LONDON — The recent terrorism conviction of Anjem Choudary, the West’s most prolific media cheerleader for the so-called Islamic State, raised questions about his incarceration in prisons that have—in some cases—been labeled jihadist training camps.
Indeed, terrorist recruitment in prisons is one of the biggest challenges the West faces today, and Jihadi-Joker Anjem Choudary would thrive in such an environment. Prison radicalization is a real and sustained problem. Petty criminals predisposed to violence like “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, caught trying to blow up a transatlantic flight out of Paris in 2001, initially were radicalized in this very way, by mixing with hardened jihadist ideologues inside Britain’s jails, only to come out and attempt to attack the United States.
As of this summer there were 12,633 Muslims in prison in England and Wales. While of the 147 convicted terrorists in U.K. jails, 137 defined themselves as Muslim.
A 20 percent increase in the jail population has been outstripped by a 122 percent rise in Muslim inmates. Muslims make up just 1 in 20 Britons, but 1 in 7 inmates. In the U.S., rough estimates suggest that 35,000-40,000 prisoners convert to Islam each year. Nationally at around 350,000 inmates, 15 percent of the U.S. prison population is Muslim. This is more than 18 percent the proportion of Americans who are Muslim. That’s a huge disparity. These psychologically vulnerable Muslim prisoners must not be allowed to mix with charismatic, committed and convincing jihadist ideological recruiters.
In a recent column I asked how people like Anjem Choudary could “be stopped from playing his wicked tune through his crooked flute in jail?” Later that same day the U.K. Ministry of Justice finally released plans to overhaul its 50-year-old policy of dispersing the most dangerous terrorist prisoners among the general prison population in high-security prisons. They will create segregated specialist units within prison instead, to house the most committed, hardened jihadist ideologues. This followed a thorough investigation into prisons by government-appointed independent reviewer Ian Acheson.
The incompetence and neglect Acheson unveiled in the department responsible for prisons, the National Offender Management Service (Noms), is incredibly disturbing.
Political correctness in prisons was found to be allowing extremism to flourish. Acheson’s review team found aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam by prisoners, unsupervised collective worship with pressure on prison guards to leave the prayer room, and attempts to engineer segregation along Islamist lines.
Materials promoting Islamist ideology had been allowed into prison libraries, while official prison imams were facing intimidation by convicted jihadist terrorists. Prison guards were found to be too afraid to confront Muslims, as “cultural sensitivity” was preventing staff from “challenging unacceptable extremist behavior and views.” Offenders were advocating support for ISIS, and “charismatic” prisoners had been acting as “self-styled emirs,” exerting a “controlling and radicalizing influence” on the wider Muslim prison population.
Even those Muslim prison chaplains employed by government to offer religious guidance to prisoners were found to be part of the problem. Around two-thirds of these chaplains followed the fundamentalist Pakistani wing of the Deobandi sect that only further instilled medieval literalism into vulnerable Muslim prisoners. Acheson personally remarked that the prison service faced a “serious challenge,” as unchecked extremism in prison could soon pose a “lethal threat to national security.”
He found evidence that jihadist radicalization was “such a serious problem” inside some of Britain’s jails that it threatened “prison legitimacy.” At leadership levels within Noms, a “cultural relativism” obstructed decisive action being taken.
Acheson even coined a phrase for this neglect: “institutional timidity.”
The British government will now implement eight of Acheson’s 11 recommendations.
A new Ministry of Justice directorate of security, order and counter-terrorism has been set up to tackle the problem. Extremist materials will be removed from prison libraries, and due diligence tests for the stronger vetting of prison chaplains will be adopted to ensure Noms has “the right people in place to counter extremist beliefs.”
But much of the media focus has been on creating segregated specialist units for the “most subversive” extremists. A new “ghost train” system will be created to move the “most subversive” extremists between isolation units. Up to eight such high-security units within prisons are expected to be built. Each is likely to hold around 50 inmates. Government sources indicated that Anjem Choudary will be one of those locked up in a segregated unit.
Critics have warned that such a move could provide a focal point for public protest, and for media charges of a “British Guantanamo.” The troubling history at the infamous Maze and Maghaberry prisons in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, where organized Republican and Loyalist paramilitary prisoners ended up running their respective prison blocks, is used as the main argument against a separatist solution.
But the Ministry of Justice’s directorate of security, order and counter-terrorism would be responsible for ensuring that concentrating the most dangerous jihadist extremists into separate units would not simply allow them to create their own operational command structures in this way.
A similar “jail within a jail” system has been used with some success in the Netherlands. A researcher at Leiden university, Daan Weggemans, claimed that half the detainees found this regime to be a “wake-up call,” and broke with their former violent extremist networks.
One rehabilitated ex-terrorist prisoner felt the segregated approach was “the least bad of all bad options” because it prevented the radicalization of inmates in the general prison population. But he emphasized that care was needed to house only extremist “leaders” in the wings, and not their “followers” who presented a much lower risk of radicalizing others.
Frustratingly, my counter-extremism organization Quilliam warned of all of this seven years ago. We highlighted precisely these problems in a report called “Unlocking al-Qaeda”. Our research found the neglect to be so great that some of Europe’s most dangerous al-Qaeda supporters (this was before ISIS existed) were even able to provide live media interviews to their followers from inside jail. They were also able to issue fatwas supporting specific acts of terror while behind bars. To tackle this problem, we recommended setting up these very segregated specialist deradicalization units inside prisons that the government now proposes.
But for seven long years absolutely nothing was done.
I agree with Acheson, “institutional timidity” is the only term that can possibly describe our gross neglect of some of the most vulnerable—and most dangerous— people in our care. I fear that such “institutional timidity” is not restricted to our prison services, but is replicated across all sectors of our society.
Most of all in our own minds.