In this courtroom drawing, Najibullah Zazi, left appears at federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, May 2, 2019, where he was sentenced to ten years in prison for plotting to bomb the New York subway system in 2009.

In this courtroom drawing, Najibullah Zazi, left appears at federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, May 2, 2019, where he was sentenced to ten years in prison for plotting to bomb the New York subway system in 2009. Aggie Kenny via AP

Terrorists Aren’t Staying In Jail as Long as You Might Think

Most convicted of terror offenses stay just a few years, and receive far too little rehabilitation support before and after they leave.

When most people picture convicted terrorists, they think of the likes of Omar Abdel-Rahman (the Blind Sheikh), shoe bomber Richard Reid, or Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. All were involved in high-profile terrorist attacks against the United States, and all received hefty punishment. Abdel-Rahman died in prison while serving a life sentence for plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other attacks. Richard Reid is serving a life sentence for a failed plot to destroy an airliner in flight, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is trying to fight his death sentence for planting bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. 

Such high-profile cases have led the public to believe that convicted terrorists no longer pose a threat to society. This is not the case. Today, most terrorism-related sentences allow convicted terrorists to return to society within a few years to a decade. Complicating matters, prisons are under pressure to release prisoners early to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Recently, a man serving a 15-year sentence for support to ISIS requested release from prison for just that reason. 

Given these factors, it is imperative for governments to improve deradicalization programs both for extremists in jail and after they leave. 

This is illustrated by recent terrorist attacks involving people who have served time for previous such crimes. Usman Khan, who stabbed five people on London Bridge on Nov. 29, was released from prison after serving a sentence for prior involvement in terrorist plots. Despite his status as a “high risk” prisoner, Khan convinced his supervisors that he repented and was looking for a path to rehabilitation. “As you are fully aware of my offence, which is a terrorism offence. It relates more to what I intended and the mindset at that time, also the views I carried. Which I realize now after spending some time to think were not according to Islam and its teachings,” Khan wrote in a letter to his lawyer. Unfortunately, Khan’s participation in available deradicalization programs did not lead him to renounce violence. 

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On Feb. 2, another person with a past connected to terrorism went on a stabbing spree in London. In 2018, Sudesh Amman was found guilty of spreading ISIS- and Al Qaeda-related propaganda. A member of the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command said at the time that 18-year-old Amman had a “fascination with dying in the name of terrorism.” Amman was released from prison in January 2020. Despite stringent parole conditions and active surveillance by undercover police, Amman proceeded to stage a terrorist attack. 

These cases raise several questions. What do we do with convicted terrorists who do not get life sentences? Do prison deradicalization programs work? Are all former terrorists dangerous after their release from prison? How can we ensure that they are not?

In the ISIS era, these questions are more important than ever. First, there are hundreds of people in the West who have been prosecuted for rendering support to ISIS. Current prisoners include “a mix of returnees, frustrated travellers, perpetrators, supporters and planners of terrorist attacks,” a United Nations committee reported in January. 

Second, most terrorism-related convictions today do not result in a life sentence or death penalty. For example, most convicted terrorists who traveled from Western nations to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq have received prison sentences of two to 11 years. In the EU alone, hundreds of terrorist sympathizers received an average sentence of seven years in 2018, up from five years in 2016 and 2017. In the U.S., the average sentences for ISIS-related convictions have been a little higher, around 13 years. A recent report from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General has emphasized that average prison sentences for terrorist offences are getting shorter.

The short sentences are not necessarily correlated with the waning individual commitment to terrorism. Rather, they reflect due process requirements. Simply put, it is extremely difficult to produce admissible evidence from Syria and Iraq to demonstrate the nature of activities a person was involved in. As Neil Basu of the UK counter-terrorism police has said: “proving what someone has been doing in a theatre of war is no easy task.” Many Western courts have chosen to prosecute people for lesser crimes or had to drop charges altogether. Some convicted extremists who end up in prison for a couple of years might emerge with an undimmed commitment to terrorism. 

Further, many problems exist inside prisons. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has failed to identify some terrorist inmates who qualified for special monitoring. According to a recent audit report, U.S. prisons face limitations that might feed prison-based radicalization. In Europe, prison radicalization has been so rampant that one Interpol official warned that it alone might lead to a “second wave of other Islamic State-linked or radicalized individuals that you might call ISIS 2.0.” Some people have even managed to stage attacks while in prison. In the UK on Jan. 9, two prisoners at HMP Whitemoor—Brusthom Ziamani and Baz Macaulay Hockton – attacked several corrections officers with handmade weapons and fake suicide vests.

Time is quickly running out. Many people serving sentences for ISIS-related activities will be up for release in the coming years. Around 1,000 returnees are due to be released in Europe alone this year, the UN committee reported.

We urgently need to revamp deradicalization programs in prison. Authorities must hire qualified experts to design such programs and keep track of the best practices. Rigorous guidelines must be developed and implemented for prison release boards. And more time and resources must be devoted to the prison-aftercare programs that are critical to keep former terrorists from returning to a violent path. 

The opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.