Jailing returning jihadists among the general prison population presents a worrying source of radicalization in Europe.
On July 26, a German court sentenced Sven Lau, a known recruiter of foreign fighters, to more than five years in prison. One immediate concern following the continued loss of territory formerly controlled by Islamist terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front (now rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or Liberation of the Levant Organization) is that the surviving foreign fighters that poured into the region from Europe will now be returning home. Over 900 people from Germany alone are estimated to have left the country to fight with terrorist and extremist groups, the majority of whom are still alive, meaning that Lau’s case will likely be one of many.
Other European countries face similar dilemmas. Simply jailing extremists in the general prison population, rather than having the salutary effect of containing extremist ideology, has had the obverse outcome. The result of this has been the metastasis of Islamic extremist beliefs to non-extremists. As the European prison systems take in more individuals with a nexus to terrorism, the need to rethink current models of incarceration is paramount.
While the focus on recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe has largely been on the correlation between terrorism and immigration, the success of Islamist ideologues proselytizing within the prison systems of various European countries presents a more worrying source of radicalization. In the case of the January 2015 attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher Kosher supermarket in Paris, for instance, two of the perpetrators, Chérif Kouachi and Almedy Coulibaly, were products of the radical Islam pervading France’s notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison: Within its chaotic confines, Chérif and Almedy came under the sway of the charismatic al-Qaeda ideologue Djamel Beghal. The father of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the IS ringleader most notorious for his role in planning the November 2015 Paris attacks, said his son, arrested on multiple occasions for robbery, was likely to have undergone radicalization while in jail.
Second and third generation descendants of Muslim migrants who came to Europe in decades past, unfettered by the less purist versions of Islam of their immigrant parents, yet not quite fitting into the Western milieu in which they have grown up, have been vulnerable to targeting by Islamists within the prison systems.
The sense of community provided by the Islamists mandates ideological purity and unmitigated devotion as the only prerequisites for acceptance amongst their ranks; the absence of theological grounding to rebut Islamist narratives makes those targeted for recruitment even more vulnerable. A convenient fusion of extreme beliefs and an already demonstrated history of violence allow radical preachers to redirect their new recruits toward extremist ends. Acts of violent jihad can serve a redemptive purpose for those criminals wanting to right the wrongs of their past in light of their newfound conversions.
So, what can be done to remedy this issue moving forward?
Propitiously coinciding with the arrest of extremist ideologue Anjem Chaudhry on charges of supporting IS, the United Kingdom has recently started implementing moves in the right direction by separating extremists from the general prison population. The Netherlands already has such an approach for its inmates jailed for terrorist offences, though the comparatively low number of those within these special units makes drawing conclusions as to their effectiveness difficult. Yet this approach remains an attractive option given that it limits the contagion to those already holding extremist views and prevents the spread to those who do not.
Quarantining is a start in the right direction but it is not a perfect solution. One possible consequence is that the co-location of those with a propensity toward violence and extremism could bolster planning networks for attacks upon release from prison. As such, “extremist only” wings need to be monitored carefully specifically to avoid this possibility.
In an analysis on prison radicalization by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, some of the following recommendations would serve as valuable accompaniments for those in the general prison population: clamping down on anti-Muslim discrimination so as not to encourage the formation of identity-based gangs for protection, implementing mixed programs for prisoners that combine vocational training with religious re-education, and facilitating non-extremist networks outside prison to combat the tendency to return to extremist environs.
European prisons have served successfully as centers for the inculcation of extremist ideals for too long. With the repeated manufacturing of holy warriors out of simple street thugs, Europe needs new ideas. The influx of those returning from the battlefield after having served the jihadist cause will fill Europe’s prison systems with the most ideologically committed and violent acolytes. While incarceration is required to deal with these returnees and violent domestic extremists, history has shown that it is also a source of the problem. It need not be. With a continued dedication to reforming the system, the use of prisons as terrorism seminaries can be greatly diminished.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.