London terror hit raises debate

The terror attack near London Bridge on November 29, in which Usman Khan, a former terror convict, stabbed five people — two of them fatally — underscores yet again the continuing threat of lone-wolf attacks to public security in Europe. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack, describing Khan as one of its fighters. Born in Britain to immigrant parents from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, Khan was part of Al-Muhajiroun, a UK-based jihadist network whose activists have carried out other terror attacks as well. In 2012, Khan was jailed on terrorism charges, including involvement in a plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange. He was released from prison a year ago but was required to wear an electronic monitor tag. He was at a prisoner rehabilitation programme when he set in motion his deadly stabbing operation. The UK and other European countries have witnessed several lone-wolf attacks. What makes such attacks hard to prevent is the fact that the assailant operates on his own and often with little technology. Consequently, lone wolves often manage to stay off the radar of police and intelligence agencies. All that is needed for such attacks is inspiration to kill and radicalisation for motivation, of which there is plenty available and easily accessible

The London Bridge attack has emerged an important issue in the election campaign rhetoric of British politicians and parties. Terrorist release and rehabilitation policies are being blamed for allowing convicts like Khan to roam free to return to terrorism activities. Such issues deserve discussion but in calmer times, not in the midst of election campaigns. Other European countries, too, are grappling with how to deal with radicalised youth returning home from Iraq and Syria. Should these IS supporters be sent back or jailed? Is a jihadi’s wife also a terrorist? Is it possible to reform a hardened terrorist? Khan’s return to active terrorism after a stint in jail will feed into such debates.

The issues are of relevance to countries like India that are grappling with religious extremism. It is not how long a convicted person is jailed that is important as is the kind of de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes he undergoes while in jail. It is well-known that police torture rooms and jails breed radicals, where convicted youth are further radicalised and exchange terror technology and links. It is during this crucial period that authorities need to put in place effective de-radicalisation programmes.Counter-terrorism authorities often attempt to ‘re-wire’ terrorists through torture. These attempts often backfire. De-radicalisation, by involving respected community leaders, is seen to be more effective in weaning terrorists away from violence.

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