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Islamic radicalization feared in Europe's jails

In Europe, there is a growing fear that radical Islamists are using jails to recruit new blood, with some analysts saying that al-Qaida is specifically targeting inmates for indoctrination.
Self-designated imam Arafat Mahmoud, far center, leads an Islamic prayer as Hakimi Abd Elfattah, left, and other prisoners pray in a jail cell in the Bollate prison, on the outskirts of Milan, Italy.
Self-designated imam Arafat Mahmoud, far center, leads an Islamic prayer as Hakimi Abd Elfattah, left, and other prisoners pray in a jail cell in the Bollate prison, on the outskirts of Milan, Italy.David Friedman /
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MILAN, Italy — "In prison you only think about waking up, cleaning your cell, and praying," said a Moroccan inmate serving time in a prison on the outskirts of this city.

During a recent visit to the Bollate prison, 25-year-old Hakimi Abd Elfattah said he was a non-observant Muslim before being incarcerated, but "there's nothing to do in here, so I learn a little of the Quran."

With no trained imams or Muslim chaplains working in the Bollate prison, the inmate offering guidance on Islam's holy book also is a prisoner.

In contrast to the Westernized Elfattah, self-designated imam Arafat Mahmoud sports a skull cap on his shaved head, a thick beard, and refuses to shake hands with women.

The 36-year-old said he was not trained at an Islamic college but knew more about Islam than the other prisoners on his floor and had taken it upon himself to instruct inmates from North Africa. Neither inmate would divulge the crimes for which they were incarcerated.

Around 30 percent of Bollate's nearly 900 inmates are Muslim, and many of them pray together in various Arabic dialects and other languages four times a day in small, carpeted cells located on each floor and wing of the prison. They pray alone in their cells at night and gather together for large Friday afternoon services.

While religion can assist prisoners in bettering their lives, there is a growing fear that radical Islamists are using jails to find recruits, with some analysts saying that al-Qaida is specifically targeting inmates for indoctrination.

Alarmed by the possibility, the European Union has made the prevention of recruitment and radicalization in prisons a counter-terrorism priority for the first time.

For her part, Bollate prison director Lucia Castellano said she has never suspected any inmates of recruiting for or planning terrorist attacks in her prison. But, she acknowledged that with so many languages spoken within the prison's walls, it would be impossible for guards to know what was being discussed.

'Criminality and Islamism'
"The connection between criminality and Islamism is very tight in Europe," said Michael Radu, a terrorism analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

"Every (terrorist) attack has converts, and most of them have criminal records and were converted within prisons," he said, noting the cases of British "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid and José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, the Spaniard who supplied the explosives used in the 2004 Madrid bombings — both of whom converted while incarcerated.

Like the young Moroccan held in the Bollate prison, analysts noted that the majority of Europe's prisoners were not actively engaged in any religion before being locked up, but their confinement often spurs a religious awakening or reawakening.

"In prison individuals are confronted with existential questions in a particularly intensive way" and religion can offer a "possibility to escape prison" at least for one's mind and spirit, said Irene Becci, who has analyzed religion in Italian and German prisons.

There are no statistics on prison conversions, but empirical evidence from British prisons shows that conversion to Islam is probably higher than to Christianity, according to sociology professor Jim Beckford.

"What's more attractive is that it's a relatively straight-forward faith in terms of what's required for someone to declare themselves to be a Muslim; people respond to that promise of an uncomplicated faith that offers security and certainty," said Beckford, who co-authored the book "Muslims In Prison; Challenges and Change in Britain and France."

In Florence, Italy, an Arabic cultural mediator said that by introducing Islam into the lives of inmates held at Tuscany's Soliciano prison, he saw a huge change in their personalities.

None of the prisoners from Islamic countries prayed when he began visiting them several years ago, but now dozens pray together and those who were using drugs, starving or mutilating themselves have all stopped, according to Mourad Abderrezak.

But, while faith can provide a path to redemption, it can also be misguided.

“In prison, a person has the right disposition to reflect on and accept what he’s taught, so you have to be careful of what message is given — either a moderate Islam, or an Islam that let’s say takes another path," Abderrezak said.

It's the other path that worries authorities."There are very few legitimate imams serving in prisons in places like France, and self-made characters are free to operate – and these are radicals," said Radu, the terrorism analyst. 

As the seeker looks for guidance, a "charismatic leader recruits them and when they're out they have a spontaneous (terrorist) cell," he said.

According to Radu, the cycle of "criminality and Islamism" is closed when the radicalized ex-prisoner re-engages in illegal activities to fund al-Qaida attacks.

Two of the men involved in Madrid's Atocha bombings fit that mold.

Incarcerated for petty crimes, Trashorras, who was a nominal Christian, and Jamal Ahmidan, a nonobservant Muslim, were both indoctrinated into radical Islam in prison and joined an al-Qaida linked Moroccan group that used drug trafficking to fund terrorist activities before taking lead roles in the deadly train bombings.

Overrepresentation in jails
The United States has not been immune to Islamic radicalization in its jails, but the situation this side of the Atlantic is underscored by the overrepresentation of Muslims in prison.

Muslims account for an estimated 50 percent of France's prison population, with some jails on the outskirts of Paris hitting 80 percent, while Muslims only account for six to ten percent of the total population. (No concrete statistics exist because it is illegal to ask a person to declare their faith in France.)

"Muslims tend not to be in prison in the U.S. because they're middle class, educated, and don't have the pathologies of the European Muslims," terrorism analyst Radu said.

By contrast, Muslims in France often live in impoverished ghettos where criminal activity is common, and the country's terrorism-related arrests date to the early 1990's when members of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front began arriving as a civil war took hold of the north African country.

In England and Wales, Muslims represent 8 percent of the inmate population, but they only account for 2 to 4 percent of the whole U.K. population (which includes Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In the cases of countries such as Italy and Spain, many Muslims are illegal economic migrants who arrive clandestinely with great hopes, but do not have the skills or legal right to work to support themselves.

"The only avenue they can follow is crime; there's nothing they can do that's legal" said Castellano, the Italian prison director.

Tackling the problem
The European Union first addressed the issue this year by holding a seminar in March on preventing recruitment and radicalization in prisons.

But, the vastly different penitentiary systems across the 25 countries make for an uphill battle.

Also, adherence to EU recommendations is “up to each member state; the EU will not enter into the situation that’s going on in prisons,” said Jesus Carmona Nunez, spokesperson for the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator.

In the cases of Britain, which recognizes Muslims' needs and has an active chaplaincy program, and France, which employs it's policy of laïcité, or republican secularism, the problems facing Muslim inmates and those watching over them vary greatly.

In England and Wales, "prison governors are aware of the risks of radicalization," the U.K. Home Office wrote in a prepared statement. 

"There is no evidence that this is widespread although we suspect some prisoners have covertly attempted to radicalize prisoners, both during their prison sentence and after release," the statement said, noting that 23 full time imams, 12 part-time imams, and 120 sessional imams who visit once a week, and who have all had vigorous security checks, "are prohibited from preaching or facilitating extremist messages and activities."

Since the 2005 London transport bombings "we have closely monitored events such as Friday prayers and all establishments are instructed to report any significant events," it said.

The program keeps an eye out for possible extremist activity, but it also sparks "curiosity and to some degree pressure from fellow inmates to take part in chaplaincy activities," said sociology professor Beckford.

While generally viewed as positive measures, special provisions such as Islamic literature, prayer halls, halal food, evening Ramadan meals, and headscarves for women, can also entice Muslims to seek advantages and separate themselves from other inmates, forming a sort of clan mentality, according to Beckford.

However, in France, which does not recognize or regulate religious activity in prisons, provisions are only offered on an ad hoc basis, dependent on the personal preferences of prison directors and wardens. Qurans are available in some prisons, but incarcerated Muslim woman are often denied the right to wear headscarves and halal food is not offered.

"In the French case, fundamentalism can be more pronounced than in Britain because it is a way for many Muslims to draw a divide between them and a society which does not tolerate Muslim habits and customs through its "laïcité" system," Farhad Khosrokhavar, another co-author of "Muslims in Prison" wrote in an email interview.

Due to the lack of trained imams or Muslim chaplains "the most radical tend to take control and organize informal types of Islamic education (in France)," Beckford said.

Meantime, most likely due to the lack of religious categorization, inmates convicted of Islamic terrorist offenses mix freely with other prisoners, according to the professor.

"There's a good network among the inmates that have been radicalized in French prisons," he said.

Deportation failures
Prisoners may be radicalized while they are incarcerated, but they only become a danger to the public when they are released. And deportation failures could be leaving Europe exposed.

In Italy, foreign prisoners are given five days to leave the country after their release, usually of their own accord. If they are caught in Italy after that time period, they are jailed for another 6 months to a year.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Castellano, the Italian prison director.

Inside the prison, inmate Elfattah said “people are in here for nothing, just for the (expulsion) law.”

“I only know Italy,” he said, lamenting the fact that upon release he must leave the country he has lived in since he was 14. “There are people in here for one year just because they didn’t leave the country; it’s not fair,” he said.

While expulsion laws present a sad situation for the ex-convict who would like to improve his status in Europe, or would leave but either doesn't have the means to do so or is afraid to return home in disgrace, the situation also poses a huge security question regarding who is and isn't in Europe, especially given the number of imprisoned foreign nationals.

Fourteen percent of Italy's prison population is Muslim, 98 percent of whom are foreign nationals, while Muslims only account for one percent of the total population.

In Britain, then home secretary, Charles Clarke, was fired in May after admitting that 1,000 foreign nationals were released from prison between 1999 and 2006 without being considered for deportation.

Yet while an unknown number of prisoners across Europe are experiencing religious revivals and possibly being radicalized, back at the Bollate prison, Elfattah appeared to take his Islamic studies and prayers somewhat less seriously.

As he looks forward to the birth of his first son this month, and rejoining his French-born Moroccan wife when he's released in October, he plans to start a new life in France.

"In prison I pray, but when I leave I won't. I won't lie to you," he said.