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what I read, and what I don’t… fri, april 27: Foreign prisoners are over-represented in European penitentiary institutions.

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prison.jpgFriday, April 27 2007, I read that foreign prisoners are over-represented in European penitentiary institutions. Their numbers – both in absolute and relative terms – are rapidly increasing. At this moment there are more than 100,000 prisoners in EU countries who do not have the citizenship of the country they are detained in. This means that on average a quarter of the prison population in the EU consists of people who are being socially excluded due to language, culture and distance. This issue has never been studied earlier on such a scale or in a comparative way.

The results of the project has been presented on Monday, 23. April 2007, in the Viena’s UNO-City. It states that immigrants are treated worse in European prisons – regardless of their status as criminals or asylum seekers. I read further, that the term of detention for the same reason varies between European countries and that this variation is even greater, when foreigners are concerned.

Foreigners do have comparably less access to educational projects within detention institutions, meant to offer convicts a “second chance” after their term, particularly in Austria.

The reason for detention of foreigners is often not a criminal court sentence.

In Switzerland, for example, the foreign inmates generally fall into one of three categories: asylum seekers, tourists who have committed crimes, and long-term residents who have not been granted Swiss citizenship. Such foreigners account for nearly 63 percent of the Swiss prison population—about 3,500 of the 5,000 inmates—although they constitute only 20 percent of the general population. Given Switzerland’s geographical proximity to the Balkans, it is not surprising that many of these foreign prisoners are Muslims from Albania, Macedonia, and the former Yugoslav Republic.1

This pattern is replicated in other European states. Official statistics show that foreigners account for 28.5 percent, 34 percent, and 28.5 percent of the French, German, and Italian prison populations, respectively, proportions far in excess of the foreign component of the general population. Although precise figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that a large percentage of these foreign prisoners are Muslims. In Britain, one of the few countries that makes a breakdown available, 8 percent of the prison population is Muslim, compared to only 2.5 percent of the general population. In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, this translated into 5,495 Muslim inmates out of a total prison population of 71,218. The British government has also disclosed that since 9/11 only 97 out of the 562 people arrested for involvement in terrorist activities—a group made up almost entirely of Muslim men—have been charged with offenses under the Terrorism Act passed in 2000, and of these only 14 have been con-victed. It is Muslims such as these, men imprisoned then released for lack of evidence or detained on lesser charges, who are ripe for radicalization.

American law enforcement officials have already expressed the fear that their prisons are a “fertile breeding ground” for the spread of radical Islam. In testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2003, John Pistole, the FBI’s executive assistant director of counterterrorism/counterintelligence, called U.S. correctional institutions a “viable venue for radicalization and recruitment” for al-Qaeda. Harley Lappin, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sees the bloated prison population of disgruntled and violent inmates as being “particularly vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists.” A report prepared by the bureau spotlights the proselytizing of self-selected radical clerics who minister to their captive brethren, espousing a fundamentalist and exclusionary interpretation of Islam that preaches hatred for the West in general, and the United States in particular. The report points out that prison guards rarely preside over Muslim religious services and, even when they do so, lack the ability to understand what is being preached. U.S. prison authorities have begun to combat this perceived threat through intensified monitoring of inmates.

More serious still are the utterly abysmal conditions that detainees suffer in American penal institutions in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Official estimates put the total number of security detainees at a conservative 10,500, with at least 500 in Guantánamo, around 2,000 in Afghanistan, and 8,080 in Iraq. These prisoners, nearly all of them Muslim, are trapped in a system where abuse runs rampant. Beyond the videotaped excesses at Abu Ghraib and the harsh regime and legal limbo that prisoners face at Guantánamo, there are well-corroborated reports of prisoners being beaten, stripped naked, and sexually molested. Many detainees face indefinite internment without the hope of a trial. That so many prisoners, both the guilty and the innocent, are denied legal relief serves only to further fan the flames of radicalization.

The European Prison Environment

European prisons and detention centers seem relatively benign compared to their American counterparts. Unlike in America, where isolation is used to keep potentially dangerous prisoners from interacting with the wider inmate population, in Western Europe, even those convicted of serious crimes, including terrorist offences not involving actual violence, have the same privileges of movement and association within the prison as other prisoners and are not subject to any but the most routine surveillance. The emphasis is on rehabilitation and vocational training, not punishment. When large groups of Muslims are incarcerated, there is a strong tendency on the part of prison administrators to house such prisoners together. Thus, it is not unusual for a cellblock’s population to be overwhelmingly African and Middle Eastern in origin. Furthermore, in prison, religion offers one of the few officially sanctioned sources of friendship and mutual support. The unintended result is that disconnected, impressionable young men and women become a captive audience for those who espouse extremist Islamic dogma. Those imprisoned for petty theft, for selling drugs, or simply for being an illegal alien harbor an animus that makes them ripe for the plucking by Islamic extremists.

Many European prison officials seemingly fail to recognize that the leadership of this already discontented population is often drawn from an intricate, interconnected, and adaptive Islamic fundamentalist terrorist network that is closely affiliated with al-Qaeda. According to Alain Grignard, a senior Belgian police authority on terrorism, the “intermingling of terrorist networks with the criminal milieu is becoming more and more important…. It’s in prisons where political operatives recruit specialists whom they need to run their networks—specialists in fraudulent documents, arms trafficking, etc. They use concepts that justify crime, that transform it into redemption…. The prisons of today are producing the terrorists of tomorrow.” Moreover, members of these networks actively strive to convert non-Muslims to their cause, while also aggressively seeking recruits among prisoners drawn from the local indigenous Muslim population.

The Spaniard José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, the British “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, and the American José Padilla, accused of trying to assemble a radiological bomb, were all converted to Islam and recruited into terror networks while in prison. These events merely confirm what has long been known: the prison environment is an incubator for creating a dedicated and hardened terrorist, offering ideal conditions for both the initial recruitment and radicalization of new members and for the further indoctrination and training of existing cadres.

The Nexus of Crime and Terrorism

All too often, terrorist cadres already in place are not recognized as such by police or prison authorities. The Spanish police had previously identified key members of the terrorist cell that carried out the Madrid bombings as drug dealers while their other identity as terrorist operatives went undiscovered. As a result, Spanish authorities did not realize their criminal activities were in fact generating funds for terrorist operations. “Most of the [extremist] structures that we have dismantled have been financed by crime,” says Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, chief of France’s Directorate of Territorial Security. “What is difficult to prove judicially are the links between crime and terrorism. When you arrest them they are stickup gangs, they are counterfeiters, they are small-time dealers…. It’s difficult to show that money has served or will serve for terrorist activity.”

Even in the rare case where a terrorist connection is suspected, the guilty party is usually imprisoned for straightforward criminal activities. That such activities are an integral part of their role in providing support to radical Islamic networks is seldom, if ever, acknowledged. Terrorist groups, large and small, have long relied heavily on both organized and petty crime for operational funding. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the attempted attack on Los Angeles International Airport in 2000 were funded in large part by credit card fraud operations and petty thievery, including pickpocketing. From the local crime rings that support individual terrorist cells to the international money laundering that funnels millions yearly into the coffers of groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas, the symbiotic relationship between the criminal and the terrorist has fallen through the cracks in the division of responsibilities between police officers concerned only with criminal activities and intelligence officials concerned with national security. One Islamic sect, Takfir wa al-Hijra, to which the Madrid bombers belonged, epitomizes the congruence of Islamic terrorism and organized crime. Its name translates to “Excommunication and Exile.” Its members give the appearance of being disconnected from Islam. They hide in plain sight by appearing to have succumbed to such Western vices as alcohol abuse and drug dealing. But inwardly, they remain devout Muslims, their outward behavior camouflage designed to mask a total commitment to waging jihad against the West.

Terrorists jailed for criminal activities thrive in prison. Disciplined and belonging to networks that are internally cohesive, they are free to recruit and train inmates they believe to be suited for work within a terrorist organization, and they are able to draw from a constantly regenerating pool of candidates. Local and immigrant, Muslim, non-Muslim, the bright, the dim, the violent: all are courted, all have a place in the network—provided they prove susceptible to indoctrination and radicalization.

Unidentified and unmonitored by prison authorities, the imprisoned terrorists remain in control of an extensive criminal enterprise, both within the prison and beyond. Trafficking goes on in people, drugs, arms, and forged documents, all to fund the terrorist network, conducted through intermediaries and contraband cell phones. Visitors, including clerics, lawyers, and psychologists can be used to carry messages. So long as there is calm and tranquility within the prison walls, administrators are loathe to interfere with the inmates’ routines. So efficient has the terrorist recruitment process become, that within a month of incarceration, a new prisoner can be screened, recruited, indoctrinated, and fully absorbed into the Islamic terror network. Short sentences mean that after another month, the same individual can be back on the street, welcomed into a terrorist network on the outside, often severing all ties with his (or her) previous life. It is hard to know exactly how many individuals like Trashorras and Ahmidan are at this very moment entering this chain of recruitment, vetting, and indoctrination under the radar of the Western prison authorities, but there can be no doubt that the process will acquire greater momentum the longer the current construct of prison life remains undisturbed.

Prison authorities must be equipped to disrupt these terrorist networks. Most American and European prison administrators lack the ability even to identify the terrorist networks they harbor. They possess little knowledge of Islamic cultures and languages, and they lack personnel with the skills needed to properly monitor prison populations. Combating radical Islam in prisons requires preventative measures— isolating potential radical leaders, cutting off the flow of incendiary fundamentalist propaganda, screening clerics and lay Islamic prayer leaders (both volunteers and prisoners), and effectively monitoring their sermons to ensure that they are not full of anti-Western or jihadist rhetoric. But this is not enough. A more proactive approach is needed. Since a radical, violent, and exclusionary Islamic ideology is at the root of the terrorist threat, it cannot be allowed to be the only voice that is heard. There is an urgent need for an alternative message, one that stresses Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

A Response to the Threat

It will require considerable financial and human resources as well as unfettered cooperation between governments, prison administrators, and key sectors of civil society— such as religious institutions, immigrant support groups, and vocational training organizations—to address this issue. American authorities already have considerable experience combating criminal gangs within prisons, and some of the lessons they have learned are readily applicable to the problems presented by terrorist networks within prisons, particularly in Europe, where the number of Muslim immigrants, legal and illegal, is rising rapidly and where increasing numbers of young Muslim men are being swept up into the criminal justice system.

It is clear that many Muslims who are currently incarcerated in European prisons have little knowledge of the culture of the country in which they are imprisoned. They likely do not even speak the local language, having lived, worked, and socialized almost entirely within their immigrant communities. This is a pattern of behavior that is too easily continued within prison walls. However, the sense of security that associating with religious and ethnic confreres gives to a frightened and disoriented inmate plays into the hands of those who are anxious to exploit such dazed foundlings for their own purposes. It is this seemingly benign and protective community of like-minded souls, grouped for mutual support and protection within an alien environment, that first introduces a new prisoner to the most radical and violent interpretations of his religion and sets him up to be recruited into the terrorist network.

If Western governments and societies are to counter the spread of radical fundamentalist Islam in their prison systems, they need to invest significant resources in reaching out to incarcerated foreigners. The foreigners in European prisons are often returning illegal immigrants. Currently, though such a prisoner may spend months or even years in prison, he is almost never engaged by any host culture outreach program.

Outreach programs aimed at such at-risk individuals need to be developed. Such programs would take into account the background and psychology of the individual prisoner. What might be called an Educational Intervention Action System would aim to expose both disconnected individuals and those already recruited as followers by radical networks to a range of Islamic scripture, interpretation, and thought antithetical to the incendiary views stressed by fundamentalist groups. It goes without saying that given widespread Islamic antipathy toward Western culture, any such initiative must be presented primarily as an educational program intended to give inmates vocational and language skills that will improve their material condition, not as religious teaching. The liberal Islamic message should be a subtle subtext of the skill-development educational materials.

The development of such an educational system will require a systematic investigation of the operational methods employed by terrorist rings in prisons and correctional systems. Investigators should seek answers to the following questions: How do radical Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist groups organize themselves within a prison system, and how do they adjust their tactics to suit a particular prison’s infrastructure? How do such networks recruit, motivate, train, and retain new members? How do they provide support to recruits when they are freed from prison? And how do such networks finance their activities, both inside prisons and on the outside?

With the answers to these questions in hand, officials should develop targeted programs applicable to a wide variety of prison systems to counteract, disrupt, and ultimately eliminate radical fundamentalist influence. The proposed Educational Intervention Action System would be based on three programs designed to tackle the most urgent problems that have been identified in a number of prison systems:

  • A training and educational program for government officials, prison administrators, prison staff, and civilians involved in prisoner welfare activities on Islamic religious precepts and practices and Islamic culture. Participants would receive instruction on the roots and nature of radical Islamic fundamentalism and its manifestations in Western societies and penal systems, and on the various conflicts in the Middle East. They would be taught how to identify and track the activities of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups and terrorist networks, both within the prison system as a whole and in individual facilities.
  • An outreach educational program aimed at providing vocational and language skills to Muslim prisoners. Such a program might use the teachings of liberal Islamic scholars as texts for developing computer skills and in language classes. This might be seen as a first step in socializing Muslim prisoners, helping them to fit into the host society when they are released from prison, and as a means of inoculating individuals against the proselytizing of radical fundamentalist ideologues.
  • A more targeted program, led by local Islamic leaders, focused on weaning inmates from radical Islamic teachings through exposure to alternative interpretations of Islamic scripture and thought, coupled with socialization efforts.

Needed: A Systematic Approach

West European governments, struggling to deal with large numbers of illegal immigrants, operate what is in effect a revolving-door policy for the many Muslim men involved in petty crime who get caught up in the criminal justice system, receive short custodial sentences, and are returned to the street while immigration status and asylum claims are adjudicated. Western governments in general seem unwilling to address head on the reality that their prisons represent a key link in the chain of Islamic radicalization. Terrorist groups need to move personnel, equipment, and money covertly within and between states. Criminals have long experience in these tasks, and are happy to sell their expertise. Prisons are their meeting ground.

To date, there have been no large-scale attempts to reach out to, rehabilitate, or even track Muslim prisoners leaving Western prisons. Existing efforts tend to be limited to local Muslim outreach programs, inspired by individual mosques and imams. A more systematic approach is urgently needed. Western governments and their prison systems, in cooperation with local Muslim leaders, should begin to see education as an indispensable means of countering the proselytizing of radical Islamists. Such a program would be of long-term benefit to Muslim communities and society in general if it helped governments root out the subterranean networks devoted to hateful and violent ends.


Written by huehueteotl

April 27, 2007 at 9:45 pm

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