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Hearing shows prison recruitment of radical Muslims is complicated
Radicalized Islamic inmates represent a small portion of the prison population, but experts testifying before a congressional panel on June 15 said they could present an exponentially bigger threat than their numbers suggest.
Other experts said their threat may be overblown, while still others noted that the Islamic faith practiced in prisons is far from the Islamic faith practiced by the majority of law-abiding Muslims in the US.
The mutable nature of radicalized inmates became apparent as experts testified in the second hearing organized by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) on radicalized Islam in the U.S. Testimony and questions from committee members of the panel showed how the lines between hardened criminals and jihadists can be fluid and hard to pin down.
“Prison subverts Islam,” said Michael Downing, commanding officer, Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau Los Angeles Police Department. “It’s a high-jacked, cut-and-paste version in prison. It’s called “Prislam,” he said, which is severely cramped in its scope and interpretation.
“We don’t know how big a problem [radicalized Muslims] are,” he said, adding that he gets 15-20 suspicious activity reports (SARs) from the seven county jails in his jurisdiction every month, although not all are associated with terrorism. He noted that some SARs have lead to criminal prosecutions and that they have turned up some cases of terrorist recruitment that have yet to be prosecuted.
“Prisoners by their very nature, are at risk and susceptible to recruitment and radicalization by extremist groups because of their isolation, violent tendencies, and cultural discontent. Nearly 300 federal prisoners are serving sentences on terrorism related charges in the United States. DHS [Department of Homeland Security] is working on a comprehensive plan to develop anti-recruitment plans for prisoners,” said Downing.
Patrick Dunleavy, deputy inspector General of the Criminal Intelligence Unit at New York State Department of Correctional Services pointed out that prison radicalization has a long history. He said El Sayyid Nosair conspired with others on the outside to send a truck bomb into the World Trade Center in 1993, while serving a sentence in the Attica Correctional Facility for charges connected to the assassination of Rabbi Meyer Kahane.
According to Kevin Smith, a former assistant United States attorney for the central district of California, pointed to his prosecution of terrorist Kevin James. James conspired to wage a war of terrorism against the United States government by murdering United States military personnel and Jewish persons in southern California. James and other individuals were members of a group called Jam’iyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh (“JIS”), which was created within the California Department of Corrections prison system.
He said prisoners who are converted to radical violent Islam can be particularly virulent threats to society. “As prisoners, they have already crossed a line,” he said. Adding the corrosive form of radical Islam to that mindset can produce a willing and capable jihadist.
However, Purdue University Professor Bert Useem said the danger of radicalized Muslims in US jails has proven to be minimal. Useem said Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and among the prison population in the US, yet the number of those accused of terrorist acts remains small. Prison conditions in the US have improved, in-prison murder rates have declined and only 12 of the 178 Muslim-Americans who have committed acts of terrorism-related violence or were prosecuted for terrorism related offenses have shown evidence of being radicalized behind bars.
The hearing saw some pointed and sometimes emotional exchanges between witnesses and members of congress. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked witnesses about other radical groups, like “Christian militants” that have tried to blow up abortion clinics. Ranking member of the committee Rep. Bennie Thompson said prisons inherently contain “a lot of bad people” and looking too narrowly can blind investigators to wider problems.
Rep. King was critical of the requests to include other groups in the hearing beside radicalized Islam in the hearing, noting that Democrats hadn’t included the groups in past hearings on radical Islam when the committee was run by them. “I wish you’ve been as attentive” before Republicans took over the committee, said King.