British target prisons as terror incubators

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Richard Reid, a young Briton from a comfortable part of suburban London, was arrested in the heated aftermath of 9/11 for trying to blow up a transatlantic plane, it raised a simple question: where did he get radicalized?

The answer was only partly to be found in his frequenting of a south London mosque. Before that, Mr. Reid had spent stretches in jail for petty crime. It was there, officials believe, that he was first steered toward radical Islam.

Now British authorities are increasingly concerned that this was no one-off. As more Islamist terrorists end up in Britain's jampacked jails, prison officers, terrorism experts, and government officials fear that such radicalization could become commonplace, making prisons a fresh focus as they tackle the lure of terrorism.

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A new tape from Osama bin Laden, threatening retribution in Europe for the publication of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, served as a reminder of the formidable battle for ideas.

"The problem didn't exist 10 years ago, because there were no jihadi prisoners, but now it is only going to get worse," says Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College, London. "The government has finally woken up to this and is starting to address it."

Officials are coy about exactly what measures they are considering. They have launched plans to train dozens of prison imams to ensure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Mentoring vulnerable prisoners is another tactic under consideration.

Aside from that, options are more controversial: grouping jihadis together to prevent proselytizing among the general prison population, close supervision of the noisiest evangelists, and better training for prison officers to alert them to tell-tale signs of radicals at work.

Prison officers say a formal strategy is required to deal with the problem. "

Some of our prisoners have extremely radical views and will use prisons as a breeding ground to try and recruit prisoners who are vulnerable," says Glyn Travis, a spokesman for the Prison Officers Association. "We are calling on the government and prison service to look at strategies to deal with extremists to ensure that prisons are safe."

Record-high prison population

Britain's prison population is at a record high, well above the capacity level of about 80,000 inmates. Though convicted terrorists at present make up a small fraction of the total prison population, with about 120 of them at present, one estimate compiled for members of Parliament forecasts that numbers will shoot up to 1,600 in the next decade.

Last year alone, there were 16 major terrorism-related trials in Britain and 42 people were convicted of offenses.

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.

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."

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