How Two Terror Attacks Threw the Spotlight on Extremism in Prisons

Dr Chris Allen
5 min readFeb 18, 2020


For more than a decade, the British Government has identified Islamist extremism as posing the greatest terror threat to the country and its people. This is no more evident than in the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST and its counter-extremism strategy PREVENT, the latter of which has been historically criticised due to it intervening in the pre-criminal space and disproportionately targeting Britain’s Muslims.

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Two recent terror attacks have however changed the focus of public and political debates about where the threat posed by Islamist extremism might now emanate. In the wake of two stabbing attacks: one on London Bridge in November last year and the other in a prison near Cambridge in January this year, the focus is now on Britain’s prison network. While different voices have begun calling for the need to end rehabilitation programmes, harsher sentencing, the extending of the definition of terrorism and greater segregation in prisons, how effective might these be in providing a ‘solution’?

The Two Attacks

The first of the two attacks to have prompted this shift in focus took place on London Bridge on 29 November 2019 when Usman Khan stabbed five people — two fatally — while wearing a fake suicide vest. Shot and killed by police during the attack, there was public outrage when it was reported that Khan had been released from prison in 2018 on licence after serving a sentence for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2012. Having been banned from entering London as part of his terms of release, Khan had been granted a one day exemption to attend a conference on the rehabilitation of offenders having previously participated in a rehabilitation programme.

The second attack took place on 10 January 2020 in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Whitemoor, near Cambridge. Also wearing fake suicide vests, Brusthom Ziamani and one unnamed other — referred to in media coverage as “another Muslim convert” — attacked prison officers with knives causing injuries. Like Khan, Ziamani had also been convicted terror offences, in this case plotting to behead a British soldier in 2015. With media reports claiming Ziamani held ‘shariah courts’ in his cell handing out beatings and other punishments for ‘crimes’ such as drinking alcohol or breaking the Ramadan fast, the attack was the first to have taken place inside a prison to have been categorised as terrorism,

Segregation, Rehabilitation and De-Radicalisation

In CONTEST, the British Government claimed prisons were spaces where vulnerable people might be radicalised — or further radicalised — as a result of having direct contact with peers that are known to be extremists. In response, the Government undertook a review that culminated in the creation of a centrally co-ordinated strategy to monitor and counter Islamist extremism in prisons. As part of this, the new central strategy sought to focus on the better reporting of Islamist behaviour, the introduction of sanctions to deter and punish associated behaviours, and the need for known extremists to be held in dedicated specialist units to limit the chance of peer radicalisation.

Since then, three segregation units have been established: in County Durham, Yorkshire and in Milton Keynes. With 173 individuals currently serving sentences for Islamist-inspired terrorist offences, around a third are held in the new segregation units with a further 50 being held in a secure unit at HMP Belmarsh in London. Subjected to severe restrictions, those being held only associate in pairs and are not allowed to attend Friday prayers with others.

While in prison, convicted Islamist extremists are offered the opportunity to participate in rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes. The most popular involves the offender attending sessions with a psychologist during which they talk about their motivations, beliefs, identity and relationships with other extremists and society more widely. In doing so, it is hoped the offender will be prompted to voluntarily give up extremism and violence. While information about rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes are limited, it would seem that the programmes afford opportunities for extremists to interact with each other. As it has been reported, Michael Adebolajo — one of the convicted killers of British soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 — is known to be volunteering in these programmes at the prison Khan was released from.

Posited Responses

It is maybe no surprise that some have called for rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes to be scrapped not least because Khan repeatedly renounced his extremist views prior to being released from prison. In response to mounting questions about the effectiveness of rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes, the psychologist behind Britain’s main rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programme recently stated that there can never be any guarantees that an extremist has been ‘cured’. Politically, more questions about rehabilitation and de-radicalisation are likely to ensue.

Due to Khan’s early release, some have focused on the harsher sentencing of convicted extremists. Some have called for the indefinite detention of those convicted of terror offences, arguing it to be necessary if the rights of ordinary people are to be protected. For them, there is a legitimate argument for suspending the liberties and protections of those willing to maim and kill. Given the Conservative Government has stated that it is considering whether to repeal the Human Rights Act when it leaves the EU, it is likely that this response will find favour in the political spaces.

Another response includes calls for the definition of terrorism to be extended in order to include a number of new offences. While concerns have been expressed about the impact of doing so on ‘freedom of thought’, the creation of new offences would no doubt result in more people being convicted and more people being imprisoned. Which returns us to the issue identified previously about the potential for prisons to be spaces of radicalisation. To this end, might imprisoning those with minor offences result in some being further radicalised thereby making them a greater risk when they too are subsequently released?

The final response has been to call for a greater number of convicted Islamist extremists to be held in a greater number of segregation units. Aside from the cost of building and maintaining these units, Khan is evidence that such units may not be the solution many claim them to be. Despite restricting contact and interactions, such units could become mere echo chambers where the extremist views of those being held are reinforced rather than challenged. Restricting contact and interaction in isolation would not appear to be a solution, at least no without some form of rehabilitation.

A Complex Problem

The issue is clearly far more complex than it would seem. This is because despite the two incidents being quite different and distinct they have been seen to be one and the same in the public and political spaces. In fact, the only similarity is that Khan and Ziamani were both convicted of terror-related offences. Even here, their respective custodial experience were different. From what is currently known, Ziamani does not appear to have been held in a segregation unit nor participated in rehabilitation or de-radicalisation programmes. Khan however did both: held in the segregation unit at HMP Woodhill while simultaneously participating in a rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programme. Because of this, maybe all that can be drawn at the present juncture is that there does not appear to be a single solution to prevent similar happening again.



Dr Chris Allen

Chris Allen is an academic, commentator and writer, with interests in a range of contemporary socio-political issues in the UK and beyond