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London Bridge Attack Raises Questions About Convicted Terrorists Reentering Society


As more details surface about the London knife attack that left two people dead last Friday, questions are emerging about how law enforcement in Europe and elsewhere deal with convicted terrorists who finish serving prison sentences and reenter society. The alleged perpetrator of the attack in London had been sentenced to 16 years but was released in half that time.

Here to talk about the challenges law enforcement faces after convicted terrorists are released is Lorenzo Vidino. He's the director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Welcome.

LORENZO VIDINO: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So there's this perception out there that people who are convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related charges serve these extremely long prison sentences. But is that true?

VIDINO: Generally speaking, that is not true. In Europe in particular, sentences tend to be fairly short. Actually, the 16 years the perpetrator in London got is unusual.

CHANG: That's on the long end.

VIDINO: Absolutely. People who fought with ISIS - they are getting between 3, 4, 5 years...


VIDINO: ...Which they end up serving only part of. So Europe tends to have a fairly lenient approach to it. That is very different from the U.S., where sentences tend to be something around 20 years.

CHANG: OK. So when we're talking about Europe in particular, people who've been convicted of terrorism-related charges are released with potentially many years left to live out their lives. At this point, are these individuals monitored or tracked closely after they are released?

VIDINO: They are, and they aren't - depends what you mean by closely. There's an assessment that is often made in terms of how still radicalized that individual is. Authorities make that assessment based on the information they have. But at the end of the day, it's difficult to determine what goes on inside a person's mind.

CHANG: I want to talk about what happens inside the prison system. When I think about rehabilitation programs in prison, I think of job training. I think of GED classes, for example. Are those things even remotely relevant when trying to rehabilitate someone who's been radicalized?

VIDINO: They are, but they're part of a bigger picture. Now, every story of radicalization and deradicalization is different. What radicalizes individual A does not work for individual B, and the same goes for deradicalization. So...

CHANG: Sure.

VIDINO: ...Attempts have to be tailored to the specific individual. In most cases, it will be a mix of education, being part of the community, having a stable family life, but at the same time working on the ideological component that led these individuals to radicalized. And that becomes very difficult. In many countries, for example - the U.S. would be a very good example of it - where separation of church and state - which makes it very difficult for authorities to work on the theological aspects that are...

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

VIDINO: ...Inevitably a part of it. So the state has to enter the very sensitive field of religion, of ideology. And how to do that is very challenging.

CHANG: I know that there has been a long conversation in Europe about how their different criminal justice systems can be reformed to address this problem of how better to rehabilitate and how better to track people who've been convicted of terrorism. But what about in the U.S.? Is there a push to figure out better ways to rehabilitate and then monitor convicted terrorists?

VIDINO: The U.S. unquestionably lags behind most European countries. And obviously, what happened in London shows flaws in the system. But still, the recidivism rate is fairly low in Europe, and a lot of these programs do work, to some degree. But in the U.S., we don't really have a system. We don't have programs, save for a few exceptions. We basically have a system which the underlying philosophy - if you do the crime, you serve the time. Once inside the prison system, they're left to themselves, basically, without any kind of supervision.

CHANG: Right.

VIDINO: And once released, the tracking system is also highly imperfect.

CHANG: Lorenzo Vidino is a member of the board of the European Union's Radicalisation Awareness Network.

Thank you very much for coming into the studio today.

VIDINO: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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