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British target prisons as terror incubators

Officials hope to stem radicalization by training prison imams and closely supervising proselytizers.

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In the coming weeks, two high-profile trials will get under way: one, of the people accused of involvement in the July 7, 2005, attacks and another of those charged in a plot a year later to blow up transatlantic flights.

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Some countries, such as Turkey and the Netherlands, try to get around the problem of radicalization by keeping all the radicals together. Britain has only a limited number of maximum-security facilities where it could keep convicts considered most menacing.

But Britain's prison chief, Phil Wheatley, has cautioned against concentrating Islamists together, preferring to disperse them throughout the high-security estate.

"It's probably not a good idea to put them all together in one group, because you think of what happened with the IRA prisoners in the Maze prison," says Andrew Coyle, a former prison governor and founding director of the International Centre for Prison Studies. "It became in their terms a kind of prisoner-of-war camp and allowed them to dictate the terms."

Dr. Neumann says concentrating terrorist prisoners in one place would "create a situation which can easily be exploited – Muslims will say it is a European Guantánamo.

"So that's not a good solution," he adds. But letting them mingle with normal prisoners is also problematic."

Some radical prisoners can be – and indeed are – kept under close supervision in maximum secure units.

But Professor Coyle warns that it starts to become counterproductive – and costly – if officers are required to keep an eye on too many prisoners.

"One of the big challenges is to keep the numbers [under close supervision] to a minimum so that they can be identified and dealt with appropriately," he says. "Frequently the danger is to play safe and identify an excessive number of prisoners – and the problem there is that you devalue the coinage."

Another tactic, Neumann says, involves training prison officers to know when indoctrination is going on.

"This is difficult, because there is a fine line between religious instruction and radicalization," he says.

But it will help, he says, if the government has full confidence in the prison imams who minister to Muslim convicts.

Training prison imams

The government has already moved to train prison imams who work with all Muslim prisoners, not just those imprisoned for terrorist-related charges.

"We are looking to support our imams so that they are confident in addressing and confronting concerns around radicalization," said a government spokeswoman.

Neumann says the experience in some Middle Eastern countries might prove instructive.

"They've been going into prisons with imams that teach radical prisoners about Islam as it should be properly understood," he notes. "That's a very proactive strategy. We are not quite there yet."