Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
The Observer, Sunday 19 July 2009
At least 20 men suspected of harbouring al-Qaida sympathies and convicted of terrorism offences have been released from British prisons this year, according to probation staff.
The men had reached the two-thirds point of their sentence and therefore qualified for release back into the community, where the majority are being supervised by probation staff as they reside in hostels.
Many have been placed on curfews or placed under strict licence conditions in a bid to ensure they are kept under close supervision. But the revelation that convicted terrorists are being housed in hostels is likely to trigger a national debate on how best the authorities can deal with what is considered by many experts to be a new type of serious offender.
Most of the men released so far were convicted for offences associated with the possession of terrorist material or literature or aiding others who went on to carry out terrorist attacks both in the UK and abroad. The probation union, Napo, claims that nine men convicted for terrorist offences are being housed in hostels in London, two in the Midlands and another four in Yorkshire.
Probation staff say that, although many of those released may pose a real threat, the normal tools used to assess the risk of reoffending are of limited value because of the motivation which led to their crime.
“It is extremely difficult to work with any individual whose criminal behaviour is politically motivated,” said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo. “The psychology is totally different from the vast majority of persons convicted of criminal offences whose activity is either acquisitive or, in cases of violence, often pathological.”
However, with an estimated 160 people convicted of terrorism offences inspired by al-Qaida currently residing in Britain’s jails, there is growing pressure on the authorities to give details of how they intend to deal with convicted terrorists.
While most are considered “minor” offenders, several convicted of more serious offences are due to be released soon. Andrew Rowe was given a seven-and-a-half year sentence after being caught with details of how to fire mortar bombs and secret codes to facilitate terror attacks. He is due to appear before the parole board within weeks.
Raids on his home uncovered a handwritten guide to firing battlefield weapons, videos of the 9/11 atrocities and tapes of Osama bin Laden. He had used the names of specific models of mobile phones as code for words and phrases such as “airline crew”, “explosives” and “army base”. His socks carried traces of TNT and plastic explosives.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said anyone convicted of terrorist offences and sentenced to more than 12 months’ imprisonment would be subject to probation supervision on release from prison.
“They have to adhere to a set of strict conditions and are subject to recall to custody if they breach their conditions or their behaviour indicates that it is no longer safe to allow them to remain in the community,” she said. The Home Office has also pledged to deport any convicted terrorists who are foreign nationals.