BY ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS
Yesterday, the Quilliam Foundation (QF) released a report about Islamist radicalisation within British prisons. ‘Unlocking al-Qaeda' covers one of the most important and problematic areas of counter-terrorism and failure to take heed of the warnings it contains would be inexcusable.
The first time I became aware of just how badly prisons were handling radical Islamists was when Whitemoor Prison's internal review was leaked to the Howard League for Penal Reform charity in May 2008 (this is also referred to in the QF report). Among the findings were that Islamic ‘gangs', headed often by Islamists, had the run of a prison in which the guards were untrained in how to deal with such a phenomenon.
Most prisoners are jailed for various unrelated crimes such as robbery and assault, but it is what they become by the time their sentence ends that is crucial. Richard Reid, the notorious ‘shoe bomber', converted to Islam in the Feltham Young Offenders' Institution. The same can be said of the failed July 21 bomber Muktar Said Ibrahim, who converted in the Huntercombe equivalent. Both of these men were small time gangsters with violent personalities, and they were clearly targeted as potential suicide bombers when they arrived at their respective institutions.
For young men who are in prison, the majority of whom have a history of violence, the often brutal and vicious decrees of Islamist extremism offer them a new and, in their view, legitimate way in which to channel their violent tendencies. Furthermore, the victimhood mentality which many criminals and Islamists have in common is mutually reinforced. Theodore Dalrymple, a retired prison doctor who has written in the Times about his first hand experience with radicals in prisons, made the excellent point in 2005 that Islamic extremism "flatters them [prisoners] with the comforting illusion that all their failures come from outside rather than within."
Locking up hate preachers such as Abu Qatada and Abu ‘the hook' Hamza is all well and good, but making sure they do not continue to radicalise other Muslims (and inmates in general) in prison is just as important as putting them away in the first place. Figures like Abu Hamza do not only seek to radicalise fellow Muslims, but also actively seek out potential converts. As Richard Reid, Muktar Said Ibrahim and 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay have already demonstrated, converts to Islam can sometimes harbour an extra zeal that will make them more susceptible to extremist influences.
The leaked Whitemoor report clearly stated that many of the problems with extremist Muslims stem from prison staff's "lack of awareness" on the issue of radicalisation. Prison staff must be better trained in being able to identify both those who are becoming vulnerable to the influences of incarcerated Islamists, and those who seek to radicalise.
It is also worth pointing out that in some of these prisons, IRA terrorists are now rubbing shoulders with hardcore Islamist jihadis. One should not rule out the possibility that IRA prisoners are passing experience and knowledge on to the Islamists, with whom they share a mutual hatred for the British State. For example, after the 7/7 attacks it was fairly easy for the authorities to trace exactly who had done it, where it was planned etc. An IRA member could easily teach a young jihadi how he can carry out another 7/7, but this time cover his tracks more effectively so as to baffle investigators.
It is imperative that the Islamist ideology is prevented from gaining a stranglehold within UK detention centres. If the radicals do create a true power base within prisons they will be a major threat as the system will provide them with a conveyer belt of violent individuals with very little to lose.
Although there is no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims in prison will not go on to become jihadists, we need little reminding of just how devastating only a handful of such people can be in densely populated cities.
Focus on Islamism is a blog dedicated to analysing and exposing the modern ideological phenomenon known as Islamism.
Shiraz Maher is a writer and broadcaster.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a PhD student at King's College, London. He has contributed to various online and printed publications including, The Daily Telegraph, Lebanon's Daily Star, Standpoint and NOWLebanon.
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