Prison Radicalisation in Europe

Prison Radicalisation in Europe

Prison Radicalisation in Europe


8 min read

Mubaraz Ahmed Analyst, Co-Existence

Posted on: 17th August 2015

Today, countries across Europe are dealing with the growing threat of radicalisation. While much has been made of ISIS' sophisticated recruitment techniques on social media platforms, prisons are a far more potent breeding ground for the proliferation of extremist views. Isolation from the outside world, a perceived sense of victimisation, the need for belonging, a sense of vulnerability, and prolonged exposure to radical individuals, are all contributing factors for prison radicalisation.

The spread of extreme Islamist ideologies in European prisons is a concern to governments. Understanding the distinction between Islam, or any other religion, and extremist ideologies that use the religion for promoting violence and hatred is crucial in tackling prison radicalisation. Increases in religiosity can help prisoners to be rehabilitated. Clampdowns on religious activity generally has the potential to antagonise religious prisoners and fuel radicalisation.

"We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalisation."

The environment in prisons is closed, and the surroundings and situation prompt different ways for expressing resistance and dissent. Even the state of imprisonment itself is used as a tool for radicalisation, with radicalisers presenting incarceration as society's rejection of an individual and what they stand for, building a perceived sense of victimisation that catalyses an extreme ideology. In the case of Muslim prisoners, radical preachers who look to forge an 'us versus them' mentality present a perceived systematic persecution of Muslims by Western countries and portraying the individuals' incarceration as a symptom of society's disdain for them.

The European Union's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, said in January 2015 that "We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalisation," going on to say that rehabilitation and deradicalisation efforts were far more effective means for countering extremism, rather than imprisoning people. With the number of those returning from fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria continuing to rise, there is a strong possibility that prisons will soon be housing an unprecedented number of individuals with known extremist views.

United Kingdom

By the end of 2014 there were over 12,000 Muslims prisoners in England and Wales, an increase of 122 per cent since 2002, against a general prison population increase of only 20 per cent. However, the total number of individuals jailed for terrorism and domestic extremism was 183, of whom 123 were Muslim. This data shows that only around one per cent of the Muslims prisoners were convicted on terrorism or extremism charges. Nevertheless, given the rise of ISIS and its appeal in the UK, the number of prisoners on terrorism and extremism related charges is expected to rise, with a fear that prison radicalisation will proliferate.

According to Dame Anne Owers, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, the greater focus should be on converts to Islam, who are believed to be at far greater risk of radicalisation than other Muslims. There have been a number of cases of young men, often imprisoned because of crimes committed in gangs, converting to radical Islam while in prison. Joining Islamist groups gives some of these converts the sense of comradeship and purpose that they had outside prison, contributing to these individuals being drawn into radical groups in prison. Converts to Islam are believed to account for two to three per cent of the total Muslim population in Britain, although according to research carried out by the Centre for Social Cohesion, 31 per cent of jihadi terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010 involved Muslim converts. As a result, Muslim converts are viewed as being more likely to carry out attacks. This increased fervour stems from the perceived need to prove themselves and demonstrate their commitment to their so-called religious cause.

"Converts are believed to be at greater risk of radicalisation."

The current Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, believes that Muslim chaplains working in UK prisons must be incorporated and given a broader role in helping tackle prison radicalisation. Although he acknowledged the contributions that Muslim chaplains were already making, he urged greater cooperation to prevent "a vacuum for self-appointed leaders" who can intervene and radicalise other inmates. Hardwick also called for the need to distinguish between cases where increased religiosity, or the perception of it, was causing an upsurge in the propagation of extremist views and those cases where religious convictions would "reduce the likelihood of future offending".

In 2014 Jordan Horner, a Muslim convert convicted of extremist activities, claimed that he was able convert dangerous, hardened criminals during his time in prison. Horner said that he found prisons fertile ground for his extreme understanding of Islam and suggested that prison guards were "powerless" to stop it. According to Horner, prison authorities transferred him a number of times because of the growing influence he was having on inmates, with little effect.


France's legal emphasis on laïcité hinders religious de-radicalisation efforts in prisons. French authorities do not even record the religious identity of prisoners, making it a challenge to obtain any accurate data on prison radicalisation. It is believed that up to 60 per cent of France's 70,000 prisoners have Muslim origins. Their backgrounds make them particularly attractive to radicalisers in prisons.

Missoum Chaoui, a Muslim leader in France who has worked as a prison chaplain for over 17 years, believes that many of the Muslims incarcerated in French prisons are extremely vulnerable to radicalisation. He cites educational failure, unemployment, and breakdowns in relationships leading to individuals who are of a fragile disposition, and subsequently are at greater risk of being radicalised.

One such individual who is believed to have been radicalised in a French prison is Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman behind the killing of a policewomen and four Jewish customers at a Kosher grocery store in Paris in January, who had been imprisoned for robbery in 2005. It was during Coulibaly's time behind bars that he met Djamel Baghal, an al-Qaeda linked militant being held in the largest prison in Europe for plotting to bomb the US embassy in France. During his interrogation, Coulibaly admitted that despite the efforts of the prison authorities to keep Beghal isolated, he was still able to gain access to him. Another individual that Coulibaly met in prison was Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the same day in which 17 people died.

France's problem with prison radicalisation in France is not new. Khaled Kelkal was a member of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria and behind the 1995 attacks on France; Mohamed Merah went on a shooting spree in 2012 in which he killed three police officers and a rabbi; and French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche was behind the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. All of these men had spent time in prison before carrying out their attacks. While the French justice ministry has criticised suggestions that prisons in the country are fertile breeding grounds for extremists, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira acknowledged that prison radicalisation in France was a "major issue."

According to Karim Mokhtari, a former prisoner who now helps young offenders, the attitude of those who have become or are at risk of becoming radicalised is easily observable, with inmates expressing resentment towards French society, accusing the authorities of abandonment, and as a result being wholly unrepentant for the crimes they are being punished for. This train of thought engrains a strong feeling of victimhood and repression, the same sentiment that has been adopted and exploited by other extremist groups around the world in their radicalisation efforts.

French secularity, or laïcité, is built on establishing a society where religion is kept out of government affairs, ensuring that there is a clear separation between state and church. This approach applies to all faiths, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others, but Islamist radicalisers often mislead individuals into perceiving laïcité as a direct attack on Islam. This perception in a prison environment, where individuals may already feel they have been wronged, can have severe repercussions when inmates re-enter society.

"Islamist radicalisers mislead individuals into perceiving laïcité as an attack on Islam."

Other European Countries

Belgian authorities arrested Abdelhamid Abaaoud in January 2015 over an alleged plot to carry out a terrorist attack in Belgium. The arrest came days after the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store in Paris, ashowing that violent extremism and radicalisation are pan-European concerns. While police in Belgium did not identify an operational link between the Paris attacks and those being plotted by Abaaoud, the significant overlap of low-level criminality and jihadi violence is an all too common theme. Abaaoud was reportedly jailed for theft, and according to local Belgian official Mustafa Er, it was his time spent at Saint Gilles prison that led to his radicalisation. Prior to his arrest over the plot to carry out an attack in Belgium, Abaaoud had spent time in Syria fighting with ISIS, becoming known to security officials after appearing in a video in which he was shown to be dragging mutilated bodies to a mass grave.

The first German national to be charged and imprisoned for fighting for ISIS in Syria was sentenced in December 2014, and with an estimated 700 Germans fighting for ISIS, there are concerns that many more extremists will enter the country's prison system and pose a credible risk of radicalising other inmates. There are also a number of convicted, domestic extremists who have already been imprisoned in Germany, such as those behind the failed Bonn station bombing in 2012 and a foiled bomb attack on Frankfurt in 2007, who could potentially radicalise other prisoners.

In Denmark a Justice Ministry report showed that there were 50 reports of prisoner radicalisation between February 2015 and May 2015, compared to just 37 cases in the previous two years. A previously published report suggested that one in five Danish jihadis had been to prison at some point in their lives.

Tackling Prison Radicalisation

There have been policy debates in Europe on the best ways to tackle prison radicalisation: whether it is better to place convicted extremists in the same prison in order to stop the spread of their ideas, or to spread them out across prisons so that their impact and support is diminished. A concentration of prisoners may result in accusations or racism, prejudice, and profiling, but would also lessen the likelihood of radicalisation of other prisoners. Alternatively, spreading inmates with extremist views throughout the prison system may weaken the strength of the individuals by removing their support networks, but it may result in the radicalisation of other individuals, and thus lead to even greater levels of radicalisation. Prisons offer radicalisers an ideal environment for introducing their extreme doctrines and influencing vulnerable and impressionable individuals. By showing a route out of isolation, creating a sense of involvement in a wider project, and presenting a vision of a promised victory, radicalisers play on the concerns and feelings of prisoners to gain their trust, garner support, and recruit them into their group.

While the political landscape and policies in Europe are diverse, across the continent the patterns of radicalisation are familiar. Cases of radicalisation in prison are rising and extremist attacks are continually being linked back to prison environments. European authorities face a substantial challenge, one which does not respect borders. Understanding the common tactics of prison radicalisation being employed across the continent is essential in preventing its spread.

We Must Stop Extremists in Prison Spreading Their Hate


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