By Leonid Bershidsky
Mar 28 2017
It seems likely that London attacker Khalid Masood was radicalized in prison. It’s an all-too-common prerequisite for terrorism, but some countries are better at managing the problem—and thus minimizing foes—than others.
Even before the Islamic State’s (IS’) rise, prison radicalization was an issue, though it didn’t lead to an outsized number of victims. Now it does. Two of the three Charlie Hebdo attackers got their education in radical Islam in the French prison system. So did Fabien Clain, one of the planners of the Bataclan mass shooting in November 2015. The man behind the series of attacks in Paris on the same day, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, emerged from a Belgian prison as a radical. The same path led Ibrahim el-Bakraoui from petty crime to a suicide bombing at the Brussels airport last year. Anis Amri, who plowed a heavy truck into a Christmas market in Berlin last December, apparently warmed to terror while sitting in an Italian prison. There have been a number of smaller incidents tied to people with a similar background.
Terrorists often start out as small-time criminals. The lure of belonging to the most dangerous gang on earth is sometimes irresistible to these habitual risk-takers. But prisons are ideal breeding grounds for terror. Inmates—often from immigrant families, many of them dark-skinned—frequently end up behind bars for crimes that wouldn’t have landed a white person in prison. They are rethinking their lives, wondering how they came to this, whether aimless urban criminality was worth the consequences, whether life would ever be fair to them after incarceration. Islam, with its discipline of frequent prayer, a simple moral code, and a bent towards dividing the world between “us” and “them”, beckons even those prisoners who don’t come from a Muslim background. According to Mark Hamm of Indiana State University, who has studied prison radicalization, some 35,000 US inmates a year convert to Islam—80% of all prison religious conversions.
Very few of the new Muslims, however, adopt the most radical strains of the religion; even fewer go on to become terrorists. In the US, the prison population is 18% Muslim—as compared to 1% for the general population—according to Hamm. But that is still a far lower percentage than countries whose prison systems produced the perpetrators of the recent bloody terror attacks.
In France, it’s about 60%, in Belgium about 35%. That’s not just a strikingly higher proportion than outside the prison walls (Belgium’s population is about 6% Muslim, France’s about 8%). It’s also an incentive for prisoners looking for a new identity to seek out the more fundamentalist strains of Islam.
Radicalization also appears to have a lot to do with prison conditions. The Council of Europe recently released 2015 data on the continent’s inmate population, saying overcrowding was a major problem. Belgium, France and Italy are among the countries with the most overcrowded prisons, with more than 100 inmates per 100 available places to house them. Belgium has 127.
In these tough penal systems, the hardship and the perceived injustice are felt especially acutely. At the same time, prison administrations and intelligence services have a reduced capacity for watching inmates and noticing that some of them have become radicalized.
So far, none of the biggest IS-inspired terror attacks has been committed by someone radicalized in prison in the Netherlands, Germany, or one of the Nordic countries. Density rates per 100 places are much lower there—77 in the Netherlands, 85 in Germany and Denmark, 90 in Sweden and Norway, 99 in Finland. There are far more opportunities for checking what the inmates are up to.
In Germany, where about 20% of the prison population in Western states like Berlin is Muslim, the state-run prison systems take care to separate inmates who exhibit symptoms of radicalization (certain behaviours, a particular dress code) from others. Moderate imams are brought in to preach to the imprisoned Muslims. There are widespread post-release reintegration programmes with a special emphasis on keeping ex-inmates out of the clutches of fundamentalist groups.
These efforts aren’t centralized, and volunteer organizations take the lead on many of them, but they appear to be more effective than similar attempts in France and Belgium, in part because northern European countries jail fewer people than France, Belgium or Italy. In Denmark, there are 56 inmates per 100,000 population, compared with 98 in France.
Also, in northern Europe, prisoners typically serve shorter sentences than in the countries where the recent prison-radicalized terrorists faced incarceration. In Germany, 45.5% of inmates are behind bars for a year or less. In Italy, it’s only 5.4%. Amri spent four years in Italian prisons for setting a refugee centre on fire. People who know they’ll be out in a few months are less susceptible to radicalization.
A lot is said and written about links between immigration and terror and about Islamic fundamentalism’s uncompromising and violent nature. Yet modern terror may have just as much to do with how penal systems operate. More space, lower incarceration rates, shorter jail times all appear to be characteristic of countries where ex-convicts don’t stage major terror attacks. It should be easier to fix this than to change global migration patterns. Bloomberg
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.