December 9, 2019 Abdul Haqq

Usman Khan, Rehabilitation & Formers: Government Poster Boys and Prodigal Son narratives

Since 2006/7, governments and their associated agencies have eagerly embraced the idea of working with ‘formers’ – reformed extremists who had disengaged from previous extremist beliefs and rejected violence. Formers became the vogue due to their invaluable experiences and insights into non-violent/violent extremism.  Even multi-national industry giants, like Google, established entities to address this new approach:

Against Violent Extremism network – AVE:

AVE is a unique and powerful global force in the ongoing struggle to tackle violence and extremism. Former violent extremists, gang members and survivors of violence are empowered to work together with others to prevent the recruitment of ‘at risk’ youths and encourage the disengagement of those already involved. The network was founded at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) in 2011.[1]

Fast-forward to the present day where we have recently witnessed how misinformed the above approach can be in the absence of comprehensive community involvement with such individuals. Efforts to prove the existing PREVENT strategy is working have led to previously successful interventions being circumvented for less effective ones that are neither tried nor tested and that have at best, alienated communities that continue to be targeted.

As we enter the festive season, the biblical story of the Prodigal Son would not be remiss considering the issues surrounding Usman Khan’s supposed rehabilitation. The eagerness of the prison and probation services to embrace his self-professed desire to eschew extremist beliefs and reform were premature. There was also a glaring absence of expertise – particularly post release – to evaluate his ideological and behavioural tendencies for extremism:

“I have learnt that many of my past beliefs came from my misinterpretations of Islam,” the young man wrote to his probation officers. “There were many gaps in my knowledge but now I am on a new path and am learning to become a good Muslim. I would like a chance to prove to you that I will not cause harm to nobody in our society.” [2]

Returning to the biblical parable, it is a well-known story, highlighting the preference of the authoritative figure of the household at the time – the father – for his returning and remorseful younger son over the more consistent older sibling who had remained home.[3] The tense exchange between both father and older son provides a poignant insight for statutory agencies today regarding their enthusiasm to embrace and engage ‘formers’. Today’s government can be likened to the father in this particular narrative, while the younger, previously wayward son depicts formers – those apparently rehabilitated. It is relatively easy to discern the older brother as representing those entities that have consistently challenged and confronted extremism for decades now, while maintaining British and socio-religious values. This story, however, lacks an important insight that should not be ignored following the recent attack.

Continuing evaluation of transitory periods are essential when engaging former extremists in order to establish the extent of their reformation (if at all) and whether they still require further engagement and rehabilitation. Indeed, they may not have completed their final transformation. John Horgan, in his seminal book, ‘Walking away from Extremism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements’ examines issues surrounding disengagement and reform, acknowledging that these processes do not automatically amount to an individual’s complete relinquishment of extremist beliefs.[4] Indeed, disengagement could be for multitudinous reasons; disillusionment, family trauma and changes in circumstances, to name a few. In Khan’s case, it was the latter; his initial terrorist plans were thwarted, leaving no option except forced disengagement. His subsequent engagement with statutory processes, available to those convicted under current terrorism legislation, was mistaken for compliance and deradicalisation. It is now apparent that he was simply biding his time. The absence of any engagement from credible community based mentors or experts throughout his imprisonment and post release is startling.

But we’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Following Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013, I wrote an article for the Guardian and made the following observations:

“For this reason, youth intervention programmes such as Street UK (Strategy to Reach Empower and Educate Teenagers) were established. Street, set up in 2006, provided an alternative venue where young men could socialise, seek counselling and advice in a secure environment without fear of reprisal from rival gangs or unwanted police scrutiny.

Within this setting, radical, extreme or even criminal views that were expressed would be challenged head on and countered with robust, alternative narratives that provided a contextualised understanding of the issues raised. The confidentiality afforded to participants who shared these views rapidly gained their trust despite their knowledge that the organisation received government funding. Statutory objectives of engaging with and addressing issues of susceptibility to extremism among participants were being fulfilled, while on the other hand empowering and equipping them to progress and succeed societally was also being achieved.

More than 4,500 young men participated in Street activities in 2010, the penultimate year before funding was withdrawn by the coalition government.”

More poignantly, I highlighted:

“Young men are no longer actively engaged or challenged ideologically by those most qualified, both socially and religiously, to do so; extremist narratives proliferate unchallenged and are no longer deconstructed to susceptible converts at the grassroots where such messages are most potent. In light of this, there is an uncomfortable realisation that those behind the Woolwich attack are unlikely to be the last to be violently radicalised. [5]

The above observations resonate as much today as 6 years ago. However, alarmingly we find ourselves in the same, if not worse, predicament than before with no plausible solution in sight. It is high time for hollow political rhetoric to be replaced with something more pithy; a strategy that actually encompasses societal concerns around our security as citizens and, in the absence of such, to review what worked before and the reasons for ending them.



[1] Google – Against Violent Extremism network:

[2] Yeginsu, C: ‘Portrait of London Bridge Killer, in his own words,’ The New York Times, 5th December 2019:

[3] The Bible, ESV version: ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son,’ Luke, Chapter 15, 11-32:

[4] Horgan J: ‘Walking away from Extremism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements’ Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 11th May, 2009

[5] Baker, A H: ‘Young British Muslim Converts need support to prevent another Woolwich,’ The Guardian, 31st May 2013:

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