Strange things are afoot in the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility aka the D.C. Jail, where about 40 of the more violent Jan. 6 insurrectionists are being held.
The men are housed in a separate unit from the other inmates, awaiting trial. These men engage in a number of activities, singing the Star Spangled Banner every night at 9 p.m. sharp and even drafting a handwritten prison “newsletter.”
These seemingly small, communal actions of incarcerated men awaiting trial are exactly how other radical groups organized and forged their identity in prisons. Some of these groups then became effective forces that have challenged armies and governments.
Furthermore, by mixing the hardcore ideologues with others who may be wavering in their anti-democratic feelings under adverse conditions—and by not giving them an offramp for their beliefs—the D.C. jail might inadvertently be the petri dish for a future American terror group.
Prisons are well-known incubators for terrorists. As I’ve written in my book Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History, prisons can be the venue where blood-bonds are forged and grievances are nurtured. Once released, former prisoners can unleash their ideological violence. During his sentence, the ideologically committed terrorist can also influence and recruit among a rotating series of candidates, drawing them into his violent ideology.
Numerous individuals who had carried out terror operations in Europe had been turned from rootless, run-of-the-mill criminals to something much worse while incarcerated. For example, one of the brothers who carried out the 2015 Charlie Hebdo magazine attack, Chérif Kouachi, was radicalized during a 20-month stint in a French prison by an al Qaeda operative in the same facility. Another man in the same prison, Amedy Coulibaly, synchronized his attack on a kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, killing a police officer and slaughtering four shoppers. A number of the 2003 attackers who struck trains in Madrid—the worst terror attack in Europe in memory—were radicalized in Spanish prisons while serving time for petty offenses.
Perhaps the most notorious example of wide-scale radicalization occurring right under the authorities’ noses occurred in Camp Bucca, a large U.S.-run prison facility in the south of Iraq during the occupation. This place became a notorious finishing school for jihadis, since the hardcore ideologues ruled the prison yard for years without their American overseers paying much attention. Once those individuals left Camp Bucca, many maintained their new friendships and networks, becoming not only attackers but also talent scouts, fundraisers, trainers, and quartermasters.
Indeed, many men who formed the Islamic State’s core spent years incarcerated at Camp Bucca, including its now-deceased leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and several members from its leadership council. One former detainee told Al Jazeera that U.S. officials did little to stop the radicals at the camp. “Extremists had freedom to educate the young detainees,” he said. “I saw them giving courses using classroom boards on how to use explosives, weapons and how to become suicide bombers.” The same dynamics appear to be in play in Egypt’s prisons, where Islamic State ideologues are recruiting new members to the cause.
Radical groups even exploit prison sentences as symbolic acts in their greater struggles. A jail sentence paradoxically provides a degree of gravitas to a subset of individuals, easing their way to recruit new people on the outside to the cause. Adolf Hitler’s stint in Landsberg Prison following the Beer Hall putsch became an important ideological touchstone for the Nazis. Most senior Irish Republican Army men passed through British prisons and came out as its heroes for the cause—or its martyrs, like Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike. Palestinians celebrate Palestinian Prisoner’s Day every April 17, cementing the time spent by terrorists and non-terrorists alike in Israeli prisons to a larger ideological struggle.
Which brings us back to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists in the D.C. jail. Some indeed might have realized the error of their ways. But those who might want to turn away from Jan. 6-style radicalization in the D.C. jail may be at greater risk inside the facility, since they are housed with the people dedicated to deepening their ideological commitment. In late October, a federal judge released Thomas Sibick, accused of assaulting Metropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Fanone and stealing his badge and radio, from the jail to await trial at his parents’ home in part to escape the others. But the social pressure on those still in detention to remain loyal to Trump and to “the cause” must be great, especially when surrounded by like-minded, violent individuals. Mixing the committed ideologues with the less-committed, and letting the former run their unit in the way they want without much interference is precisely how radical groups supercharge their power.
Are prison authorities meticulously monitoring the Jan. 6 folks’ activities? Probably not. D.C. Jail suffers from many other problems, such as overcrowding, staff shortages, and overall poor living conditions. In any case, it’s unlikely the U.S. is doing much to stop these recruiting and ideological indoctrination efforts. A few years ago, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York noted that there were “few deradicalization programs or initiatives in place that are targeted to rehabilitate extremists and help them re-enter society as lawful individuals.” And this recruiting is certainly occurring in American prisons right now: For example, one federal inmate in a Texas prison in October 2020 was sentenced to an additional 300 months for actively recruiting other inmates to the Islamic State.
It’s hard for a radical ideology to exist for long without committed human infrastructure. But we’ve seen that multiple federal politicians publicly support the insurrectionists, calling them “political hostages” who are being “persecuted” for their beliefs. Former President Donald Trump wrote in September, “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election… In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!” There have also been small rallies on their behalf as well as a letter-writing campaign by Trump supporters. Those committed to the Jan. 6 insurrection are on both sides of the prison walls and in the halls of Congress.
Thus, between the identities strengthened inside a correctional facility, and the obvious slice of political support outside it, we may be seeing the emergence of a new, radical group—with a national network and skilled ideological operatives—ready to menace the streets of America in the years to come.
It may turn out that a future fighting force cut its teeth not on the Capitol Hill grounds on Jan. 6, but inside the guts of a jail a few miles away and a few months later.