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Did Prison Life Create Charlie Hebdo, Kosher Supermarket Terrorists?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has renewed attention on the problem of prison radicalization.
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As France searches for answers in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the spotlight has fallen on the role of prison life in the creation of new terror cells.

In Europe and the Middle East, jailed extremists have long been known to recruit vulnerable fellow inmates for future attacks and spread their hardline version of Islam to moderate Muslims.

Two of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, socialized with a convicted jihadi who has been described as a “sorcerer” and “seducer” after falling under his spell inside the gray concrete maze of Europe’s largest prison.

“Prisons have been called universities of crime for a long time,” said Mark Hamm, professor of criminology at Indiana State University and author of “The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat.” “That idea is simply being applied to terrorism so prisons might become universities of radicalization, and in some cases that has proven to be true.”

They include:

  • Richard Reid, the would-be American Airlines “shoe bomber” from 2001, converted to Islam while in Britain’s Feltham young offenders’ institution.
  • Muktar Ibrahim, who attempted a second London transit attack in 2005, became radicalized in the same facility.
  • Spanish drug dealer Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras and Moroccan petty criminal Jamal Ahmidan were among those recruited by an al Qaeda-linked cell while serving sentences in Spain’s Topas prison, later becoming co-conspirators in the 2004 Madrid train bombing.

The risk that jails could breed a fresh generation of radicals should sound alarm bells in the U.S., which has the world’s largest prison population and the second-largest per capita. “We are the world’s jailors,” Hamm said.

There have been U.S. cases, including the 2005 discovery of Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, an Islamist group that robbed southern California gas stations with the aim of funding terrorist operations.

At southeast London’s Belmarsh prison — which once housed hook-handed hate preacher Abu Hamza, who was jailed for life in the U.S. earlier this month — warders told an official House of Commons inquiry into radicalization [PDF link] that extremist views were “widely disseminated” among inmates but they struggled to monitor how far such ideas were adopted.

Image: Abu Hamza in 2003
Abu Hamza in June 2003.John Stillwell / AP, file

Those gaps in knowledge could explain how Coulibaly and Kouachi were able to be influenced inside the Fleury-Merogis jail near Paris by Djamel Beghal, a 49-year-old Algerian who once regularly attended Hamza’s mosque in London and who was convicted of bomb plots including a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Since the 1990s, Beghal had been a follower of Abu Qatada, the Muslim cleric described as Osama bin Laden’s spiritual ambassador in Europe.

He was such a high-profile prisoner that he had been placed in isolation, the facility’s former imam, Khalil Merroun, told Reuters.

Yet Beghal was able to influence Coulibaly and Kouachi inside prison and pursue contacts with them — in some cases under the nose of intelligence agencies — after leaving prison, potentially sowing the seeds for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres. Beghal has denied through his lawyer any involvement in the Paris attacks.

“As I understand it Coulibaly was in a cell above Beghal and able to communicate through so-called ‘yo-yos’ dropped from the window or through a folded messages in the prison yard,” said Hamm. “The ratio of guards to inmates makes it impossible to provide anything resembling total surveillance, even in the U.S. where that ratio is higher.”

Image: Djamel Beghal
Djamel Beghal on his way to the court in Tulle, France, on January 9.Stavel Christian / Zuma Press

Jimmy Delliste, head of the Nanterre jail outside Paris and an authority on the French prison system, told Reuters: "Someone in isolation is not necessarily miles away from the rest in detention. If you yell from the windows, you're heard.”

Coulibably, convicted for his role in a bank raid, and Kouachi, jailed for terror offences but described by leading former French anti-terror judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere as a petty criminal with a “very low profile,” proved to be ideal targets for the sorcerer’s magic — a pattern of influence familiar to experts.

“Usually a tightly-knit, clandestine network of inmates with a charismatic leader begins to prosthelytize … getting young, more impressionable, more vulnerable inmates into more extremist ideology,” Hamm said. “But that network needs to be in place. In the case of the Madrid train bombing you can trace the influence back to one prison and one cell block and the social network between inmates.”

Complicating the picture, some new inmates join religiously-affiliated networks for their own protection as they navigate the fearsome prison gang scene, coloring conventional faiths with an undercurrent of violence.

“The whole thing is built on a prison gang model … not only for Islamic groups, but also white supremacists," Hamm said. "In the U.S. we have the phenomenon of prison Islam, which is nothing to do with Islam in the real world. It’s a jailhouse Islam that mixes certain tenets of Salafist thought with American Islam in the Malcolm X tradition then it blends those with symbolism and the internal cohesion of street gangs into a very complex mix.”

That can make it tough for authorities to correctly identify and tackle the problem.

“You can cut the head off the snake, move the leader into another institution or you can just try to micro-manage the problem,” Hamm said. “In a prison with 3,000 convicts you’ve first of all got to identify the problem: How many are at risk? Who’s doing it? What is the method?"

Prisons are already a fertile environment for ideology and religious belief, he said. “You can walk down a cell block at San Quentin or Folsom, cell to cell, talking to inmates and find more religious offerings, more religious orientations — some of them very complex — than you will walking down a street in Harlem or east Los Angeles or the south side of Chicago.”

The history of Islamist radicalization in prisons stretches back more than half a century — jihadist icon Sayyid Qutb wrote extremist texts while jailed in Egypt in the 1950s [PDF link] — but the response stepped up only after Sept. 11, 2001 attacks put the issue onto the global agenda.

The FBI launched a joint Correctional Intelligence Initiative in 2003 that aims to improve intelligence collection at and deter radicalization at Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. But with a mixture of federal, state and county jails there is no nationwide scheme as the British government’s Healthy Identities Intervention project and imam-based Al Furqan program that challenge the views of extremist Islam through religious teaching.

Some voluntary, prisoner-led schemes exist in individual U.S. facilities, Hamm said, such as one in California’s Folsom state prison. “It was not funded by the state but a group of lifers who had initiated their own Islamic studies program ... to agree with extremist position at political level vis a vis Western conflict in Muslim lands but differ with them on the use of violence. We’ve let inmates run self-help religious programs for decades.”

It is not clear if Coulibaly and Kouachi were part of any such projects in the French system. “One problem might have been the secular approach to social and political life in France which might be at odds with funding Christian pastors or Muslim imams,” said Professor Andrew Silke, director of terrorism studies at the University of East London. “If you buy into a deradicalization program you have to buy into the idea that it’s right for the state to be involved with religious views.”

Image: Amedy Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi
Amedy Coulibaly (left) and Cherif Kouachi.AP; AFP

He added: “The U.K. has a very sophisticated counter-radical prison system by international standards, with a very strong imam system. By contrast, the French system lacks the same sort of imam provision or religious-based programs.”

Finding the right solution requires understanding that while the threat posed by home-grown jihadis is serious, the scale of the problem is small.

“Millions of prisoners have gone through Western penal systems and only about 50 went on to commit terror crimes," Hamm said. "We shouldn’t think that prisons are manufacturing terrorists like automobile parts — if so, they’re doing a lousy job.”