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Radicalization in Prisons

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Writer: Dr Rupali Jeswal

In Prisons and Corrections we need out of the box thinking and methodology to capture and hold, analyze and neutralise the process which leads an inmate to Radicalization, to violent extremism. Patrick T Dunleavy’s book The Fertile Soil of Jihad paints a coherent picture of the Radicalization process in the prisons. Prisons are places of vulnerability … highly unsettling environments in which individuals are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations. An understanding is needed to capture the groups and individuals, operations and behaviour within the prison walls. To detect, markers for conversion and construction of prediction maps of capabilities, inside and outside the prison walls. Critical observation of movement needs to be mapped, of cell-to-cell, zone-to-zone.

The time a person is charged for an offense and is incarcerated is the day his / her reintegration process back in the society starts but sometimes that is the day towards Radicalization and recruitment.

Many experts have described that prison is an instrument for “making bad people worse”. (Rehab to Recruitment!)

Content (meaning-making) analysis may give some hint of intentions.Context (background of this emerging threat) analysis tells us what the individual or group, thinks, the people want to hear.Thus content and context analysis provides a measure of the “temperature” of the “street.”
Complexities of threat matrix are constantly unpredictable now and shape shifting. Threats by intent and by capabilities are not just the two essentials to focus on, threat by adjustment, divergence, assimilators and convergences have also become factors at play (Ref. Fig.1).


Rehab to recruitment?

Criminological evidence shows that the greatest danger to security is found in mutating forms of “Prison Islam”.One case in Belmarsh was persuaded to undertake a martyrdom mission within 72 hours of arriving, this inmate was housed 3 cells away from the radical Jamaican-born preacher Abdullah-alFaisal who convinced him to become a suicide bomber within 3 days.


Patrick T Dunleavy’s book The Fertile Soil of Jihad paints a coherent picture of the Radicalization process in the prisons. The case demonstrates that under certain conditions correctional institutions are indeed vulnerable to prisoner Radicalization and terrorist groups that infiltrate, recruit and operate inside the walls.


A study done in the UK on Radicalization and de-radicalization in the prisons found that “prisons are places of vulnerability … highly unsettling environments in which individuals are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations.”

House of Commons, Home Affairs Committee stated in their 19th report “Roots of Radicalization” (Session 2010-2012) - a nine month inquiry found, that in some cases, inmates were being persuaded to carry out suicide missions within days of entering prison.

Extremist ideologies are widely disseminated in prisons and the staff while note and record the association and movement of terrorist prisoners, often it is the unchallenging behaviour which needs scrutiny and observation rather than the obvious challenging behaviour.

In Prisons and Corrections we need out of the box thinking and methodology to capture and hold, analyse and neutralise the process which leads an inmate to Radicalization, to violent extremism.


An understanding is needed to capture the groups and individuals, operations and behaviour within the prison walls. To detect, markers for conversion and construction of prediction maps of capabilities, inside and outside the prison walls. Critical observation of movement needs to be mapped, of cell-to-cell, zone-to-zone, egress-ingress of population movement and visitors.


The emerging security challenges are taking place in a globalised environment where geographical distance is converted to increasing interconnectedness and interdependence and within the walls of the prison is no different.
Combating Radicalization in prison begins by first recognising that there is a threat and also identifying Radicalization in the society more broadly. There is a vast difference between religious faith and radical beliefs. Prison staff must be trained appropriately and specifically of this issue - to identify pockets of Radicalization in their prisons. To generate awareness through specific trainings of “identification markers” the difference between religious conversion and convictions that take place within the framework of a prison, the social dynamics of joining gangs, differentiating between political preachers, radical extremist and just pure religious converts.



Terrorist, shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Jose Padilla, who were held as an enemy combatant for attempting to detonate a “dirty bomb” were both radicalized during their stints in the prison.


The case of Toronto-18,Ali Dirie also an example of a terrorist actively promoting terrorism behind bars. He pleaded guilty in October 2005 to importing and simple possession of firearms and ammunition and was sentenced to two years. From prison, he continued to conspire with Ahmad on how to obtain firearms.


Kevin James who formed and dubbed the terrorist group Jam’iyyatUl-Islam is-Saheeh (JIS) designed the plot while serving time in a California State Prison.


An example of Mohammed Chowdhury, 21, Shah Rahman, 28, Abdul Miah, 25 and Gurukanth Desai, 30 were sentenced for constructing a Mumbai-style terror plot and it is believed that Abdul Miah was radicalized in prison after being sentenced for drugs and weapon offences. Gone a petty criminal and came out as an extremist.


Martyrs of Morocco terrorist cell

Spain - October 2004: Members of this network were recruited inside the Topas prison in Salamanca. The persons involved called themselves ‘Martyrs of Morocco.’ The network planned a suicide attack against the high court in Madrid, using a truck filled with explosives.


In 2001 the largest prison-riot in Brazil’s history, was orchestrated through a network of cell phones and spread to 28 other prisons. The outcome, 10,000 inmates took guards hostage and held 8,000 visitors inside.

These few examples do tell us that new methods for collection and utilisation are needed. Intelligence is an important tool for management.


Findings of a study done in southern Philippines suggested that the integration of terrorist inmates with prison gangs might temporarily encourage disengagement and set the foundations for de-radicalization. However, without a specifically designed intervention strategy, the terrorist inmates may revert to militancy once they have returned to their original social settings.


Terrorism is not a new phenomenon; over the years it has changed from being primarily a national topic to a global issue. To combat this unrestricted warfare with diffusion of powers, countries need correct interpretations of today’s security scenario keeping in view, aspects of culture, geography, soft and hard targets. We are not only confronting terrorism but effects of their relationship with organised transnational crime rings. Terrorism has had many definitions, for many it no longer describes a tactic but implies moral censure.


Most significantly, terrorist networks are increasingly becoming able to study the operational behaviour of security forces and frequently engage in counter-intelligence practices. At the same time, the increased embeddings of these terrorist networks within society makes it easier and more likely to recruit and radicalize through propaganda civilians of various social classes and professions. Consequently, valuable intelligence that could be fed to ongoing investigations is very likely to emerge from unconventional locations and sources, which the security apparatuses underestimate or cannot monitor effectively.


Moreover, the criminal networks that are established in prisons offer significant financial and logistical resources, which can facilitate large-scale terrorist attacks [Shelley et al., 2005].


In 2001 Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras was jailed in a Spanish prison for drug related offences. Whilst imprisoned, Trashorrasestablished regular contact with Jamal Ahmidan who was serving time for a petty crime. Both individuals embraced radical Islamic fundamentalist ideas within the prison and were recruited in the Takfirwa al-Hijra group, a Moroccan terrorist group linked with al-Qaida [Cuthbertson, 2004]. Following their release, Ahmidan became the leader of the terrorist cell that conducted the Madrid bombing. In a drugs-for-bombs exchange with a third party, Trashorras provided the cell with explosives for the 13-backpack bombs that killed 191 people and injured hundreds.Equally troubling, al-Qaeda terrorists have found ways to continue recruiting efforts in the outside world.

Abdel Bary has smuggled a series of fatwas out of prison, calling for attacks by al-Qaeda and the murder of moderate Muslims (Leppard, 2009).

In 2006, a Libyan detainee wanted in Italy on terrorism charges used a public telephone at Long Lartin prison to speak live on an Islamic television programme, comparing British prisons with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (Leppard, 2009).
In 2007, guards confiscated a laptop computer from terrorist inmate Tariq al-Dour who used a smuggled cell-phone to connect to the Internet. From his cell in maximum security, al-Dour operated a website sympathetic to al-Qaeda (Pantucci, 2008).


The first study of Islam in prison was done by Butler (1978). He studied reforms at prisons in Washington DC, New York (Attica), Pennsylvania (Graterford) and New Jersey (Trenton State) and he found that nation of Islam contributed positively to inmate morale, discipline and rehabilitation. His study was not on conversion to Islam.


However in a study of prisoners who adopted the Muslim faith while incarcerated in an Illinois prison, it was found that conversion to Islam was a condition necessary for inmate prison adjustment, reduced stress and the sense that one has control over one’s life and ability to change the self and environment.


Despite being sent to maximum-security prisons, extremists are preaching hate to new inmates, breeding a fresh generation of radicals willing to launch terror attack. Conversion to radical Islam also acts as a facilitator for anti-Semitic views due to “Attitude polarisation”, this is a phenomenon where people’s attitudes or beliefs strengthen and become more extreme as they engage in intensive thought about the recognised attitude object.”

While Prison and Correction staff might indulge unknowingly in base rate fallacy the inmates might be adopting the control phenomenon.

Base rate fallacy can occur in belief reasoning when a typical task is analysed to assess and compare based on the collected evidence, but errors can be made due to the limited view of evidence collected leading to a susceptibility to deception unknowingly by the analyst.


We use two forms of reasoning - causal and derivative, causal is “focus on cause” derivative is “situation (cause / effect)”.


Most people have a tendency to reason in a causal manner even in situations where derivative reasoning is required. In other words, derivative situations are often confused with causal situations, which provides an explanation for the tendency of the base rate fallacy in certain professional practices, such as - medical diagnostics, legal reasoning and intelligence analysis.


KAPO: Knowledge, awareness, probability, outcome
One commits a base rate fallacy when they do not engage in KAPO process but concentrate on information that isn’t relevant, in other words, evaluating the outcome of today on yesterday’s information is irrelevant.


Control phenomena is an interdisciplinary branch that deals with the behaviour of any dynamical systems, the objective is to calculate solutions for the proper corrective action by the controller that result in system stability, that is, the system will hold the set point and not oscillate around it. This phenomenon is witnessed through the cases in the prisons where one facilitator is enough to guide another towards the path of Radicalization. The convert (effect) then holds the set points induced by the controller, in this case the facilitator and transformation occurs, grows, takes roots and branches out to affect and convert other potential systems (candidates). Each “effect” can have multiple affects and consequences in any direction (Ref. Fig. 2).


A facility can aid its internal mechanics by installing prediction maps based on their SOP (Standard operating procedure) and creating close feedback loop to constantly review, evaluate, analyse and restructure SOP to fill gaps and holes including assessment of base rate fallacy and incorporating it in the input to reinvent systems to detect and deter seeds of Radicalization.

This process is important as they define the behaviour of the interactions among the control elements (SOP in the facility) and adaptation of the immediate environment for maintenance of the running system, performance evaluation and evolution.


When this system functions well - typology provides recognition and we learn how to perceive the environment in ways that are shared with other typical people. This system eventually becomes an unconscious support of our natural competencies in and relatedness to the world around us (Ref. Fig. 3).


Within the Prison walls Learning occurs as a ‘response’ to certain definite and identifiable stimuli in one’s environment. Detection trainings are a topic to consider.


Intelligence as a management tool

The fight against terrorism requires an inter-agency, interdisciplinary approach to improve the intelligence base. An active, goal-oriented intelligence gathering has to become an integral part of day-to-day analysis in order to sustain the value of analytical results and promote the setting of appropriate priorities.


Criminologists generally agree that religion offers prisoners a way to adjust to institutional life by providing natural means to cope with unnatural surroundings (Clear et al., 1992; Dammer, 2000; Johnson, 2004; Thomas and Zaitzow, 2006).
Membership in a group provides mutual protection from theft and physical assault, the basis of wheeling and dealing activities and a source of cultural identity (Irwin, 1980).


The inmate sub-culture helps inmates cope with the deprivations of prison-life by providing shared ways of thinking, feeling and acting.


Those who know the most about the religious lives of prisoners - prison chaplains - agree that inmate conversions take place through friendship and kinship networks. This is especially so for non-traditional groups.


Research shows that social networks are very important in explaining how people are recruited into new religious movements and organisations (Lofland and Stark, 1965).


This (conversion) in itself is no issue of threat but to decipher if the recruitment to new religious movement is geared towards Radicalization, a facility must be prepared to predict, probe and pose provided the facility knows what signs are they looking for.


Evidence through various published and unpublished research suggests that detention facilities have been and are increasingly becoming congregations where terrorists and organised criminals establish channels of communication and co-operation and more importantly recruit new members. Here a systematic capturing and analysis of the social processes within detention facilities can enhance intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ understanding of the groups’ operation and behaviour. It will mean not only additional information but also new ways and methods of testing the integrity and veracity of this information. Inmates are gathering information at all times and sharing with each other. The inmates use simple observations of body language, verbal habits and communications amongst staff - the daily routine, to assess the temperature of the prison system and they use the system to serve their own goals.


Staff members also collect information but a methodology must be constructed to transform the information into actionable intelligence, which becomes a management tool. Line staff are perfect intelligence gatherers. And this is not limited to the ranks of custody. Non-custody staff may observe atypical behaviours in different settings. Their inclusion in the equation gives a more complete picture. So, all line staff, custody, non-custody and treatment-practitioners, contribute to the larger pool of information.


Intelligence is not just a “source” but also a “tool” to identify the personal and social motivations for prisoners’ conversions to these faith groups; and to assess the prisoners’ potential for terrorist recruitment.


Due to effective communication systems, exchange among terrorist groups is increasing rather than decreasing. Cooperation is observed among groups with common ideologies and goals, as well as across ideological and tactical divisions. Groups exchange members, weapons and explosives. Terrorists train together and share intelligence data, they collectively arrange secure staging locations and provide support for one another and participate in joint operations. Although terrorist groups still factionalise, splinter and follow separate tactical paths, cooperation, coordination of effort and imitation now appears to be the rule.



  1. Butler, K. (1978), “Muslims Are No Longer an Unknown Quantity.” Corrections Magazine, 4: 55-63.
  2. D. K. Freedheim (Ed.), History of psychology. Vol. 1 of I. Weiner (Ed.) Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology. New York: Wiley. Harry R. Dammer, (with Todd R. Clear, et. al). The Value of Religion in Prison: An Inmate Perspective. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. Vol. 16, Number 1. February 2000.
  3. Home Affairs Committee, Nineteenth report of Session 2010-2012, Roots of violent radicalization, HC 1446, 6 February 2012.
  4. I. Cuthbertson, Prisons and the Education of Terrorists, World PolicyJournal, 21 (2004), 15-22.
  5. Irwin, J. (1980), Prisons in turmoil.
  6. Integration versus Segregation: A Preliminary Examination of Philippine Correctional Facilities for De-radicalization - Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Volume 35, Issue 3, 2012.
  7. J. Thomas and B. H Zaitzow, Conning or Conversion? The Role of Religion in Prison Coping, The Prison Journal. Volume 86 Number 2 June 2006 242-259.
  8. Jonathan Koehler, The Base Rate Fallacy Reconsidered: Descriptive, Normative and Methodological Challenges. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 19, 1996.
  9. Johnson, B. (2004), Religious Programs and Recidivism Among Former Inmates in Prison Fellowship Programs: A Long-Term Follow-up Study. Justice Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2. June 2004.
  10. L. Shelley, J. T. Picarelli, A. Irby, D. M. Hart, P.A. Craig-Hart, P. Williams, S. Simon, N. Abdullaev, B. Stanislawski and L. Covill, Methods not Motives: Exploring links between transnational organised crime and International terrorism, National Criminal Justice Reference Service, NJC211207 (2005).
  11. Lofland, John and Rodney Stark, 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30 (6): 862-7 5.
  12. LeppardD. (2009), “Terrorists Smuggle Fatwas Out of Secure Prisons.” The Sunday Times, November 15. Pantucci, R. (2008), “Britain’s Prison Dilemma: Issues and Concerns in Islamic Radicalization.” Terrorism Monitor, March 24.
  13. Spalek, B. and D. Wilson (2002), “Racism and Religious Discrimination in Prison: The Marginalization of Imams in their Work with Prisoners.” In Islam, Crime and Criminal Justice, B. Spalek (ed.), Portland, OR: Willan Publishing, Pp. 96-112. Zoll, R. (2005), “American Prisons Become Political, Religious Battleground over Islam.” Associated Press, June 4.

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