Sudesh Amman was released from prison before his attack in early February, raising questions of whether prison was an incubator for his radicalization.
The horrific terror attack that took place last month, has again shone a light on our prison system and the radicalization process. Sudesh Amman, the man responsible for the attack in Streatham, south London, on February 2, had previously pleaded guilty in November 2018 to six charges of possessing documents containing terrorist information and seven of disseminating terrorist publications. The blame game has already begun, with critics arguing the police are to blame whilst others think the security services should have prevented this attack. Yet, the one question that has yet to be answered is, how and why did our prison system fail to identify him as a threat?
Three of the terrorist manuals Amman admitted owning were about knife fighting. In fact, Amman also had previous convictions for possession of an offensive weapon, a broken bottle and cannabis. Yet, his case continues to have the same overtone when profiling another terrorist called Khalid Masood. On 22nd March 2017, Masood killed four people on Westminster Bridge, then fatally stabbed a police officer outside the Houses of Parliament.
Masood like Amman’s criminal trajectory is important to consider in making sense of his path to violence. Like Amman, he too became involved in drugs and petty crime, and by 18 years-old Masood received his first conviction for criminal damage. It was from here his propensity for violence grew. In 2000, Masood was charged with unlawful wounding and possession of an unlawful weapon, after slashing a man’s face at a pub in Northiam, which he later claimed was triggered by racism. He pled guilty and received a two-year prison sentence.
There is a clear pattern of escalating violence in Amman’s behavior, much the same way as Masood. For example, Amman’s previous convictions had seen him be arrested in May 2018 after suspicion he had planned a terror attack. Further, previous convictions include being in possession of an offensive weapon and cannabis.
Despite these similar patterns of behavior, Masood distanced himself from his offending background in order to construct a new identity, whilst in Amman’s case he was known to authorities and in fact was under a curfew whilst having to wear a GPS tag. He also had to surrender his passport and had limited access to electronic devices and restrictions on his internet use which makes his attack raise even further questions about how our prison system could have acted as an incubator for his extreme views.
From the little information we have, we can start to paint a picture that shows how Amman’s violent tendencies are perhaps best explained through his desire to regain power in his life. To date, there has been little attention paid to Amman’s time in prison – a potential key factor in understanding what led him to commit this terrorist attack. It could be argued that it was this type of environment that lead to his extreme retributive identity.
Prisons may have acted as a key incubator for his radicalization. Radicalization is a complex phenomenon and in Amman’s case, he may have been influenced by a culture of violent activities and hoped to re-enact those feelings and perceptions of hate and violence, which can often be linked to terrorist acts. Any measures to tackle radicalization within prisons must start by addressing the issue of overcrowding and understaffing which leads to a potential risk of prison staff being under-resourced and under-trained in understanding the issues around faith, radicalization, and integration.
Whilst prison staff shortages and overcrowding in prisons can act as an incubator for extremist ideas to be formulated, it can also lead to an oversimplification of understanding the radicalization process. Thus reintegration and issues of rehabilitation again pose important questions about the criminal justice system.
Professor Imran Awan is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor in Criminology at Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University. See his profile here.