Race to stop more terrorists being freed from jail as ‘threat not diminishing’

By David Hughes, Flora Thompson and Margaret Davis, PA

The Government faces a race against time to pass emergency legislation following the Streatham attack in a bid to stop any more terrorists being automatically freed from prison.

A target of February 27 has been set to rush the Bill through Parliament – a day before the next terrorist is expected to be freed.

The news comes as police chiefs warned that the threat of terrorism is “not diminishing”.

A Whitehall official said: “If the legislation is passed by February 27 we can prevent the automatic release of any further terrorist suspects who might pose a threat to the public.”

It is understood that Sunderland shopkeeper Mohammed Zahir Khan is due to be released on February 28, while around five other terrorists are expected to be let out in March unless the new law is in force.

Khan was jailed for four-and-a-half years in May 2018 for posting messages and material that was supportive of IS on social media.

The father-of-one, originally from Birmingham, had previously served long sentences for drugs supply offences and moved to the North East to make a break from gangs.

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, head of UK counter-terror policing, said the “threat is, despite our best efforts, not diminishing”, after a third attack in as many months.

The UK’s terror threat level is currently set at “substantial”, meaning an attack is likely. It was downgraded from “severe”, the second highest rating, in November, shortly before the London Bridge attack.

Convicted terrorist Sudesh Amman wore a fake suicide belt as he grabbed a knife from a shop in Streatham High Road, south London, on Sunday, before stabbing two bystanders.

The 20-year-old had been jailed for possessing and distributing terrorist documents in December 2018, but was freed automatically halfway through his sentence less than a fortnight ago.

Sudesh Amman (Metropolitan Police/PA)

He was put under 24-hour police surveillance on his release after it is understood security services regarded him as an “extremely concerning individual”.

Mr Basu said: “Police and the security services knew the attacker posed a significant risk and we were, unfortunately, proved right in our decision to place him under surveillance.

“But with 3,000 or so subjects of interest currently on our radar, and many convicted terrorists soon due to be released from prison, we simply cannot watch all of them, all the time.”

He welcomed plans announced on Monday by Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, who said the urgent legislation was needed to make sure that offenders serve two-thirds of their sentence before they are considered eligible for release, at which point their case would be considered by a panel of specialist judges and psychiatrists at the Parole Board.

There are 224 terrorists in prison in Britain, with most thought to be holding Islamist extremist views, according to the latest published figures to the end of September.

As many as 50 terrorists could be freed from jail this year, figures suggest.

The Whitehall official said the attack in Streatham highlighted an issue surrounding terrorists with relatively short prison sentences.

“There aren’t many terrorist offenders who will be in that similar kind of scenario but if there are any then that’s too many and that’s what we are looking to fix,” the official said.

The Government plans to introduce the legislation in the Commons on Tuesday next week, with the aim of clearing the House by the time it rises for recess on Thursday.

Police officers outside a property in Leigham Court Road, Streatham, following the terror attack in Streatham High Road (Yui Mok/PA)

The Bill will then go to the Lords on February 25 with the aim of getting royal assent on February 27.

“There are no terrorist offenders who are due to receive automatic release before that date,” the official said.

The source said the Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, should “wish to carry out its scrutiny quickly” as “we cannot continue to be in a position where the state has no power to block the release of terrorists who continue to pose a threat to the public”.

According to right-leaning think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, a number of convicted extremists may be due for release in March.

They include Mohammed Ghani, from Barnet, north London, who was sentenced to two years and four months in prison in May last year after threatening to kill police officers.

There is also radicalised chemistry teacher Jamshed Javeed, who was jailed for six years in March 2015 for planning to travel from his Manchester home to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS); and Mohammed Khilji, from north-west London, who posted beheading videos on WhatsApp.

Forensic officers search under a bus at the scene in Streatham (Aaron Chown/PA)

According to the Times, Britain’s youngest terrorist, a boy known only as RXG who plotted to murder police officers in Australia, is due for release this month.

He received a life sentence with a minimum term of five years in 2015.

The newspaper also reported that Atiq Ahmed, from Oldham, who was arrested after hurling abuse at staff at a school in the town and was later found to have IS propaganda on his phone, is due to be released in March.

The Government has not ruled out derogating – effectively suspending – the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in order to apply the new measures.

Lawyers have warned that the move would open the Government up to legal challenges from those already behind bars who were sentenced under the current rules.

But officials said they are confident they have the flexibility to change how an offender serves their sentence, by extending the time they spend behind bars rather than on licence.