investigating and prosecuting terrorism suspects, including returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), prison services across the world are faced with a growing number of terrorism offenders in their institutions.
The presence of these violent extremist offenders (VEOs) in the justice system poses new challenges to prison and probation services as well as to a range of other stakeholders and intervention providers involved in their management, rehabilitation and reintegration. From a fear of violent extremist contagion and recruitment among other prisoners to concerns around former VEOs reintegrating back into communities, the perceived challenges are many and the tolerance for failure is extremely low. First, a reality check: prisons have not generally become a ‘finishing school for terrorists’ where violent extremist radicalisation spreads like wildfire. Numbers are still relatively low with evidence of VEOs radicalising or recruiting others in detention environments and the risk of post-release recidivism often anecdotal rather than based on substantial qualitative and quantitative data. Mark Hamm described it best when coining the term ‘the spectacular few’: building on more than 25 years of prison research, he concludes that only a small minority of the inmate population is at risk of engaging in terrorist activities during or after imprisonment.
Nevertheless, recent research analysing profiles of 79 European violent extremists with criminal pasts concluded that 45 of them had been incarcerated prior to their radicalisation with 12 of them being judged to have gone through this process during their time in prison. Furthermore, violent extremism risk assessments and corresponding interventions are still in the early stages of development and testing: there is no gold standard or silver bullet, not in the least because these tools are highly context specific, require considerable tailoring and depend on the availability of a range of resources (material, expertise, finances etc.). Lastly, there is no magic solution or quick fix to effectively reintegrating VEOs; not even when spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a very elaborate program like Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed Bin Naif Center for Counseling and Care. While the Centre may claim a success rate between 80-90 percent, questions remain about the accuracy of this number considering recidivism rates for regular crimes are between 20-75 percent in most countries.
Herein lies the principal problem: terrorism is considered so extraordinary that responses to it must be likewise extraordinary.
Well-established management methods and intervention approaches that have proven effective with other types of offenders are often deemed insufficient, or not even considered, with politicians and the wider public demanding quick strong responses.20 The fear and risk adverseness that often underlie these demands further fuels the stigmatisation of VEOs, especially during re-entry, which can seriously impede their successful reintegration back into society.
Given this lack of data, prevailing misconceptions and the limited resources available to prison and probation services – what can be done to better manage terrorism offenders, prevent radicalisation to violent extremism in prisons and facilitate the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of VEOs into society?
Firstly, it is key that general prison management principles and good practices are implemented. Prisons must be safe, secure and well-resourced environments in which prisoners are treated humanely and their human rights respected in accordance with international prison standards, including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Staff should receive appropriate and tailored training and support, including in developing constructive and professional relationships with VEOs, regardless of differences in staff-prisoner backgrounds. It is crucial that security measures complement rather than stifle intervention efforts and that corruption is actively prevented. These basic conditions are vital for the management of all offenders, including VEOs, who often see the state as their enemy and expect to be mistreated. With many countries facing significant resource challenges that prohibit the development of more comprehensive VEO management and rehabilitation programs, improving these aspects will help create an environment less conducive to radicalisation and recruitment to violent extremism.
The management, rehabilitation and reintegration of VEOs requires a well articulated policy framework with specific objectives, actions and actors. First, it is important to clarify whether the final aim is disengagement (a behavioral move away from a group, cause or ideology that justifies violence to bring about political or social change) or de-radicalisation (a cognitive move away from supporting the use of violence to achieve political or social change). This will inform the theory of change behind the policy and the final desired outcome. Second, policies and related programs need to carefully consider both short-term security needs and longterm rehabilitation aims. In the short-term, the focus during detention is generally on preventing further radicalisation of terrorism offenders, the radicalisation and recruitment of other inmates and attacks inside or outside of prison. However, long-term rehabilitation interventions seek to minimise the risk of post-release reradicalisation, prevent the radicalisation or recruitment of others and achieve low rates of recidivism. Finally, it is key that progress indicators and monitoring mechanisms are included in the program’s design in order to effectively evaluate impact.