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Managing the release of convicted terrorists

Australia is trialling new rehabilitation programs that balance the rights of convicted terrorists with public safety.

Photo: Luca Bartolini/Flickr
Photo: Luca Bartolini/Flickr

It has been nearly two decades since the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a national framework to combat terrorism. Now, in the long shadow of the September 11 attacks, some of Australia’s convicted terrorists are nearing the completion of their custodial sentences. From 2019 onwards, up to 20 are due for release.

Faced with greater numbers of radicalised inmates, authorities are placing more emphasis on initiatives to counter violent extremism

How can we best rehabilitate and reintegrate convicted terrorists and radicalised inmates, while ensuring community safety?

This challenge is not unique to Australia. In France, approximately 50 people serving terrorism-related offences and a further 400 classified as radicalised while in prison will be released by 2019. In the UK, more than 80 of the 193 prison terms issued for terrorism offences between 2007 and 2016 will end this year. 

Between 2000 and June 2014, 44 jihadists were arrested in Australia. Although no domestic attacks took place in this period, 18 of the 44 individuals were charged with “acts in preparation” for an act of terrorism.

Terrorist activity rapidly increased after the so-called Islamic State (IS) proclaimed a “caliphate” in June 2014, and 84 people were charged with terrorism-related offences in Australia between September 2014 and February 2018.

While those who embrace extremist ideology may never undertake violent activity, there is a high threat of recidivism posed by convicted terrorists and radicalised prisoners.

Khaled Sharrouf served four years for his part in a failed 2005 terrorist plot. He was released in 2009, and in 2013 used his brother’s passport to leave Australia and join IS.

Yacqub Khayre, the perpetrator of the 2017 Brighton siege, had a long history of radicalisation, having been arrested and later acquitted for a failed terror plot in 2009. He was on parole when he killed a man, took a woman hostage, and wounded three police officers.

No universal approach to managing terrorist offenders and violent extremist prisoners exists. Incarceration solutions include separation from the general prison population; isolation from each other; concentration in one place; dispersal across a number of prisons; and integration with the general prisoner population.

In Australia, management of inmates charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offences is a state responsibility and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In Victoria, individuals are placed across the prison system according to their individual risk. New South Wales employs a concentration and containment model, with most terrorist-offenders held in the High Risk Management Correctional Centre in Goulburn.

Faced with greater numbers of radicalised inmates, authorities are placing more emphasis on initiatives to counter violent extremism. The only dedicated prison-based program targeting adult extremist offenders in Australia is the Proactive Integrated Support Model (PRISM) from Corrective Services NSW. It is a voluntary pilot program with no set modules and is tailored for individuals.

A recent academic paper on PRISM by Dr Adrian Cherney found that facilitators experience challenges in developing trust and rapport with radicalised inmates. However, Cherney is cautiously optimistic about the program’s benefits in “address[ing] psychological, social, theological and ideological needs of radicalised offenders” as they transition out of custody.

Despite some encouraging signs, radicalisation in New South Wales prisons remains a problem. In June, the NSW Inspector of Custodial Services, Fiona Rafter, issued The Management of Radicalised Inmates in NSW report. Referring to the High Risk Management Correctional Centre, it found:

The behaviour management regime applied to all inmates … was not designed to manage violent extremists and could exacerbate radical tendencies and generate a group identity based on shared grievances.

Rehabilitation and monitoring of inmates convicted of terrorism-related charges places an additional burden on authorities already confronting the risk of returned foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq. This year, NSW Police established the High Risk Terrorism Offenders Unit. The unit is investigating the threat of violent extremism from convicted terrorists and suspected Islamist extremists inside the state’s jails.

In late 2016, the Australian Government introduced the Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Act. This allows for the post-sentence detention of convicted terrorists who continue to pose an unacceptable risk to the community.

Under this law, convicted terrorists can be held beyond their original sentence if courts are satisfied to a “high degree of probability” that the individual poses an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence once released. The government is also establishing an Extended Supervision Order to provide authorities and courts with further powers to manage terrorist offenders. These laws are based on existing state and territory post-sentence supervision and detention schemes for high-risk offenders of sexual and other violent crimes.

Currently the National Terrorism Threat level is “probable”, meaning there is credible intelligence indicating individuals or groups have the intention and capability of conducting an attack in Australia.

The nature of the threat has evolved from ambitious, mass casualty terror plots – such as those uncovered in Operations Pendennis (2004–05) and Neath (2009) – to more rudimentary tactics. And IS has weaponised social media to encourage and facilitate the planning and logistics of terrorism.

As a result, evaluating the danger a convicted terrorist presents to the community is highly complex.

In the foreseeable future, we can expect to see new restrictions on convicted terrorists at the end of their custodial sentence. Earlier this month a New South Wales man who had allegedly been radicalised in prison became the first person to be banned from driving heavy vehicles under an anti-terror supervision order, for fear he would commit a vehicle-borne attack.

Although public safety remains paramount, there is cause for cautious optimism thanks to support programs and disengagement initiatives such as PRISM. Countries around the world will be trading notes on how to set convicted terrorists and radicalised inmates on a path away from violent extremism.

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