CEP Senior Advisor Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and senior official in the U.K. Home Office with more than 25 years of experience, is an expert in the U.K.’s criminal justice system, specifically the prevention of Islamist and right-wing radicalization in its prison system and the post-release threat of terrorist offenders.
In 2016, after leaving public service, Acheson led a landmark independent review of Islamist extremism in the country’s prison and probation service, which led to transformational change in the way the U.K. manages ideologically inspired offenders. In the years since, he has worked to assist governments across the world to combat violent extremism in their prison systems and other criminal justice reforms in post-authoritarian states. Acheson has also been the director of an international charity and the chief operating officer of Great Britain’s legal human rights and equality regulator.
He is currently visiting professor at the University of Staffordshire School of Policing, Law and Forensics.
Mr. Acheson can be reached directly via email at [email protected] to discuss countering Islamist and right-wing radicalization in prison systems as well as the post-release threat of terrorist offenders.
Thought Leadership, Research, and Analysis
The Fishmonger’s Hall Inquest: How was Usman Khan Allowed to Kill
On November 29, 2019, 11 months after his release from prison, convicted Islamist terrorist Usman Khan stabbed and killed Cambridge University alumni Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt at Fishmonger’s Hall in London. The two were volunteers in a Cambridge University-sponsored rehabilitation program in which Khan had been a participant and were attending a five-year celebration of the program. Three other people were also stabbed in the attack. Khan was later shot and killed by police on London Bridge. In a series of blogs on April 19, April 26, May 4, May 10, May 17, and June 1, Acheson details the multiple institutional failures that allowed Khan into the program and have access to his victims despite repeated assessments that he remained a ‘high risk’ terrorist in prison who had not changed his views. “Khan did not drop out of the sky. He was assessed, surveilled, and supervised for eight years in prison custody. He was subject to elaborate (but ineffectual) supervision on his release. His intent and capability to do murderous harm was hiding in plain sight. This was a catastrophic system failure that exposes just how broken our terrorist risk management processes are. No amount of tinkering can fix the problem. We need a fundamental reset. Things must change. The next Usman Khan is in the pipeline.”
Hiding in Plain Sight? Disguised Compliance by Terrorist Offenders
On November 9, CEP and the European Policy Centre (EPC) held a webinar and launch event for their discussion paper, Hiding in Plain Sight? Disguised Compliance by Terrorist Offenders. Disguised compliance describes a perpetrator’s deliberate manipulation of the truth to disguise his/her true intent. Recent terrorist attacks, including Usman Khan’s at Fishmonger’s Hall in November 2019, strongly suggest that violent extremists are readily utilizing disguised compliance. The CEP-EPC paper examines the challenges of detecting and countering deception and includes recommendations for frontline practitioners, governments, and others who deal with extremists in custody or in the community. Acheson was instrumental in the development of the CEP-EPC paper and was a speaker at the webinar. Other webinar speakers included: Olivier Onidi, deputy director general for Migration and Home Affairs, European Commission; Sir Mark Rowley, former head of U.K. Counter Terrorism Policing: Lucinda Creighton, CEP Europe advisor; Jim Gamble, founding chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre; and Gaby Thijssen, psychologist, High Security and Terrorist Unit, Vught Prison, Netherlands.
Terror on the Street: The Inquest into the Streatham High Road Incident
On February 2, 2020, 10 days after being released from prison after serving half of his 40-month sentence for disseminating terrorist material, Sudesh Amman stabbed two people with an 8-inch knife in the London suburb of Streatham. Neither person died. Amman, under active surveillance by police, was shot and killed at the scene. Following the attack, the British government introduced the Terrorist Offenders Bill, a piece of emergency legislation intended to prevent those convicted of terrorist offences from being released early from prison. In a series of blogs on August 9, August 16, and August 23, Acheson distills the evidence leading to the inquest’s conclusion that Amman’s death was justified and probes the question of whether authorities had probable cause to return Amman to prison based on his behavior prior to the incident. “The jury concluded that the attack could have been prevented if Amman was returned to prison following the purchase of the fake suicide belt materials in the days before the attack and that failing to do so was a ‘missed opportunity.’ This contrasts with evidence from the police and HM Prison and Probation service personnel who argued that Amman’s behaviour did not breach his 20 license conditions and they could not act merely on the basis of suspicion. Moreover, the police felt that revealing they had Amman under surveillance would escalate his risk in the event that breach proceedings failed. I think the public would not be reassured by this supine interpretation of rules designed to protect them from harm.”
No Justice, No Peace? Northern Ireland’s Amnesty Fiasco
In July 2021, the U.K. government released a discussion paper called, “Addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.” The paper recommended ending all criminal and civil procedures for Troubles-related court cases associated with the prior to 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. In blogs on July 26 and September 10, Acheson discusses his strong objection to the amnesty scheme and his counter-proposal, which includes the establishment of a truly victim-centered legacy center that prioritizes harm done; the compulsion for suspected perpetrators to engage in meaningful disclosure; and civil penalties for non-compliance.
Marching Home? Why Repatriating Foreign Terrorist Fighters is a Pan-European Priority
This CEP-EPC joint report published in November 2020 was co-authored by Acheson and Amanda Paul and argues that Europe needs to take responsibility for their nationals and establish a united approach towards repatriating foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) to their home countries. Since the fall of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, hundreds of European FTFs and their families remain incarcerated in overcrowded, insecure, and unsanitary prisons and camps in Syria and Iraq. While some children have been repatriated, there is a broad popular European resistance to the idea of bringing ‘dangerous traitors’ home, as they are often viewed as significant security threats.
Guns and Glory: Criminality, Imprisonment, and Jihadist Extremism in Europe
Acheson and EPC’s Amanda Paul also co-authored a large-scale research paper that examined the complex inter-relationship between other forms of non-ideological criminality and jihadist violence across nine EU countries and the United Kingdom. The paper makes conclusions and recommendations, in particular around improving the reintegration of convicted violent extremists after release from prison and the case for economic investment in ‘hot spots’ for radicalization.
Op-eds and Selected Media
The Spectator: “The catalogue of failures that allowed Usman Khan to kill”
In a June op-ed, Acheson summarizes the U.K. government’s inquest into the murders of Cambridge University alumni Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt at Fishmonger’s Hall by convicted Islamist terrorist Usman Khan in 2019.“The inquest into the murder of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt by Islamist terrorist Usman Khan has revealed a collision of arrogance, hubris, naïveté and incompetence from which the two graduates arguably paid with their lives… Could these murders have been prevented? The painful evidence presented to the inquest at Guildhall over the last five weeks suggests it is plausible to think so. The testimony paints a damning indictment of our current terrorist risk management culture and practice.” Acheson was also interviewed about the Khan murders by BBS Newsnight.
CAPX: “Stopping terrorists starts with Prevent – but an overhaul is badly needed”
Acheson argues in October that after the “grotesque murder” of Sir David Amess, a review of the UK’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy must be undertaken quickly: “Prevent may have nothing to do with the murder of Sir David Amess, but a refreshed and repurposed strategy should be entirely focused on finding and robustly managing only those who pose a potentially serious risk to national security before ideas become deadly action. We must end the notion of voluntary engagement and have in place criminal penalties for non-compliance with diversion activities. Our multi-agency risk management system for terrorist offenders in prison, further along this dismal pipeline is similarly broken… What we need in this time of national sorrow and outrage at the killing of Sir David Amess is the Government’s courage and conviction to go after the ecosystem that supports and enables such barbarity. Will we get it?”
Independent: “Review of security around terrorist prisoners after first Isis-inspired attack in UK jail”
“The government has launched a review of the way terrorists are handled inside UK jails amid fears for the lives of prison officers from Isis-inspired terror attacks, The Independent can reveal. Two inmates were jailed earlier this month for trying to murder a prison officer at HMP Whitemoor using improvised weapons and wearing fake suicide vests – one of four terror attacks allegedly carried out by serving or released prisoners in the past year. Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who carried out the government’s 2016 review of Islamist extremism in jails, said he feared that a prison officer could be taken hostage and killed. “I’m not at all satisfied from the evidence that we’ve seen that the prison service is on top of this problem,” he told The Independent. “We’ve come within millimeters of a prison officer being murdered by a terrorist in prison… There is something very wrong at the moment inside our high-security prisons and it would be deluded to suggest otherwise.”’
CAPX: “The disturbing rise of neo-Nazi terrorism in Britain”
Acheson notes in a July op-ed that Neo-Nazis are the fastest growing group of violent extremists in UK’s prisons, recently joined by the right-wing leader Andrew Dymock: Three quarters of young people between 18 and 21 arrested on suspicion of terrorist offences in the year to this April were far right affiliated. The criminal justice conveyor belt seems crammed with white supremacists, many of whom, thwarted and isolated, have been either been radicalised by the internet or have used it to radicalise others… Neo-Nazis in British jails are not yet strong enough or organised enough to compete with Islamists. But in places where mutual radicalisation is made ever easier by the withdrawal of legitimate authority, and warped perceptions can be honed by dangerous propagandists like Andrew Dymock, there can be no room for complacency. We need a strategy. I don’t know if it exists.”
Daily Mail: “Calls to overhaul Prevent as it is revealed 'divisive groups who DON'T believe in counter-terror strategy help decide if individuals need to be deradicalised' - after Islamists behind four recent attacks were ALL referred to scheme”
“Prevent is being undermined by activists who are opposed to its very existence being allowed to decide if individuals need to be deradicalised, a review will find - as it emerged Islamists behind four recent attacks were all referred to the scheme. Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and senior adviser at the Counter Extremism Project, said the official narrative that the far-right is the fastest growing threat is a ‘comfort blanket’ obscuring the ‘patently more potent threat of Islamist extremism.’ ‘The body count does not lie,’ he said.”’
GBNews: “Terror wannabe to be released from prison”
“Professor Ian Acheson, senior advisor at the Counter Extremism Project, offers his take on the release of an extremist who plotted to blow up an Army base. ‘The Parole Board are decent people doing a very difficult job,’ Acheson said. ‘My view is they are not the right people to be involved in assessing the risk of our terrorist offenders. There is very fractured risk management system all the way through prison custody which results in poor decisions being made and catastrophic system failures, frankly, that have resulted in the murders of people on Britain’s streets.’”
The Times: “Counter-extremist programmes need a radical overhaul”
Acheson argues in March that the U.K.’s counter extremist programs must be redesigned in order to be effective: “What should we do about terrorist prisoners who subvert attempts to treat them? This week Jonathan Hall QC, the government’s independent terror laws watchdog, published his latest report. In it he cites the ‘significant problem’ of extremists on either side of the prison walls who disrupt and undermine the joint Home Office/Ministry of Justice desistance and disengagement programme, which is designed to wean them off toxic ideologies. Subjects feigned sleep, wore headphones, went for extended lavatory breaks and read books to frustrate the efforts of therapists to engage with them.”