The global lesson from London’s knife attack

A terrorist released from prison and who had gone through rehab programs killed two advocates of such programs. The attack can focus global attention on better ways to reintegrate terrorists into society.

Family and friends of two people killed in a terrorist knife attack, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, comfort each other at a Dec. 2 vigil.

Almost every terrorist attack offers lessons on how to prevent future ones. This may be especially true for a knife attack in London on Nov. 29.

The assailant, Usman Khan, was a convicted terrorist who, before and after his release from prison in 2018, had taken courses to “desist” and “disengage” from radical ideologies. He was also trained in how to gain a “healthy identity.” The two people he killed were advocates of such programs. In fact, all three were attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation.

With an election just days away, many in Britain are now taking a break from the Brexit debate to ponder if such programs actually can turn around extremist offenders.

In the wake of the attack, in which Mr. Khan was killed by police, the Justice Ministry launched an urgent review of conditions used to release people sentenced for terror offenses. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to introduce mandatory minimum 14-year sentences for such crimes. Mr. Khan served only six years of an 18-year sentence for an amateurish plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange. His lawyer admits he could have been deceived by his client, who claimed to have turned his back on radical Islam.

On the other side of the debate, the family of one victim, Jack Merritt, said he would not want to see harsher sentences for terrorists. Mr. Merritt was a coordinator for a prisoner program called Learning Together, which is associated with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology. “Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge,” his family stated. The institute says he “worked tirelessly in dark places to pull towards the light.”

A similar tribute was given to the other victim, Saskia Jones, who was also part of Learning Together. The institute says she had “a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offenses should have opportunities for rehabilitation.”

This debate over the rehab of captured terrorists is not unique to Britain. Since the 9/11 attacks, dozens of countries have launched programs to reintegrate those convicted of terrorism into society. A group of countries, called the Global Counterterrorism Forum, was set up to build on the best practices of programs that have successfully “deradicalized” terrorists. Not all programs succeed, however, and the debate has turned urgent since the defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate in the past two years. Thousands of people from Europe who supported ISIS are still in custody in the Middle East. Their future is uncertain as European leaders debate whether to take them back on the hope they can be rehabilitated.

Britain’s debate may thus lead to a useful drive to improve such programs and further erode support for ISIS. All the prisons and military drones in the world cannot defeat the radical ideas behind the kind of violence justified by wrong concepts about Islam. Rather, programs that give purpose and hope to such individuals, or values based on peace and empathy, can bring a final end to terrorist attacks. That might be the lesson from the London knife attack. 

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