'My job is to deradicalise the UK's most extreme terrorists in prison'

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand has spoken with a psychologist tasked with trying to reform some of the country's most extreme terrorists

The psychologist charged with trying to reform the UK's most extreme terrorists has spoken exclusively to ITV News about how she tries to deradicalise them.

Dr Zainab Al-Ataar works one to one with prisoners convicted of the worst terror attacks seen in Britain and has spoken for the first time about whether she can ever be sure terrorists claiming they want to reform are telling the truth.

ITV News has been given unprecedented access to HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland, where Dr Al-Ataar told us their evaluations are “forensic” - though it can take more than a decade for the offenders to even begin reflecting on their crimes.

“We don't just base our or our assessment on what people say,” she told ITV News.

“We compare it with observations, we have access to prison intelligence. We look at how trustworthy they are as an individual.

“Have they got a track record of honesty or dishonesty? We look at inconsistencies in their accounts. So as forensic psychologists, we would do that across the board, not just with terrorism.”

'Even if they're telling the truth now... that might not be the case in three months'

Nonetheless, lie detection “is not an absolute science”, she added, and “we have to absolutely be sure of… the limitations of our systems.”

“I think there's an added factor that is sometimes not talked about, and that's risk itself changes,” she said.

“So, somebody might progress today and a lot of the conditions that drove their risk could re-emerge in three months from now.

“So even if they're telling the truth now, by saying ‘I want to desist from terrorism’, that might not be the case in three months.”

The challenges in even getting to the point where they can claim to be sorry and truly intent on change are great.

The psychologist says she believes some are worried that what they’ve done will “suddenly lose meaning” and that they feel the need to “convince yourself it was for something.”

“Other people just have those beliefs staunchly and they're just not ready to critique them, they're not ready to hear any other counter voice,” she said.

“That doesn't mean they won't be ready. So, I've worked with people who were absolutely staunch in that resistance for many years and eventually they felt safe enough to do that.

“Sometimes it's taken a decade. I've worked with prisoners who took 15 years to get to that point.”

'There are many individuals who I have personally encountered... they are remorseful as well': Imam Mahmood tells ITV News change is possible and he has seen it himself

As part of their life in the prison and potential reform, some criminals gather for Friday prayers, which is led by an Imam.

Imam Mahmood insisted to ITV News he has seen people own up to their guilt and show genuine remorse.

“There are many individuals who I have personally encountered who are really guilty of the crimes they admit it and they are remorseful as well,” he said.

“I came across a person who prays every night for the person that he harmed before he prays for anyone else.”

But how can we be sure?

Terrorists offend less often than other criminals, but when they do it is often at huge cost.

Usman Khan claimed to have deradicalised shortly before he killed two people at Fishmonger’s Hall, for example.

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand discusses the effectiveness of separation centres

Confronted with the fact that four terrorists had reoffended within seven months, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “I accept that this is a very difficult quandary.

“Do we do nothing? Do we just let them sit there and foment their hate or do we intervene? I think the instinct is the right one to try to intervene and to try and engage and do something constructive.”

'This is difficult work': Robert Buckland tells ITV News the system must do its best to work out genuinely reformed terrorists

Pressed on a figure for how many have actually been successfully reformed, he said: “This is a very subjective thing.

“I could say offender A has been successful in terms of not reoffending today - that might change tomorrow, and sadly we’ve seen that happen.”

He added: “This is difficult work, there will be people who are genuine and there will be people who are not genuine, and it’s the job of the system to try to work that out to our best ability.”

Those at greatest risk of radicalising others are supposed to be kept at separation centres in prisons, the 'prisons-within-prisons' reserved for the most ideologically dangerous inmates.

Of the some-200 Terrorism Act or ‘TACT’ offenders in prisons nationally, fewer than 10 are currently held in Separation Centres.

Robert Buckland confirms the government is reviewing how to increase the number of terrorists in separation cells

Mr Buckland told ITV News that he will be reviewing the process of putting terrorists in Separation Centres to make it more streamlined.

He said: “The real balance for us is if by separation, are you actually making the position worse?

“Do you end up creating a college of criminality that is even more intense than what is happening in the mainstream prison or by not doing it, do you allow that person to proselytise and influence other prisoners?

“Some of whom have had no connection with terrorism in the past?

“And that’s why I’m committed to reviewing the process to make sure it is as streamlined and as straightforward as possible with the clearest rationale.”