The radicalization and recruitment of terrorists in US prisons present a threat of "unknown magnitude," according to national security experts.
That's prompted leading analysts to call on Congress to set up a national commission to study the spread of radical ideologies in America's correctional systems.
Prisons have long been fertile breeding grounds for radical thought. Right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Christian Identity groups have traditionally recruited and set up ideologically based gangs in these facilities. Radical Islamists have been more active in European prisons, but there have been a handful of documented cases of Islamist radicalization in US prisons.
The situation presents an opportunity for launching preventive strategies in the war on terror, experts say. The goal of the commission would be to ensure that the civil rights of inmates, as well as the redemptive aspects of all religions, are protected – while at the same time, systems can be put in place to prevent extremists from spreading distorted theologies that promote violence.
"Our concern is that isolated cases could end up dictating what could ultimately end up being bad policy. And the last thing we want is to victimize people who honestly want to practice their religion," says Gregory Saathoff, executive director of the Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Paradoxically, that could create a backlash that could play into the hands of those interested in subverting the system."
The United States has the world's largest prison population, with more than 2 million inmates. It also has the world's highest incarceration rate – 701 of every 100,000 people are in prison or jail. Islam is the fastest-growing religion behind bars, which makes the system a desirable target for terrorist organizations to recruit new members, experts say. But people familiar with the prison system say the vast majority of Muslim inmates are African-Americans and Hispanics who turned to Islam for spiritual development or protection and camaraderie.
Indeed, there's little interaction between the Muslim community on the inside with the one on the outside. For instance, in New York State there are an estimated 200 Muslim prison volunteers, compared with more than 4,000 Christian volunteers. "The stage hasn't been set for the type of collaborations that folks are trying to suggest, and given the fact that most [Muslim inmates] are Americans, terrorism is the last thing they'd want to be involved in," says Mika'il DeVeaux of the Muslim Re-entry Initiative, a nonprofit group in New York dedicated to helping released inmates reintegrate.
Mr. DeVeaux was a Muslim leader during the 25 years he spent in New York State prisons for a murder conviction. He says there are stark differences between American-born Muslims in prison and immigrant Muslim prisoners, who make up a very small fraction of the population.
"I encourage local imams to seize the agenda from the immigrant Muslims and stop allowing them to define for Westerners what Islam is and what the Muslim agenda is," he says.
But he and others with experience behind bars see potential for extremists of all kinds to indoctrinate and recruit young, alienated prisoners. The practice is more prevalent in European prisons, where the Muslim population is primarily made up of first- and second- generation immigrants with close ties to South Asia. Richard Reid, the attempted shoe bomber who was arrested in 2001, converted and became radicalized, according to prosecutors, while behind bars in Britain.
There has been only one publicly documented incident in the United States where officials say home-grown prison Islamists attempted to directly foment violence on the outside: In September 2005, police in California disrupted what they say was a plot by Kevin Lamar James, a self-styled leader of an Islamist inmate group, to blow up government facilities and Jewish synagogues in the Los Angeles area.
In 2004, a study by the inspector general of federal prisons found there was no coherent system for screening out extremist chaplains, and more than half of all religious services were not monitored. The Federal Bureau of Prisons responded by setting up a vetting process for its chaplains and religious volunteers. But 93 percent of inmates are in state and local prisons, which have a shortage of qualified Muslim chaplains as well as a lack of trained correctional officers to identify extremist ideology.
A report by George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute and Dr. Saathoff's Critical Incident Analysis Group, which was released Tuesday, says it's essential for local, state, and federal correctional officials to work closely with one another as well as the FBI. Then, they say, extremists within the prison system, and those on the outside who want to exploit it, can be identified and tracked. But they acknowledge it will be a challenge, particularly since most American prisons are overcrowded, and many are understaffed.
"The really critical thing here is information," says Jeffrey Raynor of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, who co-wrote the report. "Inmates often move between these systems, and we need to find innovative ways to integrate information so we can understand how to most efficiently short-circuit [the potential for terrorist recruitment] with our limited resources."