THE violent attack on people relaxing in a Reading park at the weekend has thrown the threat of violent extrem-ism back into the spotlight.
The suspect, Libyan Khairi Saadallah, 25, is in custody and it is important we do nothing to deny him the right to a fair trial — the sort of civilised due process denied to victims of terror.
But it’s equally important not to be deterred from asking urgent questions about Saadallah’s alleged contact with the security services before the rampage on Saturday.
We know from acquaintances that this man was a heavy cannabis user.
We are also told by associates that he suffers mental health problems.
We know he was granted asylum here as a refugee and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, probably related to his life in war-torn Libya.
We know next to nothing about the circumstances of most asylum seekers in this country, many of whom suffer the kinds of mental illness and social isolation that research has shown can be associated with extremist views and ideas.
It is unfortunately not the first time that refugees to this country have enjoyed our shelter and hospitality before facing allegations of violence and destruction.
In 2018, the Parsons Green Tube bomber, teenage Iraqi asylum seeker Ahmed Hassan, was jailed for 34 years when a home-made device partially went off, injuring 51 people.
His foster parents and a tutor had repeatedly signalled concerns about his mental deterioration in the months leading up to his attack, yet the authorities failed to act.
The relationship between mental illness and violent extremism is fraught with problems that sometimes prevent us from taking action.
There is a suspicion that the label “mental illness” is used by some countries to obscure uncomfortable truths about the ideological origins of terrorists.
This is most often the charge levelled at European countries in the case of Islamist extremism.
Conversely, mental health campaigners will object with justification to the association, as the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no risk to others.
If they pose a risk, it is to themselves.
I think we miss an opportunity here to be more straightforward about cause and effect.
We might want to believe people capable of the most heinous and indiscriminate violence, meted out to innocent people sitting on a train, in a park, at an awards ceremony or enjoying a concert are by any civilised estimation insane.
We need to join the dots – and quickly
In many cases, however, perpetrators believe they are acting rationally, in pursuit of legitimate aims or beliefs. In other cases, mental disorder has a role in making people susceptible to hateful ideas then murderous action.
The research is contested but a study found lone-actor terrorists were more than 13 times more likely to be suffering mental illness. Mental illness can play a significant role in extremist offending.
It seems obvious we need more studies and more opportunities for our mental health services to play a role in safeguarding our national security.
We don’t know whether the Reading suspect was known to mental health services.
It remains to be seen if a failure of curiosity and process, as with Ahmed Hassan, will be a feature in this case.
We need to join the dots — and quickly.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland will be all too aware of the failures of process, supervision and risk assessment that led to two appalling Islamist lone-actor attacks at London Bridge and Streatham in the capital either side of Christmas.
He has acted swiftly and decisively to stop terrorist prisoners being released early but the bigger challenge remains.
But how do we spot, track and stop the descent of people into violent extremism before they act?
A foolproof system would destroy our civil liberties — the very thing the terrorist wants. But we can and must do better.
Otherwise, bright lives such as that of beloved history teacher James Furlong, who was killed at Reading, will continue to be snuffed out by dangerous nihilists hiding in plain sight.
Radicalism can be stopped
WE must review all those who have looked to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight.
It will be intensive but the Government has shown in recent months it can find the finance to protect the public.
There are some 25,000 radicalised individuals in the UK who police have interest in. I suspect a fifth of them – about 5,000 – are at the harder end of the intent bracket, and could act.
Police need to take a fresh look at what’s on file and, if there are questions, look into tracking these people.
What is also needed is more coordination, to alert security services.
At some point someone said the Reading suspect is alleged to have shown intent.
Then his mental-health issues should have been noted.
- By Fiyaz Mughal, founder of conflict-resolution campaign group Faith Matters
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