Spotlight Nov/Dec 2006 – A Radical Notion

WASHINGTON — A nonpartisan think tank tasked with developing ways to improve homeland security recently investigated prisoner radicalization in U.S. prisons and recommended that Congress establish a commission to investigate the issue in depth.

The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute released its findings on prison radicalization before Director Frank J. Cilluffo testified in September before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security subcommittee.

“Proactive consideration of this challenge and a carefully calibrated response, implemented in timely fashion, will bolster national security,” Cilluffo said. “Getting ahead of the curve requires the courage to assume risk, and those who embrace risk in the interest of furthering public safety should be supported in their efforts to serve the public interest.”

The institute’s report put an emphasis on religious radicalization that could occur with extremist Islamic teachings.

“Although they may have had some exposure to mainstream Christianity, many inmates have not had prior experience with Islam before they are incarcerated,” according to the report. “Lacking an understanding of mainstream interpretations of Islam, these inmates are vulnerable to an extremist version of the religion.”

Cilluffo says antisocial behavior, a common trait among prisoners, is also a cause for concern.

“Inmates in general are particularly vulnerable to radical religious ideology due to their antisocial attitudes and the need to identify with other inmates sharing the same background, beliefs and ethnicity,” Cilluffo told the subcommittee. “Radical rhetoric may exploit the inmate’s vulnerabilities and lack of grounded religious knowledge by providing validation to the inmate’s disillusionment with society and creating an outlet for violent impulses.”

There are several examples of terrorist plots that involved former prisoners:

  • Jeff Fort, a gang leader in Chicago, converted to Islam while incarcerated in 1965. Fort went on to found a group called El Rukn, and brokered a deal in 1985 with the Libyan government to carry out attacks in the United States.
  • Richard Reid is believed to have converted to Islam and been radicalized by an Imam while incarcerated in Great Britain. He was later apprehended while attempting to detonate a bomb on a U.S. commercial flight in December 2001.
  • A recently foiled plot to attack numerous government and Jewish targets in California was devised inside New Folsom State Prison. The perpetrators were members of an inmate-founded group called Jami’iy yat Ul-Islam Is Saheeh (Assembly of Authentic Islam).

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Another issue that could help spur prisoner radicalization is the lack of certified Muslim religious service providers that are available to provide services to inmates.

“A key factor in the growth of prisoner radicalization is the shortage of suitable qualified Muslim religious service providers available for work in prisons,” Cilluffo says. “Prisoners have a legal right to practice their religion, and prisons are legally bound to provide for inmate worship. This has opened the door to under-qualified and, dangerously, radical preachers to enter prisons.”

New religious extremist groups could also learn from established prison gangs and right-wing Christian extremist groups that are already established at prisons nationwide.

In addition to the issues highlighted during Cilluffo’s testimony, the institute made several key findings:

  • Radicalization is neither unique to Islam nor a recent phenomenon, and remains the exception among prisoners rather than the rule. Right-wing extremist groups are also present in prisons and have an extensive history of terrorist attacks.
  • “Jailhouse Islam,” based upon cut-and-paste versions of the Qur’an, incorporates violent prison culture into religious practice.
  • The inadequate number of Muslim religious services providers increases the risk of radicalization. Further, upon release from prison, the inability to track inmates, coupled with lack of social support to reintegrate them into the community, gives rise to a vulnerable moment in which they may be recruited by radical groups, posing as social support organizations that are more interested in their own extremist agendas than in the welfare of released prisoners.
  • Information collection and sharing among federal, state and local prison systems is integral to tracking radical behavior of prisoners and religious services providers. Significant strides have been made at the federal level, but change at the state and local level, where the overwhelming majority of inmates are incarcerated, is much more difficult to assess.
  • Resource limitations – both in terms of manpower and financing – hinder efforts to combat prisoner radicalization. Officials in California report that every investigation into radical groups in their prisons uncovers new leads, but that they simply do not have enough investigators to follow every case of radicalization.
  • Radicalization in prisons is a global problem and bears upon the national security of the United States. In Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, the threat has progressed farther than it has in the United States, giving officials the opportunity to learn from foreign prison radicalization cases so as to confront the problem here in its early stages. Information sharing between the United States and other countries is crucial.
  • At present there is insufficient information about prisoner radicalization to qualify the threat. There is a significant lack of social science research on this issue. No comprehensive records currently exist, for example, on the religious affiliations of inmates when they enter prison. This can be improved by policies that promote good research while continuing to secure the rights of inmates who are involved in these studies.
  • Prison officials are understandably stretched thin by the need to maintain order in overcrowded and under-funded facilities. Nevertheless, because information is an essential precursor to action, investigation of radicalization in prisons must become a homeland security and counterterrorism priority.
  • Religious radicalization within prisons is a complex problem. No one profession alone is equipped to analyze and recommend change. A multi-disciplinary approach that includes perspectives of religion, criminal justice, intelligence, law and behavioral sciences is necessary for proactive analysis of the phenomenon.
  • Knowledge must be translated into action. Awareness, education and training programs must be developed for personnel working in prison, probation and parole settings.
  • The Intelligence Reform Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 calls for the establishment of the Information Sharing Environment to support our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts. It is critical that information regarding the radicalization of prisoners in state, local and federal correctional facilities be included as part of the body of information shared through the ISE.

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