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Prison Radicalisation: A Global Problem

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Writer: Patrick Dunleavy

The writer, a former Deputy Inspector General for the New York Correctional System, provides chilling examples of radicalisation of prisoners while serving their prison sentences. He highlights the need to monitor such prisons and also address the sizable prison population who are most susceptible to radicalisation. Those common criminals who if left to themselves will only progress from bad to worse. Whether this is done by de-radicalisation programmes or counter radicalisation programmes is open for debate.

 

“If the devil leaders of New York think placing me in [prison] will end the war, they are wrong; this is only the beginning.”

Recent example of the transformation from common criminal to committed jihadist took place in France in March 2012.  Mohamed Merah was the son of Algerian immigrants living in Toulouse, France.  He was an unremarkable individual described by some previously as a “petty criminal.” He had been arrested at least fifteen times before being sentenced to a French prison for two years.  There, according to his own words, he began to study the Koran.  Following his release from prison, he travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training.  After that he described himself as a member of Al Qaeda as he went on a rampage killing seven people

These words were spoken by El Sayyid Nosair following the first attack on the World Trade Center. Nosair would later be convicted of the crime in United States Federal Court and sentenced to life in prison, along with his co-defendants and their spiritual leader, Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Were his words prophetic? Did he truly believe that even in the confines of a prison cell a jihadist could still operate?

Where does such belief come from? And the more important question, is it an issue that needs to be addressed by Counter Terrorism experts around the globe? El Sayyid Nosair was an Egyptian immigrant who came to the United States in 1981. Little was known about him until 1990 when he shot and killed a Jewish - Rabbi Meir Kahane, in New York City. He was arrested while trying to flee the scene of the crime. However after a lengthy trial he was found not guilty of the murder. He was found guilty of illegally possessing a gun and for shooting the police officer who attempted to arrest him. For this he was sentenced to seven years in a New York State prison. He was sent to Attica.

At the time, Attica was one of the most secure prisons in the United States. It is an ominous fortress like structure with gun towers and a foreboding look of authoritarian control. Ordinary criminals feared being sent there. Inmates were afforded very few privileges and their movement was strictly monitored by the ever present guards. In the prison there was a Chapel and a Chaplain for each of the major religions. Nosair declared himself a Muslim and was given an assignment to work in the Prison Imam’s office. He faithfully attended Jummah service in the prison mosque every Friday with the other Muslim inmates, the majority of which were African-American. Several of those inmates helped him to learn how to use the prison phone system to call friends and family. He taught them the way of jihad.

The Chaplain for whom Nosair worked in the prison either knowingly or unwittingly also allowed Nosair to use the phone in his office, which is contrary to the rules and regulations of the Department and a breach of security because that phone was not monitored nor were there any restrictions on who could be called from it. As a result El Sayyid Nosair was able to maintain contact with his associates in the greater New York / New Jersey area. He also received visits from them. Thus he was able to conspire with them to send a truck loaded with explosives into the basement of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.

Richard Reid, a common criminal of no significance, converted to a radical form of Islam in prison.  After his release he attended a mosque led by radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri.  Then he travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training.  Following that he boarded a Paris to Miami flight with a quantity of PETN and TATP explosive in his shoe.  He attempted to detonate the “shoe bomb” while in mid air and failing that he was subdued by fellow passengers and taken into custody upon landing

The bombing killed six civilians and injured over one thousand. The jihad had come to America and one of its soldiers was an inmate in prison. Before his co-conspirators were arrested they had also planned to bomb several landmark sites in New York City including the United Nations Headquarters. They acted with a global mindset.

The ensuing investigation revealed that Nosair was a member of an Islamic terrorist organisation called al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.

Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the Blind Sheikh, was the spiritual leader of the group which had ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the co-founder and present leader of Al Qaeda.

Prison administrators finally realised Nosair was no ordinary inmate sitting in a prison cell. Shortly thereafter authorities transferred all the involved jihadists to a more secure prison and sought to isolate them from other inmates in hopes that it would neutralize their ability to act or to influence.

Yet it did not end there. Another of their followers, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, was in prison for Robbery and Kidnapping. He had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and quietly began to create an Islamic education programme in the prison he was confined. What appeared as a benign programme to teach inmates Arabic and to help them study the Koran was later discovered to be a recruiting programme that helped newly released converts travel overseas to training camps to become mujahideen. This inmate recruiter also utilised the prison Chaplain’s office, the phone system and visitors to facilitate the process of radicalisation in prison.He sought out the most vulnerable, those alienated individuals who were seeking acceptance and looking for meaning in their life. He often manipulated their feelings of animosity toward authority and steered them to hate a common enemy, the infidels, the non-Islamists and the Jews.

This inmate recruiter was identified by counter-terrorism investigators as a member of HAMAS. His sole purpose in prison as he saw it was to gain soldiers for Allah in the jihad. He did not discriminate. He chose African-Americans, whites, and Latinos for the cause. His methodology was simple; isolate, commiserate, and then indoctrinate. And it worked.

He also made alliances with other non-Islamic terrorists in prison, members of domestic terrorists organisations with ties to leftist and communist organisations who had been incarcerated in the 1970s for a series of murders and bombings of government buildings. Both now sought to inject their influences and opinions into the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Several of them became active in the Viva Palestina movement, posting statements on the internet in support of Palestinian terrorist organisations, even from their prison cells. Though these groups differed in ideology they found unity In the ancient proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Prison can produce strange bedfellows. When you take domestic terrorists whether them be Maoists, Naxals, or Anarchists and put them in prison with Islamic terrorists and then add them to a prison population full of alienated, disenfranchised common criminals with a propensity for violence, you get the “Perfect Storm.” Often what comes out of prison is much worse then what went in.

This problem is not an isolated one, nor is it confined only to one country’s borders. It has happened in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

In the US, individuals like Jose Padilla1, Michael Finton2 and James Cromitie3, are prime examples of prison converts who went on to become committed jihadists willing to kill the innocent for the cause of Allah following their release from prison.

In the United Kingdom, Richard Reid4, a common criminal of no significance, converted to a radical form of Islam in prison. After his release he attended a mosque led by radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Then he travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training. Following that he boarded a Paris to Miami flight with a quantity of PETN and TATP explosive in his shoe. He attempted to detonate the “shoe bomb” while in mid air and failing that he was subdued by fellow passengers and taken into custody upon landing.

We must focus on those terrorists already in prison, creating conditions of confinement that, while humane, render them inoperable.  One of the ways we accomplish this is by closing off communication avenues often used by prisoners

Another example of this prison phenomena in the UK was Muktar Said Ibrahim5, an Eritrean immigrant who became radicalised while spending five years in a British prison for robbery. After his release from prison in 2001, he conspired with several others to attack London’s public transport system. He attempted to detonate a bomb on a bus and having failed that, was arrested by authorities on July 21, 2005.

The most recent example of the transformation from common criminal to committed jihadist took place in France in March 2012. Mohamed Merah6 was the son of Algerian immigrants living in Toulouse, France. He was an unremarkable individual described by some previously as a “petty criminal.” He had been arrested at least fifteen times before being sentenced to a French prison for two years. There, according to his own words, he began to study the Koran. Following his release from prison, he travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training. After that he described himself as a member of Al Qaeda as he went on a rampage killing seven people. Three of the victims were French military personnel, one was a Rabbi and three were children from a Jewish School. After these horrific acts, Merah was killed in a shootout with French police.

The first description of Merah in the media was that he was “self-radicalised.” This was not only factually erroneous, but also misleading. The relationship between his time in prison and his radicalisation was known by authorities. More than five years earlier, the director of France’s intelligence agency said this about Islamic radicalisation in the prison system; “It is there, in prison that a minority of radical Islamist terrorists hook up with petty criminals who find their way back to religion under its most radical form.”7

The cause for this was the result of the successful prosecution of members of the terrorist organisation GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in the 1990s by French authorities for a series of bombings in Paris. Numerous individuals associated with the group were sentenced to long prison terms. The GIA originated in Algeria having been formed by mujahideen returning from Afghanistan after fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.

By placing them in prison they were able to permeate the correctional environment with their global jihadist ideology. The misleading aspect of the “self radicalisation” term ignores the fact that a terrorist is not hatched overnight. A person, radical or not, is a sum of many parts, made up of their cultural background, influences and experiences.

No one sits alone in the vacuum of a prison cell and suddenly becomes radicalized. It is a multi-layered process influenced by both internal and external stimuli.

Can incarcerated jihadists continue to operate from a prison?
The answer is a resounding yes.

In 2004 Mohammed A.Salameh, a co-conspirator of Nosair, serving a life sentence in a United States prison for the first World Trade Center bombing, was able to smuggle letters8 out of the “SuperMax” prison in Florence, Colorado to Mohamed Achraf, an Algerian who had spent a time in jail for minor crimes. Achraf was the architect of the railway system bombing in Madrid, Spain that resulted in one hundred and ninety-one deaths and almost two thousand injured.

Then in 2011 at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, the National Detention Center in Kabul, authorities had in custody Talib Jan. Jan was member of the Taliban and part of the Haqqani network of insurgents committing terrorist acts against NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group, based in Waziristan, has been suspected of receiving covert support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

While in the prison, run by Afghan police under the guidance of American trainers, Talib Jan was able to direct terrorist operations. His involvement included the selection of both personnel and targets for attacks. In addition, according to authorities he had the ability to communicate specific instructions to the would-be suicide bombers from his cell.

There are more cases, but as we have seen from these numerous examples world wide the committed jihadists does not stop their efforts when incarcerated. They find new and clever ways to achieve their goal. They are, if anything, patient and adaptable to even the most adverse environment.

What can be done to neutralise this threat? First we must recognise that it is an international problem and a global strategy is necessary to be successful. Second we must develop a multi-pronged approach to dealing with it. We most focus on those terrorists already in prison, creating conditions of confinement that, while humane, render them inoperable. One of the ways we accomplish this is by closing off communication avenues often used by prisoners for elicit gain.

We must also address the sizable prison population who are most susceptible to radicalisation. Those common criminals who if left to themselves will only progress from bad to worse. Whether this is done by de-radicalisation programmes or counter radicalisation programmes is open for debate. We must however do something. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.


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