It is often argued that prisons may accelerate the process of radicalization by virtue of having vulnerable prisoners isolated from mainstream society under circumstances in which they may be potentially exposed to virulent ideologies and charismatic recruiters. Numerous violent extremists and terrorists have been radicalized in prisons. This report discusses issues of recruiting for violent extremism in prisons as well as examines vulnerabilities for prison radicalization and potential prevention and intervention strategies for the management of violent extremism in prisons.
Prison as a “University of Jihad”
“As long as we have prisons, we have training camps for our youth,” Ahmad Sa’adat, general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told the first author in 2004. Sa’adat spent most of his life in prison (more than 17 years) but did not in any way view that as lost time. He took advantage of the situation and began indoctrinating and recruiting among the vulnerable Palestinian prisoners with whom he found himself surrounded. “We recruited and trained inside the prisons,” he recounted. “They had gathered all our students for us.” Indeed, in many parts of the world, prisons are known to serve as fertile grounds for terrorist recruitment, with terrorist leaders sometimes celebrating the fact that they can operate in an environment where their recruits are already assembled around them.
In November 2006, the first author was contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense to advise on the feasibility of building an effective prison deradicalization program for the 20,000-plus detainees and 800 juveniles held there at that time by U.S. forces in Iraq. Terrorist leaders in the U.S.-run prisons and detention centers in Iraq were indoctrinating and recruiting among the assembled youth. Some terrorist leaders had even been observed training young protégés on how to assemble IEDs by drawing maps and instructions in the sand. Al-Qaeda terrorists grouped together in Camp Bucca later set up shariah courts that ran in some of the cellblocks, sentencing and carrying out punishments to those who defied them. In Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner and his staff attempted to disrupt terrorist leaders and ideologues operating in the prisons by transferring and isolating them from the more vulnerable prisoners. However, as the numbers of detainees swelled and the terrorist leaders learned how to hide themselves among the vulnerable, it became impossible to do so. As a result, the U.S. leadership sought to institute a deradicalization program.
While a prison rehabilitation program was made for Iraq, it was never carried out as intended, and not ever applied fully to the highly radicalized detainees. The changing politics at the time required Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone to carry out mass releases of less-radicalized prisoners to satisfy demands of the tribal leaders in the Anbar area, who were willing to join the “Awakening Movement” but demanded their sons be returned home in order to do so. The long-term effects of not attempting to disengage and deradicalize an entire group of dedicated jihadists operating there, however, turned out to be a mistake that continues to haunt the world to this day, as these very same prisoners later emerged to reform and create what became the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. While prison radicalization of that scale is unlikely to be happening elsewhere in the world, it does set a lesson for avoiding grouping dedicated militant jihadist prisoners, and at least attempting to disengage and deradicalize them.
From Petty Criminals to Lethal Terrorists
Prison for those first entering the system is a time of heightened vulnerability. The new convicts are separated from existing support systems and may find myriad alliances and potential threats inside the prison for which they may be unprepared, and therefore must find a way of protecting themselves. In some cases, prisoners find solace among Muslim prisoners who organize themselves for prayer and study and who band together for self-protection. Those who convert in prison in order to belong to such groups are vulnerable to any radicalizers among them, as converts are typically naïve and ill-equipped to judge any claims set forward about the correct way to practice Islam. Thus, the newly imprisoned and new converts may easily fall under the influence of a violent extremist who teaches them a virulent interpretation of Islamic beliefs, such as those espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Violent extremist recruiters understand that being imprisoned for the first time is usually a period characterized by feeling lonely and frightened. They also understand that while they may be serving under a longer sentence, their ability to recruit young, first-time offenders into their ideology and groups and then feed them back, within a relatively short time period, to a network outside the prison presents an opportunity to enact terrorist violence essentially by proxy—by convincing their “brothers” with shorter sentences and who are about to be released to carry out terror acts on behalf of the group. This also presents a challenge to security officials who may not expect an inmate convicted on non-terrorism related charges to emerge as a lethal violent actor. Consider the example of Harry Sarfo, a German of Ghanaian descent who was radicalized in a prison in Germany after serving prison time for his role in an armed robbery of a supermarket. He traveled to Syria and became a member of the ISIS emni (intelligence arm) and was later accused of participating in ISIS executions. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), two-thirds of ISIS supporters they had studied have served a prison sentence, but only 27 percent credited their radicalization as occurring in prison. This is still a large number and constitutes a serious threat to security.
In the past decades, al-Qaeda ideologues hoped to incite a “leaderless jihad,” in which spontaneous cells and homegrown terrorist plots would emerge. In their vision, however, they failed to account for the difficulty that potential would-be homegrown terrorists would face in executing terrorist attacks. Arguably, nowadays, the leaderless jihad is being infused with knowledge shared within the prison walls, as young and vulnerable new recruits coming from the criminal world continue to fall under the influence of those in prison, who can equip them with terrorist tradecraft and link them with the network of individuals who can assist them in their endeavors following their release from prison.
From Career Criminals to Violent Extremists
Career criminals are also prone to prison recruitment. Some of the most infamous cases include Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who together with his spiritual mentor in prison, Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, served four years in prison and were released by royal pardon implemented by King Abdullah II in 1999. Zarqawi later emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Other prominent career criminals who turned to terrorism in part due to prison radicalization and as a result of contact with extremist prisoners include the cases of Richard Reid in the UK and Jose Padilla in the United States, which are often presented as quintessential cases of the dangers associated with prison radicalization and their capacity to facilitate and breed violent extremism. Consider also the example of Benjamin Herman, a 36-year-old Belgian. After being released from prison in 2018 on a two-day pass, he first killed a drug dealer he had met in prison and then attacked and shot dead two policewomen in Liege, Belgium. His case demonstrates the danger emanating from a career criminal who had converted in prison and fell under the influence of jihadist ideology in prison.
Prison Recruitment Tactics
The ways in which violent extremists recruit in prison varies by context and the amount of exposure a recruiter is given to vulnerable and naïve recruits. Researcher James Brandon studied official government documents as well as accounts, letters, and testimonies smuggled out of British prisons by suspected and convicted extremists to learn about the manifestations of radicalization to violent extremism within the British prison system.
In one such account, a prisoner formerly held in London’s Belmarsh prison, the United Kingdom’s main prison for convicted and suspected terrorists, wrote: “Some brothers approached me and said that they had been expecting me. At first, I was a bit apprehensive as to whether I should trust them or not. But afterwards I felt comfortable. One of the brothers, Masha ‘Allah, he packed some fruit and a chocolate in a bag and handed it to me before I went back to my cell.”
Another Belmarsh prisoner, Omar Khyam, convicted of planning terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, described how Rachid Ramda, a French Muslim who was later convicted in France of organizing the 1995 Paris metro bombings, approached and befriended him: “The first thing that struck me most about Rachid was the way he greeted me and the new Muslim arrivals, three hugs and a smile. He made me feel as if I had known him for years, such a warm personality and character, making everyone feel wanted and important, as if you’re his best friend.”
ICSVE researchers have also found that a prison setting enables recruiters to exploit prisoners’ perceived or real grievances. Iraqi Abu Ghazwhan told ICSVE researchers how he was arrested in 2013 with a group of youth in relation to a tribal killing. He bitterly noted that the Shia youth arrested with him were immediately released but he felt that he was singled out as a Sunni, and as a result spent time in prison. He explained how his parents had to find money to hire a lawyer to get him out. During his short time in prison, he fell under the influence of a terrorist recruiter, who played upon these perceived or real grievances.
Abu Ghazwhan recounted, “There was a guy [in prison] named Ziad. I joined [ISIS] through him. When I got released, he asked for my phone number. I gave him my number [and] he gave my number to the organization outside, and they called me to join them.” There was no evidence to suggest that Abu Ghazwhan had been involved in terrorism prior to his 2013 arrest. Upon his release, he met with the “brothers” and agreed to set IEDs outside the doors of the Shia security officials, who he felt had been involved in unfairly imprisoning him. As explained, “[I was] avenging myself. They arrested me, even though I was innocent.”
Recruiters generally have good communication skills, possess high emotional intelligence, and discount any criminal background of their followers, and may indeed value it. This presents an attractive mix to lost or confused young criminals who suddenly find their criminal background is nothing to be ashamed of in the face of their recruiters and who may be told that they were right to steal from the kafirs (unbelievers), and should continue to do so, but now in the name of Allah. Such an attitude perpetuates continued criminality while overcoming any sense of shame they may have been experiencing for being caught and punished for their crimes.
Charismatic Leaders in Prison
As explained above, prison recruitment often occurs through charismatic leaders who easily bring frightened and angry youth into their violent jihadist orbit. When ISIS entered Iraq seizing its first swaths of territories in 2014, Abu Islam (a kunya) was studying Islamic law at a university. Abu Islam told ICSVE researchers who interviewed him in 2017 that he immediately became enamored of the group and believed it would set up a legitimate Islamic State in Iraq. As a result, he joined them. Abu Islam’s job inside ISIS was teaching shariah and indoctrinating youth and new recruits. Over time, he became an ISIS emir (military commander, a chief). Peshmerga soldiers credited him with being responsible for more than 500 deaths in which he had sent young men to their deaths in suicide operations. When ICSVE researchers interviewed Abu Islam in prison, it was clear that he had a charismatic presence and spoke with pride and confidence about the Islamic State and its operations. The Peshmerga soldiers who were holding him said that in prison they could not leave Abu Islam alone for any measure of time with young prisoners, as he was capable of quickly radicalizing youth in prison, meaning powerfully engaging the youth and convincing them of the terrorist ideology.
Ahmad Sa’adat, the Palestinian PFLP leader referenced above, was a similar character: exuding warmth and authority. A political prisoner who spent over a year in the same cellblock as Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who later became the leader of ISIS in Iraq, recalled how Zarqawi was also a charismatic and caring person. “There was a young man in a wheelchair in our prison and Zarqawi always took care of him, and would wheel him around,” he recalled. Care and charisma can be a potent force to attract vulnerable and frightened prisoners to listen to the message being put forward.
Jihadists Experiences in Prison
It is not only the young and naïve who are radicalized in prison. Those already on the terrorist path, as well as dedicated terrorists, may also deepen their commitment to militant jihad – as well as widen their networks – while in prison.
Some, for instance, blamed the rise of ISIS on concentrating the arrested al-Qaeda terrorists during the American occupation of Iraq in cellblocks in Camp Bucca. In truth, there were far more factors involved in the rise of ISIS than simply concentrating jihadists in Camp Bucca. The demobilized military, police and intelligence composed heavily of Sunnis losing prestige, employment and retirements, the sudden bi-directional sectarian ethnic cleansing happening in Baghdad and beyond, the lack of basic services and the crippling of government capacities and infrastructure destroyed during the war, the rise of Shia power, and continuing security violations by Shia militias against Sunni civilians all played a role. Likewise, many of the ISIS leaders were already radicalized and linked to one another before entering Camp Bucca.
However, anytime one gathers jihadists in prison blocks without effective measures to rehabilitate them, as was done in Camp Bucca, it does give them opportunity to share their ideological views and tradecraft, as well as idle time to further their networks and plot for the future once released.
In Kosovo, ICSVE researchers interviewed Abu Albani (a kunya) about his experiences in ISIS, as well as reasons for joining and defecting from the group. Upon return, he was tried and convicted on terrorism charges. When interviewed in prison, Abu Albani stated that he had become disillusioned with ISIS and angered over how they treated sick and widowed women. He was also angry about how Albanian ISIS leaders mistreated a young orphaned boy who he brought back to Kosovo from ISIS and complained that he feared ISIS cadres in prison might kill him for having defected. However, after his release, when Abu Albani was interviewed a second time by the same ICSVE researchers, he told about joining a group inside the prison with access to militant jihadist materials in Albanian.
These jihadists studied together with a great sense of camaraderie, according to Abu Albani. “I deepened my understanding of jihad in prison. Me and the brothers studied Maqdisi’s Millat Ibrahim in Albanian,” he told ICSVE researchers. As a result, Abu Albani returned out of his three-and-half-year prison sentence as, if not more, threatening than he went in – despite a prison rehabilitation program being active during some of his time in prison. During the second interview, he told ICSVE researchers, “We should all follow the words of Abu Mohammad al-Adnani [ISIS’ now-deceased leader of the intelligence emni and propaganda arm of ISIS], that ‘you need to attack in every place and at every time.’” Learning the researchers were soon traveling into Syria, he added, “I hope you meet Jihadi John in Syria and he [beheads you both].”
Prison Disengagement and Deradicalization Programs
Various prison deradicalization programs have been constructed since the rise of al-Qaeda and similarly minded groups and nearly every country runs some variation of a program. Most of these programs rely on either a combination of, or just a prong of, Islamic challenge and psychological treatment. On the Islamic challenge side, the programs generally involve an imam or Islamic scholar creating rapport with the prisoner and trying to engage the prisoner in a discussion of the Islamic texts upon which the person bases his or her militant jihadist views. This is done in an attempt to demonstrate to the prisoner the virulent Islamic claims made by jihadist ideologues that do not hold up to real Islamic scholarship and scrutiny. On the psychological side, programs generally look for the motivations and vulnerabilities in the prisoners and try to redirect them to more useful ways of meeting the needs and challenges in their lives.
The likely best and ideal approach to trying to affect cognitive, behavioral and emotional changes among the militant jihadis is to use a psychologist to get at the inner needs and hurts that led the person to embrace violent extremism and what continues to fuel embracing that mindset, alongside a well-versed and credible Islamic scholar who can address the manipulation of Islamic scriptures that underpin the person’s jihadist beliefs. That said, in determining key risk-assessment factors, specifically as it relates to religion and ideology, one must not consider them as the only, or even the most important, factors, facilitating violent extremism. As the research indicates, recruits to terrorism and violent extremism often have simplistic understandings of the ideology and religion compared to their movement’s leadership. In fact, more profound understandings and commitments to religion and ideology may only occur after time spent in prison, which allows prisoners to engage with one another in detailed discussions about religion and ideology.
In the case of Abu Albani discussed above, he explained that he had been invited into a prison deradicalization program run by the Kosovo prison authorities but refused to participate. “They brought an imam from BIK [the Kosovo Islamic Community] and they tried to force me to talk to him. I never accepted. …We don’t need to learn anything from them.”
Indeed, those already on the terrorist trajectory have often narrowed their focus and only trust information that comes to them from like-minded individuals who share their same experiences, vulnerabilities, and motivations. This is an argument for using former violent extremists and/or Salafi scholars as those who try to engage violent extremists in prison. The risk with using formers, however, is that they are often not psychologically healthy and may make outrageous statements, and sometimes even re-propagate their previously held beliefs and views. Governments also often find it problematic to employ Salafi scholars who may preach religious views against homosexuality or feminism that directly contradict government policies and laws.
In this regard, videos of defectors, returnees, and ISIS cadre prisoners that challenge the terrorist group from an insider point of view in the simple language used by their peers might be the safer alternative, as once video recorded, the message does not change. It is also known that violent offenders and addicts are often resistant to individual treatment and may do better with challenges from other insiders, in group therapy settings etc., where they may begin to see themselves as the words of their peers begin to break through their defenses.
Abu Islam, the charismatic ISIS emir mentioned earlier, was challenged by ICSVE researchers in prison after speaking with bravado about ISIS’ activities using two videos from the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project. Surprisingly, he was very emotionally engaged by the videos, watched them carefully, and after viewing them, hung his head in shame and admitted, “We were wrong. We gave a bad face to Islam.”
Researcher Andrew Silke has pointed out that in the past, European ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist prisoners were not challenged in any way about changing their ideological views but simply began to disengage from their peers and terrorist activities by spending time in prison. Moreover, low recidivism rates among terrorist convicts even in the absence of de-radicalization programs, both among jihadi and ethno-nationalists, are often cited as successes. While this is an important point to consider, it may also be that the nature of terrorism has changed drastically with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other similar groups now co-opting basic religious beliefs. These groups differ drastically from ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist groups of the past by virtue of invoking religious imperatives, namely that the followers have a religious duty to carry out militant jihad, that suicide missions are acts of Islamic martyrdom, that punishment awaits those who refuse to participate, and that terrorists acts are carried out on behalf of the Muslim ummah (community).
As Scott Atran has pointed out from his years of field research with militant jihadis, these religious views about terrorism begin to fuse the individual’s identity with that of the group and certain beliefs that are taken on begin to represent difficult-to-change sacred values. In these cases, it may be both necessary and worthwhile to engage with the prisoners’ worldviews and beliefs in support of violent extremism, which will require prison experts who are systematically trained to know the basis of extremist ideologies and trained to counter it.
That said, simple imprisonment without any disengagement/deradicalization program in place can completely on its own have a positive effect in terms of disengagement from the group by virtue of the prisoners being separated from their terrorist cadres. Over a quarter of Iraqi prisoners under life sentences, or awaiting what may become life sentences, whom ICSVE researchers have interviewed explained that their time in prison served to remove them from the ISIS’ takfiri ideology that rejects all other interpretations of Islam and to provide ample opportunity to reflect about the injustices and corruption they had witnessed and taken part of inside the group, as well as the price they were now paying for having served it. For instance, Abu Omar, an Iraqi who was arrested after serving in ISIS, in 2017 shared the following with the ICSVE researchers: “Prison changed me. Ever since I got in prison, things have changed in me.” He went on to completely denounce ISIS.
That said, when militant jihadist prisoners are going to be released back into society after taking on violent extremist ideologies, disengagement may not be enough. In their cases, it is important to use their prison time to challenge their beliefs about militant jihad and the religious underpinnings that keep them committed to it. Goals of prison programs should ultimately be to prevent the spread of violent extremism to vulnerable non-extremist prisoners as well as to rehabilitate violent extremist prisoners so that they will be able, after release, to reintegrate into society.
In some cases, prisoners’ commitment to militant jihad is intractable and deradicalization is simply not going to be possible, but with carefully crafted approaches, it can be possible in others. Many prison programs often aim only for disengagement, i.e. behavioral withdrawal from engaging in violent extremism. However, for real and lasting change to occur, it is likely best to also attempt to deradicalize the individual; that is, change the person’s commitment to violent extremist beliefs, so that the person does not, once released, fall back into old habits and relationships that could propel him once again onto the violent extremist trajectory. In this regard, insider voices, whether recorded in counter-narrative videos and presented to prisoners via a trained expert or presented through simple Islamic challenges, can be highly useful to plant seeds of doubt that can potentially turn a prisoner away from militant jihad.
Jermaine Grant, mentioned above, insisted to ICSVE researchers that “the strongest scholars are those of Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” When challenged that his contentions might be false, meaning that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda scholars are not the strongest but rather the most “weaponized” in terms of their presence and activity, he agreed that he might benefit from scholarly advice and to receive a letter from an ICSVE expert on radical Islam arguing such issues. Like most believers, he was willing to admit, “If I am wrong, I have to change my opinion. A Muslim cannot continue to follow if he knows it’s wrong.” For this purpose, ICSVE runs a website called TheRealJihad.org where scholarly arguments are presented that show how groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the like have manipulated Islamic texts and do not hold up to scholarly scrutiny. The letter to Jermaine Grant from the ICSVE Islamic expert is now published under the title “Message to a Brother,” in which the author told Jermaine, “Yes brother, if you know something is wrong, you must leave this path and repent.”
The main goal of a deradicalization program is to change ideological commitment to militant jihad. To do so, one must understand that to change an underpinning and fundamental belief, one must understand the function that belief has for its adherent and find a way to replace that belief with something more useful. Usually, for a person to reject an idea, they must be presented with an alternative idea that serves him or her better.
Simply condemning beliefs leaves the person with an anxiety-filled vortex and is not useful, and may actually lead the person to more vigorously defend his or her beliefs. The lead author witnessed this in London firsthand, where a caring and charismatic al-Qaeda ideologue had recruited teens of drug-addicted and imprisoned parents living in poorer ethnic neighborhoods. When the deradicalization expert began challenging these youth with simple Islamic questions, the youth could not handle it, not because they minded their new ideology being challenged, but because they had put the recruiter in place as a caring parental substitute. Easily accepting the corrections to their ideological views, they still rejected the overtures and complained bitterly, “Why are you rubbishing our leader?” – as they still needed him to replace their emotionally and psychologically absent parents. Only when the person attempting to deradicalize also stepped in to fill that role could they give up their commitment to militant jihad, as its real function for them was security and care, versus anything else.
Individuals join militant jihadist groups for many reasons. As ICSVE researchers have heard in many interviews of ISIS defectors and prisoners worldwide, many joined because they needed order and meaning in their lives, desired a sense of dignity, purpose or significance, or believed becoming a jihadist would protect them from punishment and eternal damnation for serious sins they had committed. In all these motivational examples, to successfully remove the feelings of loyalty to the group and its beliefs will require redirecting the individual to beliefs that continue to meet these underlying needs but do not propel them toward, or support them in, enacting violence.
Similarly, those who have blood on their hands will need help replacing beliefs gained in the group that their violent actions were in the “path of Allah” versus criminal and murderous actions. An Algerian who was talked out of his belief in militant jihad in Camp Bucca started suffering extreme anxiety and having nightmares over the 14 persons he had killed during his time as a terrorist. While adhering to al-Qaeda’s beliefs, he felt his actions were righteous, but to give them up he had to come to terms with his extreme anxiety over his actions as acts of unrighteous murder.
One often-overlooked aspect of prison rehabilitation programs is the possibility of including family members. Children of jihadist prisoners are often confused, lack role models, may be exposed to recruiters, and may need treatment themselves. Wives and mothers of male militant jihadists can often serve as reinforcements for rehabilitation efforts, although in some cases, they may be just as extremist as the prisoner. For instance, Abu Albani recounted that his mother blessed his and his wife’s travel to join the Islamic State, and security officials in Kosovo stated to ICSVE researchers that his wife was more extremist than him, although only Abu Albani served time in prison for having served the Islamic State and, according to him, only he was offered participation in a prison rehabilitation program.
Disengagement or Deradicalization?
Today’s militant jihadist terrorism involves an ideology that has coopted basic religious beliefs. It teaches its adherents that they have an everlasting and individual duty to fight jihad, that they must defend Muslims everywhere in the world, that Muslims, Muslim lands, and Islam itself is under attack, that a defensive jihad is called for, that suicide terrorism is an act of Islamic martyrdom, and that failing to follow the takfiri interpretation of Islam that ISIS, al-Qaeda and groups like them declare is grounds for death and hellfire. Not everyone who joins a militant jihadist group is attracted to the group by its ideology, but over time the group’s leadership works hard to ideologically indoctrinate its members. ISIS, for example, required new male members to take shariah training and expected them to teach their female members at home.
Simple disengagement, without addressing and correcting these core fundamentalist beliefs, may not be enough for this type of prisoner to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society upon release. In fact, releasing this type of prisoner without any attempt at deradicalization may leave him extremely vulnerable to falling back into and recidivism. Likewise, militant jihadi prisoners who hold a belief in suicide terrorism have often told the first author, over the years, that their time in prison, particularly if it involved soft or hard torture, was so difficult for them that they would rather take a suicide mission than again be imprisoned. This is worrisome indeed, as many instances of this have been witnessed among militant jihadist whose motto is “Victory or Paradise.” Examples include Chechen terrorists who frequently blew themselves up rather than be arrested. Moreover, to avoid arrest, the Madrid train bombers booby-trapped their apartment and blew themselves up. ICSVE researchers have also learned in their interviews of ISIS cadres that many of their leaders constantly wore suicide vests that they detonated to avoid capture.
Exposure or Isolation?
It is a difficult question to answer as to whether violent extremist prisoners should be grouped together and isolated from others not imprisoned on terrorism charges. A prison term should reflect a time when disengagement occurs naturally, as prisoners are separated by virtue of imprisonment from the group in which they were active. However, when violent extremist prisoners are grouped together in efforts to isolate them from others vulnerable to recruitment, this naturally occurring disengagement process may not occur at all. Indeed, prisoners convicted on terrorism charges that are grouped together may take the time to encourage each other on their jihadist paths, teach each other tradecraft, ideologically indoctrinate one another and so on. Conversely, when vulnerable, non-extremist prisoners are exposed to virulent and charismatic recruiters in prison, it can be very dangerous to them as they may find security in the black-and-white ideas presented by a charismatic recruiter, or be drawn to the warmth or a feeling of protection in joining a religiously oriented group of prisoners with disastrous long-term results.
Deradicalization in some prisoners may happen when confronted with ordinary beliefs and behaviors, and the jihadist holding them tires of trying to adhere to his or her demanding and all-encompassing belief system. In this sense, the general population can have a positive effect on a militant jihadist, although vice-versa may be dangerous. Dutch police shared with ICSVE researchers the experience that prison officials had with one militant jihadist who was placed among non-terrorism-related offenders. As he was faced on a daily basis with others who ridiculed and did not conform to his strict Islamic observances, he began to question their importance and utility, and eventually voluntarily gave up his commitment to militant jihad without ever receiving any other treatment. Clearly, exposure between these two groups has dangers and advantages that must be carefully weighed on a case-by-case basis.
Ideally, integration and reintegration into society should start from the beginning. For this to occur, categories of individuals who might be of concern in a prison setting must be considered, factors relevant to risk assessment must be evaluated, and sources of information used to inform assessments must be identified. For instance, adequate assessment tools and professionals are needed to identify the categories of individuals who might be of concern when addressing extremism in a prison setting (e.g. distinguishing among a “true believer,” those involved in terrorism but not radicalized at the time a terrorist act was committed, and “ordinary decent” prisoners radicalized within prison as a result of a contact with extremist prisoners, etc.) as well as assessing a range of other relevant issues, including the nature of crimes committed, threat level posed, commitment to violence, etc.
Traditional prison assessment tools do not work well for militant jihadists as the issues influencing their behavior differ dramatically. In addition, religion is not much of an issue for run-of-the-mill criminals, whereas it is a central issue for militant jihadists. Likewise, while many assessment tools have been developed to assess militant jihadists’ threat levels, radicalization, and commitment to violent extremism, it is important to realize that for those who rely on self-reporting, the prisoner has every reason to lie, and is in actuality unlikely to benefit from honesty. This also may hold true when solely prisoner interviews are used as sources of information. Therefore, an assessment tool is best used inside a longer-term relationship in which professional observations also take place, with inputs from prison officials, other prisoners, and other ways of corroborating or dismissing prisoners’ self-reports. The ideal assessments and evaluations should be happening in a relationship of trust where the prisoner has opened up and should also be repeated over time on a regular basis to track changes.
Subtle behavioral indicators can also be cautiously used as signs of radicalization. Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, an Austrian professor and professional engaged in preventing radicalization in the prison environment under the DERAD program, noted Muslim prisoners who are following halal eating habits will often order vegan food choices to avoid any non-halal meats, which may indicate a serious militant jihadist or simply an observant Muslim. If, however, one knows that the prisoner ordering vegan is a committed jihadist and then notices that those living around him also begin to do the same, it may signal that they have fallen under his sphere of influence and converted to Islam or reverted to a more conservative path. Or it may simply mean that they also do not wish to risk consuming non-halal meats. It is simplistic to believe any measure can be used all on its own without some level of experienced professional judgment also involved.
The best assessments rely on both self-reporting and objectively observed information, multiple interactions, multiple informants, multiple observers/raters probing on various subjects and likely even attempts at provoking the subject of the assessment with emotionally evocative discussions or multimedia materials to observe his or her reaction to them. Good assessments can support creative sentencing that allows for reduction in prison time based on participation in rehabilitation programs and this is a positive benefit to induce prisoners to participate. Likewise, repeated assessments that track progress may also help prisoners gain early release and other benefits of participation, but these are only useful if accurate, and if crafty prisoners are prevented from gaming the system.
Issues of Personnel Carrying Out Disengagement and Deradicalization Programs
Prison personnel working with violent extremists face unique challenges. Prison personnel who wish to truly reach their jihadist prisoners must be knowledgeable about militant jihadi ideologies and worldviews and should expect to be asked and challenged about their own beliefs as well. For those who discuss religious scriptures, they need to be prepared for an attack on their religion, characters, and their religious knowledge. They may be called stooges, kafirs, etc., by dedicated militant jihadis, who only accept their own interpretation of Islam and condemn to death those who do not adhere.
Thus, when one is dealing with a “true believer,” one may find it necessary to send a well-studied and confident Islamic expert to work with him or her. An Islamic scholar may be able to both establish credibility and hold up under verbal assaults to his religious approach. Prison imams have to have good knowledge of shariah and also be persuasive in talking dedicated jihadists out of their commitment to violence.
There may be many dangers in working with militant jihadist prisoners. Prisoners may physically attack personnel. Others may have extensive networks outside the prison that allow them to discover where personnel live, to threaten them with violence to themselves or their families. For that reason, some personnel working in disengagement and deradicalization programs, such as Camp Bucca, worked under assumed names, hiding their true identities, which also has issues when trying to gain credibility and trust with prisoners.
Prison personnel are wise to remember that militant jihadis receive online and face-to-face training to deal with prison programs and are taught to disassemble and lie in order to regain their freedoms. While working in Camp Bucca, the first author was warned by a prison official to be careful trusting prisoners based on a case he had witnessed of a prison guard working with a jihadist prisoner in a New York prison. The guard had what he believed was good rapport with the prisoner and began to feel more confident that he was deradicalizing. However, the prisoner was just waiting for his opportunity to attack, which he did, with a sharpened prison comb, which he plunged into the unsuspecting guard’s skull, killing him. Displays of trust may thus be only lures into dangerous lapses in security.
Many militant jihadists have also been to battle zones and have experienced a great deal of trauma and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of the 101 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners that ICSVE researchers have interviewed over the past three years, at least a quarter of them expressed symptoms of PTSD. Some were suffering from nightmares, sleep disturbances, flashbacks of disturbing events, high arousal states, and other post-traumatic symptoms, all issues that would require an experienced psychologist to adequately treat and that could also make them extremely dangerous if they re-enter a traumatic flashback.
Prison authorities may also want to set forth standards and goals for their programs rather than rely on ad hoc approaches that may or not be evidence-based. That said, the field is still new, and it may be that all treatment programs addressing militant jihadism are still in stages of learning what works best and may also need to be tailored to specific contexts and environments. However, many elements of practice can be taken from evidence-based approaches, such as using emotionally evocative counter narratives to help prisoners open up, engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD, making use of already tested and validated assessment measures, etc.
It is also important to consider prison leadership in embarking on any rehabilitation programs. It is often that the top prison authorities decide what will or will not take place in their respective prisons. Likewise, these same authorities may not trust certain categories of persons working for them. For instance, in Camp Bucca, one of the majors in the U.S. military saw no need for psychological approaches despite them being a requested part of the program from his superiors, and the contractor’s staff carrying out the program irrationally accused some of the Islamic scholars working for the program of plotting to kill the entire team. Distrust and cynicism of this type can ruin a program from its start.
It is also important to note the distrust that can emerge between religious scholars and imams and non-religious staff, such as social workers or psychologists, who may view each other with suspicion, as naïve, too trusting, abetting the prisoners in their jihadist beliefs, or failing to understand those beliefs, etc. Thus, working on trust and communication across disciplines is also an important issue to consider. It is important to consider how hard it is often to get information-sharing even between services and inside services. Information is power, and unless prison leadership requires teams to communicate and share what they have learned in their sessions with prisoners, it may very well not be shared, leading to diminished effectiveness of the program.
Lastly, the famous Stanford experiments made it clear that the roles taken inside prisons, particularly those that give anonymity and power to those put in charge of prisoners, can have disastrous and abusive results in even the short-run. Oversight should always be set in place to avoid such abuse-of-power scenarios unfolding.
Competing Prison Programs, Jihadist Preparation and Views on Prison Time
While prison disengagement and deradicalization programs carefully carried out by well-trained experts may lead to success in preventing recruitment of new violent extremists in prison and redirecting already dedicated terrorists away from militant jihad, one must also acknowledge that terrorist groups have, as always, morphed their trainings, methods, and preparations to match our own. Militant jihadists are adept at developing their own programs to compete with those we put in place – from running shariah courts inside prisons that punish defectors to obtaining information about rehabilitation programs and training jihadists to resist them.
In that regard, the first author was amazed to find a militant jihadist training manual on the Internet put out within a year after she had written the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the American-run Camp Bucca and Cropper prisons in Iraq. This competing training written by al-Qaeda operatives warned those who become prisoners about the details of the treatment program and prepared them to resist it. It warned that psychologists and Islamic scholars would approach prisoners and try to talk them out of their points of view, and that they should prepare themselves for such overtures and refuse to participate and not be fooled by any acts of kindness or understanding offered to them in such programs. Likewise, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have also been warning militant jihadists to expect to be tortured in prison and that they should not give in under any mistreatment, but instead look forward to their rewards in Paradise. A key phrase often invoked by militant jihadists is “Victory or Paradise.” Suffering in this world is viewed as a means of earning rewards in the next life.
Jermaine Grant, whom ICSVE researchers interviewed in October 2018 in Kenyan prison, expressed similar beliefs, stating that he had come to Kenya to join jihad, which he believed was “to strive to make the religion of Islam victorious.” He said he did not regret being imprisoned. On the contrary, he felt that “every jihadi must expect to be wounded, imprisoned or killed as part of his jihad.” Indeed, many such prisoners will say that Mohammed also suffered in his path and that therefore suffering in prison is not a problem for them.
Given that preparations and in-prison organization spring up to resist and punish those who take part in rehabilitation programs, it is important to consider the impact and time one’s program may have in relation to the rest of the prison day that the prisoner may be exposed to a competing worldview that undoes whatever progress has been made. For that reason, it is best to carefully assess who is taking part in prison rehabilitation efforts and protect them by isolating them from any groups that may punish them or undo the progress made.
The use of torture in prison is a complex topic that remains outside the scope of this paper. Briefly, extremely repressive and brutal government responses to terrorism may stop terrorists in the short run. In the long run, however, these same measures usually engender and motivate responses of revenge-seeking and give rise to new terrorists emerging from among family and community members, and those who become aware of the torture, including other prisoners. An Islamist tortured in Egypt told the first author that he emerged from prison unwilling to preach again, but we also know that torture in Egypt may have been one of the main reasons that many jihadists fled Egypt to Afghanistan, and ultimately formed al-Qaeda into the violent movement that then attacked repressive regimes and Western countries that were seen to be supporting them. (For a full discussion on the long-term effects of torture in relation to terrorism please see Speckhard, Figley and Shajkovci article).
When militant jihadist prisoners are tortured, it often reinforces their negative views of us and confirms their jihadist trainings, thus only reinforcing their commitment to militant jihad. While some countries have openly admitted that they beat their prisoners into compliance in rehabilitation programs, any prison program that does not respect human rights is unlikely to succeed in the long run.
Mistaken Views on Violent Extremist Imprisonment
It is a mistake to assume that, once imprisoned, terrorists and violent extremists are no longer able to interact with their cadre “brothers” outside the prison setting, or that if they receive long prison sentences we will not be bothered by them again. Prisons, in fact, unless designed as super maximum-security facilities, are often woefully unable to separate prisoners from their cadres outside the prison. Palestinian Ahmad Sa’adat, interviewed by the first author in 2004 and again in 2005 in a prison in Jericho, was receiving visitors from his group as well as making cell phone calls from prison, which enabled him to run his operations from inside the prison.
Similarly, when ICSVE researchers studied and interacted with Albanian-language Facebook accounts that were identified as either supporting or distributing ISIS materials, they came across an individual whose Facebook account name was that of an imprisoned Albanian Macedonian who had been in ISIS but was now imprisoned in Macedonian prison. Whether or not it was really him was impossible to determine, but the individual clearly had access to a cell phone and was commenting on Facebook about his time in ISIS and about the ICSVE intervention of having tagged him with two counter-narrative videos. When government authorities in Macedonia were informed about it, ICSVE researchers learned that it is common for prisoners in Macedonia to have phones, and even to take short leaves from prison. ICSVE researchers were also contacted via Facebook and text messages by ISIS prisoners held in detention camps there whom they had interviewed in Syria, despite the official policy that prisoners are not allowed to have phones.
Access to phones may also suggest corrupt practices inside prison and detention settings that may compromise the effectiveness of prison programs and operations, including compromising security of the prison and detention facilities. Furthermore, corruption inside such settings increases opportunities for radicalization. Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw noted that when prisoners were isolated in Austrian prisons, they even used the opportunity to yell out of their windows to communicate with other prisoners or used their prison transfers as a time to attempt to communicate with other prisoners. Clearly, militant jihadists often find ways to communicate both inside and outside the prisons.
In 2007-2008, Gen. Stone was pressured by the politics of the Awakening movement in Anbar to begin mass releases of non-ideologically indoctrinated prisoners from Camp Bucca. While ICSVE researchers had warned and encouraged Gen. Stone to apply the Detainee Rehabilitation Program to the hardcore jihadists, he instead isolated them in six cellblocks and decided against pursing an aggressive program of deradicalization. With the American withdrawal from Iraq, these same untreated jihadists were handed over to and transferred to the Iraqi Abu Ghraib Prison. In 2013, ISIS cadres stormed the prison, releasing 500 of their former cadres and announced to the world, “Hell is coming!” Gen. Stone later told the first author, “When we locked them up and threw the key away, I didn’t see that one coming.”
Similarly, Bashar al Assad released hundreds of al-Qaeda-linked prisoners when the uprisings in Syria occurred, greatly contributing to the strength of groups like al Nusra and ISIS, likely as a means of claiming that he was a better answer for Syria than militant jihadist leadership. Thus, even when militant jihadists are given long prison sentences, one should not discount that these same jihadists cannot train others to act once released on their behalf, nor that they will not themselves find a way of either communicating or getting out of prison to attack again.
This article briefly discussed and identified some necessary and effective measures to prevent the progression to violent extremism in prison settings. It also addressed the factors needed to manage violent extremist prisoners who have embraced violent ideologies and groups, while also stressing the need to respect human rights and codes of ethics necessary to foster prisoner and public confidence and respect. It is evident that some violent extremists exploit their prison time to radicalize others. Those convicted on non-terrorism related charges may benefit from prevention programs and being isolated from charismatic recruiters active in prison so as to avoid becoming radicalized themselves to violent extremism in prison and emerging more dangerous upon release. Categories of individuals who might be of concern in a prison setting must be first identified with different approaches carried out for already radicalized individuals versus preventing others from radicalizing. Likewise, isolating and grouping violent extremists together, to prevent their outreach to non-violent extremist prisoners, has its dangers as well. These include reinforcing militant jihadists beliefs, transferring knowledge and tradecraft among violent extremists, and enhancing prospects to further deepen ideological commitments. Having clear goals and programs that begin from conviction onward to prevent radicalization and to rehabilitate those who can be effectively treated requires creative sentencing that allows for rewarding participation and progress in prison rehabilitation programs. Empirical and trustworthy methods of assessment are important in discerning factors to assess risks with respect to violent extremism and progress leading to release. Prison leadership is crucial, as they often decide what actually happens in their prisons and how even standardized protocols are carried out. Likewise, even the best-thought-out rehabilitation program is only as good as those who carry it out. Selection of personnel is crucial to success. As the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism are of a systemic and multifactor nature, those addressing it must be well-versed in social and individual psychology of violent extremism and political violence. They must also be versed in religious literacy, or be able to work well in teams of experts to prevent and fight violent extremism in prison and avoid prisons becoming incubators of terrorism.