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Are America's prisons incubating radical Islamists?

Recent domestic terror suspects had converted to Islam while in prison. Experts are divided on the extent of the threat.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / October 19, 2009

To the yard: Inmates at the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, Calif., on their way to outdoor recreation. Evidence is growing that inmates in American prisons are being indoctrinated into radical Islam.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor


San Francisco

Radical Islam spreads many ways. Through jihadist chat rooms and via fiery sermons, Islam's violent fringes seek newcomers to fight in the name of Allah. Now, evidence is mounting that American prisons, where about 35,000 inmates convert to Islam annually, are cause for concern, too.

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Experts disagree over how fertile the ground is for prison radicalization, but the list of worrisome cases is growing.

•In 2005, federal agents thwarted attempts by a Muslim prison gang in California to attack synagogues and military sites.

•In 2008, a Seattle barber and prison convert was killed while fighting with Al Qaeda militants in Somalia.

•In May, four ex-­convicts in New York were charged with plotting to strike Jewish targets.

•Last month, a red-headed Midwesterner named Michael Finton, who reportedly converted to Islam in an Illinois prison, was arrested on suspicion of attempting to blow up a federal courthouse in Springfield, Ill.

Mr. Finton and the others are a tiny minority of some 240,000 American inmates who've converted to Islam since 9/11. But since 2001, counterterrorism officials have stepped up efforts to identify and disrupt what FBI Director Robert Mueller recently called "pockets of radicalization" in state and federal prisons.

But how deep and influential are those pockets? And how dangerous? According to two recently published studies, concerns may be overblown about the ability of Al Qaeda or like-minded militants to cobble together terror cells by tapping disaffected Muslim-American prisoners.

"It doesn't seem to be happening. If prisons are incubators for radicalization, you'd think we would have seen it by now," says Bert Useem, a sociologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. His three-year study on radicalization appeared in the August issue of Criminology and Public Policy.

Professor Useem and Obie Clayton, a sociologist at Morehouse College in Atlanta, interviewed 210 prison officials and 270 inmates in 27 medium- and maximum-security state prisons. "The claim that prisons will generate scores of terrorists spilling out onto the streets of our cities ... seems to be false, or at least overstated," they concluded.

Similarly, a June article in the British Journal of Criminology, by criminologist Mark Hamm, debunks many post-9/11 theories about prison radicalization, namely the idea that austere Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia were making inroads with prison converts in America.

"There's no indication of proselytizing coming from outside the walls," says Dr. Hamm, a professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, in a phone interview. "Prisoners are radicalized by other prisoners."

Unlike Useem and Clayton, Hamm gives credence to the idea that prisoner radicalization poses a national and international security risk. While US agents have discovered only one prison-born operational terrorist cell – a group called Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or JIS – the possibility exists that others could follow.