National Security

US faces new challenge with pending release of terror convicts


Dozens of Americans convicted of terrorism-related crimes are approaching the end of their prison terms, sparking a debate over how to reintegrate them into society in a way that lowers the potential for repeated crimes.

Experts say the U.S. has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy for reintegrating them into society — 17 years after 9/11 heightened the nation’s fears of terrorist attacks.

{mosads}“It is a blind spot right now when it comes to counterterrorism policy,” Seamus Hughes, who oversees the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told The Hill. “We have nothing right now. There are programs for re-entry for gang members to get out of jail and there is not that right now for terrorism.”

Experts also say the U.S. does not have a system to track the activities of individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes once they are released.

In an effort to fill that gap, House Republicans are pushing legislation, known as the TRACER Act, that would establish a national database similar to that of a sex offender registry. Upon an individual’s release, a federal correctional facility would send their information to state and federal authorities.

“TRACER would actually do the same thing [as a sex offender registry] and be providing notification that someone has been released,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told The Hill.

The House passed the bill by voice vote on Sept. 12, 2017. The Senate has not taken up the measure.

Richard Clarke, who was the chief counterterrorism adviser for the National Security Council at the time of the 9/11 attacks, told The Hill that each convicted terrorist should have “specially trained parole officers” to monitor their activities once out of prison.

But some experts argue that people who have served their time should not be treated any differently than other convicted criminals.

“I do not distinguish them as any more dangerous than other people who might have been apprehended before they committed a crime or people who were convicted of committing a crime,” said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security.

Twenty-five Americans who have been convicted of terrorist-related crimes are expected to be released by the end of 2021, according to the latest figures compiled by New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

By the end of 2025, that number is slated to jump to 72. Foreign detainees in Guantanamo are not included in that tally.

The bump in scheduled releases comes several years after a 2008 spike in convictions that peaked around 2014 after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared a caliphate state, prompting some Americans to take steps to join ISIS or plot ISIS-inspired violence.

Experts say many of those individuals were charged with crimes like providing material support to a terrorist organization — a charge that covers actions such as sending money and using propaganda to encourage terrorist-related violence.

The test is whether recidivism will become a problem when more individuals are released.

Some terrorism experts say rehabilitation policies should become established programs both in and outside of prison.

McCaul and others have voiced support for more programs countering violent extremism in prisons that aim to prevent the radicalization of prisoners.

“We found a lot of people that maybe weren’t convicted on terror-related charges were radicalizing in the prison systems,” McCaul said. “I think the Bureau of Prisons needs a program to ensure that radicalization is not taking place, because it is.”

The core issue, according to Hughes, is making sure the U.S. doesn’t set up a system that will “exacerbate” the problem and possibly “push someone in the opposite direction of what you want to do.”

For other countries like Britain, France and Germany, however, the threat of radicalization and recidivism is a real concern since the jihadist networks in Europe are more developed.

“Europe has a very real prison radicalization and crime-terror nexus issue which is something at least in the past the U.S. has not had a significant problem with,” terrorism expert David Sterman of the New America Foundation said in an interview.

Key U.S. allies like France, Britain and Australia continue to grapple with releasing prisoners who may have been radicalized in prison — a policy issue that has gained increasing attention in Europe as the threat of terrorist attacks grows.

France’s top terrorism prosecutor, François Molins, warned in May that the pending release of roughly 40 convicted terrorists over the next two years will pose a “major risk.”

British authorities have raised similar concerns about a group of 80 individuals convicted of terrorism offenses between 2007 and 2016 who are expected to be released by the end of the year.

Some experts say the U.S. should be watching to see what programs those countries employ in order to find out which can help reduce recidivism.

Greenberg highlighted Scandinavian countries, which she said “have some interesting programs across the board in terms of how to deal both with the right wing and Islamic extremism and terrorism.”

“They are much more attuned to the sort of community involvement and rehabilitation efforts,” she added.

Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said the U.S. is very much an outlier on this issue.

“We look abroad at countries that are dealing with a similar situation, but at a much broader scale — most all of them uniformly have a program to try to reprogram and rehabilitate these individuals when they are in prison,” he said. “To my knowledge, nothing of that exists in the U.S.”

“You can extrapolate that the recidivism rate is going to be higher than it would be if we had such programs in place,” he added.

Tags Counter-terrorism Criminology Michael McCaul Radicalization Recidivism Terrorism

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