Commentary: Why the London Bridge attacker walked free - while serving terrorism offences

Commentary: Why the London Bridge attacker walked free - while serving terrorism offences

UK politicians helped create the laws that allowed the perpetrator of the London Bridge attack to be released from jail early, says an expert.

LEEDS: Following the recent attack in London, where convicted terrorist Usman Khan stabbed two Cambridge University graduates to death and seriously wounded at least three other people, many questions are now being asked about the UK’s legal system.

The attack has brought to attention the fact that in the UK, people convicted of terror offences (along with other prisoners) can be released after serving half of their sentence. 

Khan, who was shot dead by police officers following the attack, had been released from jail on licence in 2018 – halfway through a sentence for terrorism offences.

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Khan was convicted in 2011 of plotting to attack the London Stock Exchange, receiving an 18-year sentence. He was given what’s known as an indeterminate public protection sentence (IPP).

In theory, IPP prisoners can stay in prison for the rest of their lives. But Khan’s IPP was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2013, and replaced with a 16-year fixed-term sentence.

READ: Why London Bridge killer was released from jail early

Khan was told he should serve at least eight years in prison. In December 2018, he was released on licence and ordered to wear a tag.

As part of his release conditions, Khan was required to attend the government’s desistance and disengagement programme, aimed at rehabilitating people who have been involved with terrorism.

London bridge attacker Usman Khan
An undated file handout photo obtained of Usman Khan, then 20. (Photo: AFP/WEST MIDLANDS POLICE)

Khan was attending an event near London Bridge organised by Learning Together, a Cambridge University programme that worked with Khan while he was in prison. The programme brings together convicts and students in higher educational institutions to study alongside each other.

During this event, Khan, wearing a fake suicide vest, began attacking people with a knife.

READ: Terror checks intensify as London Bridge attack enters election fray 

An urgent review of the licence conditions of people jailed for terror offences has now been launched by the Ministry of Justice. This has led to the emergency vetting of 74 convicted terrorists released on parole – with one man already returned to police custody.


The legislation that facilitated Khan’s release was brought in by the then Labour government which introduced IPP – which gives prisoners an indeterminate sentence.

The idea behind the sentencing was that high-risk criminals would only be released if the parole board felt they were safe to return to the community.

READ: Commentary: The secret group dynamics that fuel horrifying terror attacks

In 2008, Labour removed the review process by parole boards, meaning more offenders were released automatically halfway through sentences. It was thought that reducing the need for the parole board to sign off on every case would help to speed up the number of prisoners being released.

IPPs were abolished in 2012 by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government – and the law was also changed to allow for prisoners to serve half of their sentence.

People carrying British Union Jack flag themed umbrellas walk past the Houses of Parliament in Lond
People carrying British Union Jack flag themed umbrellas walk past the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Austerity cuts have also had an impact on all sections of the criminal justice system. These cuts have made it more difficult for the probation service to monitor every prisoner on release.

The cuts have also made it harder for the probation service to effectively assess and monitor high-risk terrorist prisoners released on parole.

READ: UK PM Johnson pressured on jail terms after London Bridge attack 

So, in effect, all three of the main UK political parties had a role in bringing about the situation that allowed Khan to be released. Rightly a review should now be held.


Under UK terrorism legislation, the sentences for terror-related activity are lengthy.

But though it might seem like a straightforward solution, handing out longer sentences for terror offences is not the right approach. Indeed, evidence shows that long sentences without effective rehabilitation tend to increase the risk of a prisoner reoffending upon release.

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Instead, more focus must be placed on introducing effective assessment of terror prisoners to ascertain if they are either a danger to society or if they are suitable and safe to release.

One way forward could be applying Prevent – the UK's government’s counter-terrorism strategy – to terrorist prisoners while still in custody. Prevent aims to challenge extremist ideology and disrupt the ability of terrorists to promote it.

UK parliament
Members of Parliament attending the House of Commons. (HO/PRU/AFP)

Under the UK's Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, authorities have a statutory duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Prevent is currently being reviewed by Lord Carlile with his report due in June 2020 which may assist in a prisons-based approach.

Prevent, however, is considered to be controversial and seen by many as ineffective. This is because of its initial link in 2003 to violent Islamist extremist ideology and created suspicion around the real aim of Prevent.

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Indeed, despite changes to the strategy to include all forms of extremism – including far-right ideology and dissident Irish republican and loyalist causes – Prevent is still viewed to be a strategy that targets specific groups only.

This has not been helped by the UK government’s requirement that universities, schools, prisons, hospitals and local authorities must report any concerns of terrorism under Prevent. This has been seen as a form of spying on people who hold views outside the norm.

READ: Commentary: Christchurch attack another clear sign extremists of all persuasions are a major threat to the world

Senior politicians have been accused of using this attack for political ends.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, claims “leftie legislation” is responsible. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said it was the austerity cuts on the probation service created the problem.

READ: Commentary: Islamic State militant group ran an info war ‘like a viral marketing campaign’

This is clearly a complicated situation. But ultimately, both parties must take some responsibility for a system that allows a man recently released from a terror-related prison sentence to kill two people.

Then, of course, there’s also the possibility that whoever wins the general election may consider reintroducing sentences similar to IPPs – making the situation yet again even more complicated.

David Lowe is a senior research fellow at Leeds Beckett University's Law School. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el(sl)