Gangs, prison: Al Qaeda breeding grounds?

With the arrest of Jose Padilla, roots of American disaffection get a closer look.

America has plenty of prisons where inmates smolder. It has blighted neighborhoods ruled by Crips, Bloods, or some other thuggish gang. They're all breeding grounds for something. But are they places where Al Qaeda might find someone filled with enough despair or hatred to do its deadly work?

It's no longer just an academic question: The government is holding Jose Padilla, an ex-gang member who has served time behind bars, and charges that he plotted a terror strike on America with a radioactive dirty bomb. The revelation that a Brooklyn-born citizen may have been a foot soldier in Al Qaeda challenges easy assumptions about who the adversaries of the US war on terrorism really are. It is prompting a closer look at the how deep and dangerous the level of disaffection in some American prisons and inner cities might be.

Since Sept. 11, American counterterrorism efforts have mostly focused on threats from foreigners. But the arrest of Mr. Padilla, who now calls himself Abdullah al-Mujahir, is a reminder that "potentially a terrorist can be of any racial or ethnic makeup," says terrorism expert John Cohen of security firm PSComm LLC.

Some people may be attracted to Al Qaeda's extremist rhetoric to feel a sense of belonging, as well as to vent their rage. A similar phenomenon happens with America's home-grown terrorist groups, such as antigovernment militias. In most situations, though, experts say it's only the rare few – like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – who actually act on it.

"In a lot of these groups, there's a lot of talk, but not a lot of action," says Cheryl Loeb of Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington.

Unsolved urban problems

Padilla's arrest, however, may portend a need for the nation to tackle harder its inner-city problems. Indeed, Najee Ali, a Muslim minister, sees potential danger in the poverty that besets urban areas. "You can just recruit gang members, the disenfranchised in the inner cities," says Mr. Ali, who founded Project Islamic H.O.P.E., which works with youths in Los Angeles and Chicago. "Because most of the converts don't fully understand the different sects of Islam, it's easy to be misguided and misled by those misusing the religion of Islam for their own, evil purposes."

For many disaffected young people, their first contact with Islam comes in jail. Over the past 30 years, Islam has become a powerful force in America's correctional system. In New York State, it's estimated that between 17 and 20 percent of all inmates are Muslims – a number that experts say holds nationally.

It gained its first foothold during the Attica prison riots in upstate New York in 1971. Muslim inmates were credited with trying to protect the guards taken hostage. After that, prison officials relaxed many restrictions against practicing Islam, and Islam grew in rapidly.

"It plays a dual role," says Robert Dannin, author of "Black Pilgrimage to Islam." "It gives prisoners a total and complete way to restructure their lives down to the way they eat, the way they dress, the way they break up the day, the way they study and think." Mr. Dannin, who teaches at New York University, says that Islam's self-imposed discipline also gives prison authorities a "convenient force" to help them control the prisoners.

Dannin and others doubt that prisons could be used as an Al Qaeda recruiting ground. "What happens in prison to Muslims is that they are reformed," says Iman Saadiq Saafir of the ILM Foundation, which works with inner-city youths in Los Angeles. "So I would say just the opposite, that they would make less of a recruiting ground for terrorists."

The Rev. Bill Webber, who runs programs at the maximum-security prison Sing Sing in New York, says that if he landed in jail, he'd become a Muslim because they offer the best support systems within the correctional system.

"The Islamic community provides the discipline and accountability that's a very significant factor in enabling men to pull their lives together," he says.

While Mr. Webber also doubts that prisons could be used to recruit terrorists, he does believe that they can breed hopelessness and disaffection, which could be exploited later. This has become particularly true in the past decade, as the federal government has cut education funds for inmates and the states have made it more difficult to get parole.

"Those are the two most devastating things happening in our prisons right now," he says. "If you destroy the hope that what you do in prison is going to make a difference, that makes it even more difficult to come back into society when you get out."

Fertile recruiting ground

It's on the ghetto street corner that many experts believe Al Qaeda could find its most fertile recruiting ground. Gang members and others who feel disenfranchised often lack some sort of support system, such as friends or family, and they may be thousands of miles away from home.

"The disproportionate number of disaffected are transients, newcomers, migrants," says Jack Levin of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "When things go bad, to them it seems catastrophic, and they become vulnerable," he says.

As a result, they often turn to crime to get paid. "They don't identify with all the American prosperity that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton talked about," says Carl Taylor, an expert on gangs at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "Their pledge of allegiance is to the underground and to the underworld."

Indeed, Padilla is not the first Chicago gang member to be linked to terrorism. In the late '80s, the gang leader of El Rukn – a notorious street gang on the south side – offered to commit terrorist acts on behalf of the Libyan government for $2.5 million dollars. One gang member actually bought a hand-held rocket launcher from undercover federal agents. The leader, Jeff Fort, and others were eventually convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.

Then there's the story of a troubled San Diego youth who goes by the name of Aqil. As a juvenile, he was arrested for stealing cars and joy riding. Then, he ended up at the California boot-camp system, where he converted to Islam. Eventually, he landed in an Afghanistan training camp with one of the men accused of killing journalist Daniel Pearl.

Next month, he plans to publish the book "My Jihad" says Walter Purdy, director of the Terrorism Research Center in Fairfax, Va. "He knew he was on a troubled path," says Mr. Purdy. "He remains a fervent Muslim and still believes strongly in the tenets – including that Muslims take up arms to defend other Muslims – but he's not supportive of what Al Qaeda has done."

Like Aqil, many young disaffected may be initially drawn to some of Al Qaeda's anti-American rhetoric and the money it can provide. But Professor Taylor and others contend that only very few will become active members, like Padilla, in part because of an ideological disconnect.

"Al Qaeda is made up of a lot of upper-middle-class Saudis who are religiously offended by the American way of life," he says. "The boys in the hood are not offended by it. They want a piece of the American way of life."

• Daniel B. Wood in Los Angeles and Terry Costlow in Chicago contributed to this report.

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