UK Prisons: Incubators for Terrorism?

Posted: February 4, 2009 in Guardian
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More for the Guardian Comment is Free which is always fun as it attracts some interesting responses and rather immediately too. So far only a few by the looks of it, but maybe more. I also see they still have that diabolical picture of me. This builds on something I have written previously for Jamestown, and would be a fascinating source of further research, but unfortunately no direct leads at the moment. Any thoughts or reactions, or pointers to other interesting work on this subject very welcome.

Comment is free

UK prisons: incubators for terrorism?

If we refuse to help prisoners who convert to Islam in prison, especially after they leave, the indoctrination will continue

Much of the coverage into Dame Anne Owers’ report about Long Lartin prison focused upon the growth of gangs. Conjuring images of television prison violence, one prisoner reported that “all violence is gang related” and the prison was turning into “an American style jail”. An underlying issue that was only hinted at in the report is the problem of the spread of violent Islamist extremist ideas in prisons.

The actual problem itself is very hard to quantify or measure: prison services are notoriously closed mouthed, and the spread of violent Islamist ideologies are hard to measure in any objective way. What is certain, however, is that there are clear precedents of individuals radicalised in British prisons who went on to attempt to carry out terrorist attacks: Richard Reid the “shoe bomber” and 21 July 2005 plot leader Muktar Said Ibrahim were both radicalised while serving prison terms for petty crime, and a significant number of other individuals who have been incarcerated on terrorism charges have also spent some time in prison. Overall it is estimated that there are somewhere between 90 to 130 prisoners currently in Britain’s prisons for “al-Qaida-linked or influenced” offences, including a number who are proselytising leaders like Abu Izzadeen, Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza.

Underlying these instances are some worrying statistics. The prison services reported in 2007 that Muslims account for some 11% of the total prison population, some 8,864 – a substantial over-representation when one considers that according to the last census (admittedly slightly out of date from 2001) Muslims represent 2.7% of the British population overall. These figures are apparently on the increase, and, as reported in Owers’ report, so are Muslim prison gangs. As a prisoner explains in the report “a lot of people are becoming Muslim just because it’s a bigger gang,” a statement that seems to echo reports of the behaviour by the notorious Muslim Boys gang in Belmarsh in London. In particularly breathless reports, largely unproven allegations were made that the gang was linked to al-Qaida and was providing a stream of terrorist recruits.

But the problem of prison radicalisation is far more nuanced than this. For starters, the problem of the growth of Muslim gangs and conversion is partially explained by the harsh prison environment, where individuals will seek the security of a large group – as another quote in the report puts it: “Muslim gangs; if you have a problem with one, you have a problem with them all.” Some may also cynically take advantage of converting to Islam inside prison to obtain the better food or conditions that they feel Muslim prisoners enjoy. Whatever the reasons behind the conversion, the vulnerable individual will find themselves thus brought into the community of Muslim prisoners, and possibly with some of those serving sentences for terrorism-related crimes.

There are few reports of de-radicalisation among prisoners who have been incarcerated on terrorism charges – meaning that those imprisoned on such charges are not recanting their views. For them, this pool of vulnerable individuals might be seen as a prime recruiting opportunity, something that is not lost on prison authorities. As convicted terrorist Dhiren Barot wrote in a letter:

Any time the prison [official] [sic] feels that I may have found a ‘friend’ that I may be ‘overly’ socialising with, more often than not the individual/s concerned are promptly shipped out to other establishments. Why? For irrational fear of ‘sermonising’ or ‘talent scouting’.

But this fear has some basis. Aside from the aforementioned instances in the UK, terrorist cells formed in prisons have led to attempted attacks in France and Spain. And as was highlighted in an MI5 report covered in the Guardian:

Terrorist groups are remarkably tolerant of individuals with serious criminal histories. This is the case even when those individuals continue to be involved in very serious non-terrorist crimes, including drug-trafficking, assault and even rape.

The root of the issue is the blend in prisons of vulnerable individuals with few prospects on the outside, mixing with individuals who have chosen a path of extreme radicalisation. Upon release, the individuals who may have chosen Islam in prison as a means of insulating themselves from the harsh prison environment find themselves in an unforgiving world with a criminal record that will render a return to normal life difficult. At this point, it is easy for extremists to step in and provide them with a structure and lead them towards greater radicalisation. While on the inside prisons may have been able to keep an eye on those veering towards a more radical message and directed efforts to stop it, on the outside such monitoring does not exist, meaning that if it happens we are unlikely to hear about it until it is too late.

The solution to this problem is complex. Isolating terrorist or extremist prisoners runs the risk of repeating some of the mistakes encountered in fighting Irish dissident groups, and may even strengthen the political aspect of the Islamist terrorist’s charges and elevate their rhetoric further. And at the same time, religion can also be a good source of redemption for some prisoners, meaning that excessive focus on Islam might damage the benefits it can provide.

What is needed is work to bridge the gap between life on the inside and life on the outside. This is key for both those individuals who are released having served shorter sentences on terror-related charges, but also for those who are seeking to re-establish themselves in the world subsequent to a prison term in which they may have converted to Islam. Helping such individuals step back from the brink by ensuring their re-engagement with society through work and family, and preventing them from simply returning to the streets to fend for themselves is the only way to ensure that these growing Muslim prison gangs do not become incubators for trouble in prisons and beyond. And until this bridge is built, they are likely to remain a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

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