A Clockwork Jihadi

Usman Khan’s failed de-radicalisation bears parallels with A Clockwork Orange


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“‘Oh, it will be nice to be good, sir.’ But I had a real horrorshow smeck at that inside, brothers” — Alex in A Clockwork Orange

Usman Khan may well enter history as the jihadi who killed “de-radicalisation”. His murder of two Cambridge criminology graduates, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, near London Bridge in 2019 cast the loftiest aspiration of British counter-terrorism, the wish to change terrorists’ minds, as hubris.

Whereas talk of “de-radicalising” terrorists had begun in the wake of the 7/7 bomb attacks of 2005 — attacks led by a man who purported to punish Britain for “atrocities” he said it was committing against Muslims abroad — Usman Khan punished his victims for an ostensible virtue: their willingness to imagine his redemption. In so doing, he propagandised the dark heart of modern jihad — a conviction that unbelievers, whatever they might do, are subhuman and deserving of destruction.

The origins of the case date back to 2010, when Khan was arrested for his involvement in plots to establish a jihadi training camp in Pakistan and to bomb the London Stock Exchange. Sentenced in 2012 to indefinite detention to protect the public, and later identified as a “high risk” prisoner, he nevertheless won an appeal in 2013 that gave him a fixed term. While in prison, he took part in an official rehabilitative scheme called the Healthy Identity Intervention. After his release “on licence” in 2018, he participated in the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which is the main component of rehabilitative hopes set out in the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Contest.

Alex and Droogs in A Clockwork Orange

While in prison, Khan also joined an idealistic Cambridge University-based criminology project called Learning Together, which was designed to bring students into contact with prisoners to confront the “stigma”, “marginalisation” and “prejudice” that convicts face. The programme had used Khan’s photo in its literature, along with news of a fundraising effort that had allowed it to buy him a laptop he needed. It had even published Khan’s thank-you letter, which parrots the programme’s soothing language.

The scene of Khan’s rampage was the fifth anniversary celebration of Learning Together at the Fishmonger’s Hall near London Bridge. It had been described as “a prisoner rehabilitation event”. Police, fearing he was wearing a suicide bomb, shot him dead outside the venue.

The years following Khan’s bloody attack — in the course of which he stabbed to death Merritt and Jones and injured three others with kitchen knives taped to his hands — have witnessed a jolt toward realism on the “de-radicalisation” question. Jonathan Hall, QC, independent reviewer for terrorism legislation, cautioned that there was “no magic bullet or special pill” that could unravel a jihadi worldview. Christopher Dean, the psychologist behind the Healthy Identity Intervention, said terrorism prisoners were sceptical of schemes to “de-programme” them.

“It’s almost like a robotic term in that we’re going to simply download everything in your head, and we’re going to pump it full of something else,” he told the BBC. Boris Johnson acknowledged that “some people can’t be rehabilitated”. That such comments proved worthy of headlines suggested that public perceptions of counter-extremism efforts had fallen into the grip of a mechanistic fantasy.

Such fantasies were, in the mid-20th century, the stuff of science fiction. In his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess imagined an experimental, medicalised criminal “cure” called the Ludovico Technique, which was designed to lay a criminal flat with nausea if he even considered a violent act. A political party anxious to console a public fearful of violent gang attacks lends support to the technique and sets its ambitions high — or low — by testing it on the novel’s narrator Alex, an “ultra-violent” teenage gang leader.

Usman Khan interviewed in 2008

Imagined at the height of the Cold War, and in the year Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem, Alex is a potent twentieth-century criminal archetype and a bearer of disparate linguistic and historical influences. His gang-slang is part-Russian, but his taste for Beethoven recalls the Nazi butchers whom high culture couldn’t civilise. In other ways, Alex is contemporary. His showy savagery and appetite for unwilling women now evokes the young Britons who joined Isis in 2014. His disgust for his fellow citizens — he calls them “lewdies” (from the Russian “lyudi,” or “people”) — recalls Usman Khan’s habit of calling non-Muslims “kuffar” and “dogs”.

Burgess wrote at the outset of an extraordinary decade of secularisation. The USSR declared religion a relic of the past, while in the US, voters gave up a Protestant bias to elect John F. Kennedy. Burgess, a Roman Catholic like Kennedy, sought to raise the problems of free will and evil in a secular age. His main target was the American psychologist B.F. Skinner’s case for behaviourism, but he had also noted schemes to “cure” homosexuals with aversion therapy.

The imagined future of A Clockwork Orange is, philosophically-speaking, a low-gravity environment: Christianity is fading, while rousing socialist murals attract pornographic graffiti. When Alex is imprisoned for killing a woman, he finds work with a boozy, careerist prison chaplain who, for all his flaws, does what he can to inculcate a Christian conception of free will and responsibility. Alex takes to the Bible, but draws the “wrong” conclusions, finding himself turned on by the bloodshed, the bedding of handmaidens, and the “nailing in” of Jesus.

If Burgess’s imagining of a futuristic criminal was compelling, so too was his satire of a government, in time of crisis, claiming to turn men — as Dostoevsky has it in Notes from Underground — into piano keys. In the Ludovico Technique, the fictional government sees an opportunity to reassure the public and relieve crowded prisons; Alex, for his part, sees it as a fast route to freedom.

He eagerly puts himself forward — over the misgivings of the chaplain — and soon becomes the object of a scandal after his former gang-mates and victims persecute him in his “cured” state. At this stage, the plot lines diverge, for there is no such thing as the “Ludovico Technique”, “de-radicalisation” was never a science, and Usman Khan was slated for release in 2018, whether he was “de-radicalised” or not.

“The best veshch they ever had in the old gazetta was … IT WAS THE DEVIL THAT WAS ABROAD and was like ferreting his way into like young innocent flesh”

— Alex in A Clockwork Orange

For Burgess, the Ludovico Technique was a blasphemy because it overrode free will. Alex is made to participate in a public spectacle of his own rehabilitation. A man humiliates him before an audience, but Alex can only lick his shoes. A woman presents her naked body to him, but he can only declare chivalrous devotion. While humiliation was decidedly not the object of Learning Together — prisoners involved with the programme said it had changed their lives for the better and spoke of Jack Merritt’s generosity and friendship — it does appear that the Fishmonger’s Hall event was to be, in part, a spectacle of ex-cons demonstrating that they were turning their lives around.

At first, Khan played the role expected of him. After arriving in London from Stafford, he offered a hug to the head of counterterrorism from HMP Whitemoor, where he had been held. He took part in a discussion about “turning points”, in which he described how he had turned away from “the wrong path” after being led astray by others.

He was photographed sitting peaceably, swigging a drink next to Saskia Jones (Jones, who wanted to work in victim support, did not know Khan would be there and had told her mother she thought terrorism offenders should be treated with “extreme caution”). Then, in a break, Khan went to the toilet to shave his body in preparation for “martyrdom”.

A coroner’s inquest at the London Guildhall is picking over what was known about Khan — by MI5, prison officials, the probation service, and Learning Together. Two details stand out. One is that, at the time of his release, Khan was still considered a “high-risk category A” prisoner — one of the 0.1 per cent most dangerous prisoners in Britain. Another is that Merritt, who was the course coordinator for Learning Together, had come to believe Khan had been “de-radicalised”.

The notion of “de-radicalisation” first entered the British lexicon in the wake of the 7/7 bombings of 2005, and surged in popularity again after hundreds of young Britons joined Isis in 2014-15; MPs, keen to offer consolation, got used to speaking of de-radicalisation as if it was a tried-and-tested technique, and even to invoking the supposed triumphs of de-radicalisation programmes in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia.

“De-radicalisation” built, naturally, on the concept of “radicalisation.” Usama Hasan, a former Islamist who now works as a counter-extremism consultant, remembers hearing it in the course of a televised panel discussion in the mid-2000s to describe the process by which people joined Al Qaeda. “I heard a government minister use the term. The way he used it was very forceful and I thought, ‘Wow, that is a standard term.’ It was one I didn’t particularly like, because we tell people it’s good to be radical and think of new ideas.”

Hasan grew up in 70s and 80s Britain. He admired British education, liked football, but also experienced racism and developed a “love-hate” relationship with the country. For a young man from a family with Islamist influences, the Afghan struggle against the atheistic Soviets — a cause Britain and the US supported because of the Cold War — defined the era. “For me from the age of eight, the Soviets represented an enemy of Muslims that had killed thousands of Muslims,” he says. In 1990-1, after the Soviets had left but before the government they had backed fell, he travelled briefly to Afghanistan to join the Islamist cause. Then he returned to Britain.

During the 1990s, he became an Islamist preacher, supporting jihad in war zones around the world. His relationship with the West remained ambiguous at best. “We were well aware that when it came to other conflicts — Kashmir, Palestine — the British and Americans were not on our side,” he says. When Al-Qaeda attacked the US on September 11, 2001, he felt conflicted. The Islamist in him, he says, “kind of celebrated”. But the killing of civilians — especially children — left him appalled.

He decided he couldn’t support Al Qaeda, and began preaching against such atrocities as the 2004 Madrid bombings. “After the sermon,” he says, “two guys came up to me with tears in their eyes and said, ‘Thank you Usama, you have corrected us. We were celebrating it.’ That was a big moment and I was pleased that I had had that impact. Of course, others would come up and say I was promoting government propaganda.”

The British authorities sought to encourage such interactions. Whereas Islamists may have seen an increasingly secular Britain and US, both now at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as mirror images of the old Soviet empire, Tony Blair and George W. Bush identified the new jihadi ideology as the successor threat to the West. Rashad Ali of ISD Global, a former recruiter for the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir, now works in de-radicalisation. He points to Blair’s August 2005 Downing Street press conference following the 7/7 attacks as the moment the focus shifted to the threat of a new, “radical” ideology. “The more I think about this type of phenomenon,” said Blair, “I think it’s got something of the same characteristics of revolutionary communism.”

The scene at London Bridge

Just as communism had had its charismatic heroes in Marx, Engels and Lenin, Islamism had its own “radicalisers”, both in remote jihadi theorists like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and in UK-based preachers such as Anjem Choudary of Al-Muhajiroun, a lawyer who gamed counter-terrorism laws with careful elisions while teaching an alarming number of future terrorists — Usman Khan included — about his utopian vision of a sharia caliphate (Choudary, imprisoned in 2016 for inciting people to join Isis, is out on licence).

The Labour government’s early efforts to get to grips with the new ideological challenge were scattershot and resembled, in places, the “hearts and minds” component of a counterinsurgency. One response to 7/7 was to expand the Prevent programme, the then-underdeveloped “soft end” of the government’s 2003 counter-terrorism strategy, Contest. It was, Ali says, a period of trial and error, as the state set out to identify allies and build what it called “resilience” against Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism among British Muslims (Prevent was revised in 2011 to cover Northern-Ireland-related and far right terrorism as well).

“Prevention was broad-spectrum,” Ali says. “It was integration, countering ideology, engagement with communities, support for youth groups, hard-edged anti-jihadist stuff, groups paid to propagandise a fluffy version of Islam — all sorts. Some were really silly, like curry groups in Bradford.” There was also a strand called “helping vulnerable individuals” — an early incarnation of what would become “de-radicalisation”. But prevention, cast too wide, often faltered. Soon, Ali says, specialists like himself were being asked to speak to people serving prison terms for terrorism-related offences. He did his first prison-based intervention in 2007.

The emergence of Isis in 2014, and the flight of as many as 900 Britons to join it, concentrated minds upon the scale of the threat. But Liam Duffy, an advisor at the Counter-Extremism Project, says Isis’s rise led to a “comforting myth” about the persuasive power of propaganda and to a passive, quasi-medicalised jargon of “risk” and “vulnerability” concerning people who had chosen to join one of the worst terrorist groups in history.

Here, Cold War analogies ran aground. “Consider John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 Berlin speech,” Duffy says. “Kennedy said that democracies had never had to build a wall to keep people in. But can we really still say that? There are a lot of people rejecting the current system, but that’s not a manipulation issue. The vision that Al Qaeda and Isis offer is of alternative systems of governance. Liberal democracy in its current form has been around, what, a hundred years? It’s not a human norm.”

Since then, successive Conservative governments have drawn up plans for dealing with both Terrorism Act prisoners slated for release and hundreds of returning Isis members. According to the latest 2018 version of the Contest counter-terrorism strategy, “success over the next three years will mean more people are disengaged and rehabilitated from terrorism.” But Usman Khan’s rampage has rattled such consensus that may have existed as to the utility of notions like “vulnerability” and “de-radicalisation” in achieving those ends.

Simon Cottee, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent, likened “de-radicalisation” to a modern form of exorcism. “As I understand it, ‘radicalisation’ is a form demonic possession, whereby ‘extremism’ embeds itself into somebody’s mind and they are powerless to resist it.” The idea of a terrorist’s individual agency, he says, has been eroded. “Terrorists are a risk to others, but in this discourse, the terrorist is vulnerable. The whole thing needs to be put on hold. We need to ask fundamental questions about what we can and should be doing.”

“And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines?”

— Alex in A Clockwork Orange

In A Clockwork Orange, Alex is a deceiver. Arrested for murder, he blames his friends: “They like forced me to do it.” Even as he submits to the Ludovico Technique, he plans to game the system. While the doctors are rendering him artificially nauseous at the sight of atrocities from Nazi Germany, he exclaims,

But sir, sirs, I see that it’s wrong. It’s wrong because it’s against like society. It’s wrong because every veck on earth has the right to live and be happy without being beaten and tolchocked and knifed. I’ve learned a lot, oh really I have.

Within jihadi circles, there exists every intention of engaging in what analysts now term “false compliance” (indeed, the term was used repeatedly at the coroner’s inquest into Khan’s murders). Many jihadis have studied Islamist counter-intelligence works such as the Hamas pamphlet Entrapment in Prisons. Moustafa Ayad of ISD Global says it compiles observations that Hamas fighters, leaders, and clerics have made in Israeli prisons as to how authorities will approach them to win them over.

Simon Cottee sees a similar acumen in a new cohort of violent extremists seeking repatriation from Syria, who have evidently studied the language of British social science and counter-terrorism legislation. “It’s all about risk and vulnerability, that they were preyed on,” he says. “They once had an abundance of agency it seemed, but now they say they were brainwashed. It’s utterly cynical how they change their narrative.”

Then there are the vagaries of the Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which Khan passed through. “So much of it is pissing in the dark,” Cottee says. “It’s highly secretive. We have these pathetic checklists about vulnerabilities. We have vague notions about grievances related to foreign policy, ideology.” According to the Contest strategy, DDP provides mentoring and “theological and ideological advice”. But the very notion of having “on-point” state-funded mentors promoting a particular version of a religion, Cottee says, reflects “a deeply un-sociological view of what religion is. A religion is whatever its practitioners make of it.”

And yet, what if a collapse of confidence in de-radicalisation was just what Usman Khan was aiming at? Islamist groups, Rashad Ali says, see maintaining adherents as “one of the frontiers of jihad”. While a de-radicalisation mentor may go into a prison setting with a “deficit of credibility”, he says, he also has a range of advantages: prisoners often enjoy getting visitors and crave emotional engagement and understanding. Jihadis see dawah, or proselytising, as a religious duty, which can help facilitate discussion. “Individuals do change,” he says, “and it is possible to accelerate that process. I can think of hundreds of fairly serious, radicalised convicts who have gone through that change.”

“The overconfidence in de-radicalisation is an issue,” Ali says. “But what we have is de-radicalisation as a sub-strategy in dealing with prisoners.” Longer prison sentences (as under the new Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act) may give that strategy more room to unfold. De-radicalisation, he says, is a nascent endeavour, and is still gathering data and experience. “The problem is that there’s a public discourse and a policy context. The public discourse is framed as, ‘How do we reassure the public?’ Stories about successful de-radicalisations show that there’s hope; if there’s no hope, you’re looking into bleak despair — especially if you think you’re not winning the ideological battle.”

Hope was a theme at the coroner’s inquiry. Amy Ludlow, co-founder of Learning Together, said the programme was about “cultivation of hope”. Prison governor William Styles had written that the group’s involvement with HMP Whitemoor had made it a “more hopeful prison”. He hoped Khan’s involvement would “reduce the risk he presented after release”.

“What’s it going to be then, eh?” — The prison chaplain in A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess, as it happens, wrote a “hopeful” ending for A Clockwork Orange in which Alex, “capable of growth and sweetness”, tires of causing mayhem and begins planning to settle down and start a family. But his American publisher found it unconvincing, so the US version of the novel ended with the anti-hero, freed from the effects of the Ludovico Technique, gloating, “I was cured all right” — and presumably planning more bloodshed.

This was the ending Stanley Kubrick used in his black-comedic 1971 film adaptation of the novel — a choice that elicited intense reactions. One critic accused him of “sucking up to the thugs in the audience” — that is, of sympathising with Alex. Another said his dark view of human nature was a front for fascism — that Kubrick sympathised, ultimately, with the security state.

Burgess, feeling political heat on account of the film, protested that he had written a hopeful, “Kennedyan” book, whereas Kubrick’s film was “Nixonian.” But Kubrick, by then an expatriate living in Hertfordshire, insisted that his pessimism was of a Swiftian type, warning against the kind of “self-inflating illusion” that leads to despair.

In the wake of the horror show at Fishmonger’s Hall, various consolations are on offer. Some researchers remind us that, overall, terrorist recidivism is low. The Home Office promises polygraph or “lie detector” tests for “high risk” terrorists released on licence, another mechanistic scheme to know men’s minds, if not to alter them. But what of the eternal questions underpinning both this case, and A Clockwork Orange? Is “free will” a true and useful concept? Does evil exist? They too often embarrass our policymakers, prison officials, criminologists, into silence. Should we dare to ask them, “What do you believe?”

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