Jailing of Parsons Green bomber raises questions about effectiveness of Prevent

Ahmed Hassan, an Iraqi asylum-seeker, has been sentenced to thirty-four years in jail for trying to detonate a homemade bomb on a rush-hour London commuter train at Parsons Green station in Fulham in September 2017. Although the bomb, which was packed with shrapnel, did not properly detonate, thirty people were injured as flames engulfed the carriage[1] and people struggled to get out of the carriage[2].

Hassan had left the train at the station before, but was arrested the following day at Dover as he tried to flee the country. He denied the charges placed against him, admitting to the police he had made the bomb but said he had done it only to gain attention, not to kill anyone[3].

The judge, Charles Haddon-Cave, said “You were determined to create as much death and carnage that day as possible … I am satisfied that you were driven and motivated by four things: a mind-set of ISIS (Islamic State) extremism, a deep-seated hatred of this country, a desire for revenge against Britain and America whom you blamed for your father’s death in Iraq and anger at the continued bombing of Iraq by Western Coalition forces”[4].

Haddon-Cave added, “You should understand that the Koran is a book of peace; Islam is a religion of peace … You have violated the Koran and Islam by your actions, as well as the law of all civilized people. You will have plenty of time to study the Koran in prison in the years to come”[5].

Hassan came to Britain illegally in 2015 and was living with a foster family at the time of the attack. He had given his age as eighteen, but was actually twenty-one, and told officials that he had spent three months at an ISIS training camp, for which he was referred to Prevent. He began researching his attack only a month before he carried it out[6].

His foster parents did not give evidence in the trial but said that authorities should have warned them to look out for signs of radicalisation. Commander Dean Haydon, the head of Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command, stated Hassan had been involved with the Prevent programme, which is part of the UK’s counter-extremism initiative, saying, “On the one hand he was appearing to engage with the (Prevent) programme but he kept secret what he was planning and plotting”[7].

A review of his dealings with Prevent is underway[8], and there are a number of discrepancies regarding Hassan’s involvement with the programme. Hassan’s former mentor, who referred him to the scheme again after his initial referral when he arrived in the UK[9], said that he had not agreed to take part in the Prevent programme, and thus his lack of consent meant he was not properly engaged with the scheme. The Metropolitan Police maintain he was cooperating at the time of the attack. The deradicalisation programme Channel, which Hassan was enrolled in as part of Prevent, operates on the basis that people regarded as “at risk” agree to take part, but Surrey County Council, which was responsible for Hassan’s care, said as Hassan was underage (at least, on the record) in 2016, it “didn’t need” his consent to enrol him in Prevent[10].

His former mentor suggested that these discrepancies in the narratives of authorities represents a lack of transparency about what happened. She said, “It is a matter of conscience for me that we learn from this terrible event and do everything in our power to ensure that nothing like Parsons Green ever happens again”[11].

Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner, David Munro, did comment that all the organisations involved were “too slow” to respond to the threat Hassan posed[12].

In the Guardian, Acheson, who was responsible for overseeing the first iteration of the Prevent strand in south-west England in 2010, writes that the fact that the Hassan was able to detonate the bomb represents a failure of Prevent. Hassan had clearly signalled a level of concern that should have triggered further engagement immediately on his reception to the UK when he told officials he had been trained by Islamic State. The fact that this did not happen is “truly baffling”. After he was referred, those closest to him were apparently unaware of the threat he posed, and were not enlisted to support, change, or monitor his behaviour[13].

Acheson writes, “It’s not difficult to conclude that there were systemic failures in the Prevent process that contributed to the radicalisation of a clearly troubled teenager and his conversion to a would-be mass-murderer. This was no off-the-radar lone actor who emerged without a trace to do his dirty work”[14].

He says, “Prevent is a paradox. It is the most publicised yet least understood weapon in our counter-extremism tool box. A combination of inexplicable paralysis by government and relentless opposition by a small number of ideologically motivated pressure groups such as Cage has distorted both its objectives and its operations”[15].

Acheson suggests a number of measures to improve the running of Prevent, including investing more money in the scheme (which currently receives 1% of the total £3 billion counter-terrorism budget), and tackling the roots of radicalised extremism (which also involves more investment) while also remaining “robust in managing” those referred to it. He says that it is not surprising that many people are suspicious of Prevent, and the scheme could do with a “serious PR overhaul” to promote it as a more positive programme. This should include “authentic conversations with communities … about what it means to be British, and the importance of the ties and values that bind us together”. He concludes, “This will require new focus, new urgency and new priorities”[16].

[1] Reuters Staff, 2018.

[2] Pennink, 2018.

[3] Reuters Staff, 2018.

[4] Reuters Staff, 2018.

[5] Reuters Staff, 2018.

[6] Reuters Staff, 2018; BBC News, 2018.

[7] Pennink, 2018.

[8] Pennink, 2018.

[9] Camber and Sinmaz, 2018.

[10] BBC News, 2018; Acheson, 2018.

[11] BBC News, 2018.

[12] Camber and Sinmaz, 2018.

[13] Acheson, 2018.

[14] Acheson, 2018.

[15] Acheson, 2018.

[16] Acheson, 2018.

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Acheson, I. (2018) ‘Prevent let the Parsons Green bomber through the net. That can’t happen again’. [online] 28 March. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/28/prevent-parsons-green-bomber-counter-terrorism?CMP=share_btn_tw. [Accessed 9 April 2018].

BBC News. (2018) ‘Parsons Green: Bomber ‘didn’t agree’ to Prevent, says mentor’. [online] 27 March. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43550925. [Accessed 9 April 2018].

Camber, R. and Sinmaz, E. (2018) ‘Why did Home Office place Iraqi refugee – who became Parsons Green bomber – with foster family even though he was trained by jihadis and hated Britain?’ [online] 16 March. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5511645/Why-did-Home-Office-place-Parsons-Green-bomber-foster-family.html. [Accessed 9 April 2018].

Pennink, E. (2018) ‘’Devious’ Parsons Green Bomber Faces Years in Jail’. [online] 23 March. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2018/03/23/devious-parsons-green-bomber-faces-years-in-jail_n_19405084.html. [Accessed 8 April 2018].

Reuters Staff. (2018) ‘Teenager who tried to bomb London train jailed for 34 years’. [online] 23 March. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-security-parsonsgreen/teenager-who-tried-to-bomb-london-train-jailed-for-34-years-idUKKBN1GZ2HH. [Accessed 8 April 2018].