Prisons: Harvard for Radicals by Denis MacEoin

  • “If they arrest me and put me in prison, I will carry on in prison. I will radicalise everyone in prison.” — Anjem Choudary, quoted by the Daily Mail.

  • One of the most troubling factors is the vulnerability of fresh converts to radicalisation. Starting out with minimal knowledge of their new faith, converts are easily lured into adopting strict forms of Islam, guided by existing radicals and by the extremist literature freely available in prisons.
  • “Political correctness in prisons is allowing extremism to flourish because guards are too afraid of confronting Muslims.” Extremists are “exploiting… staff fear of being labelled racist.” — The Telegraph, citing a report by Ian Acheson, a former British prison governor.
  • Said al-Shihri, after his release from Guantanamo in 2007, completed and passed the Saudi deradicalisation program, then became deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, orchestrating the bombing of the U.S. embassy there in 2008.
  • A Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, pointed out that many of the mentors who are supposed to guide young people away from becoming radicalised are themselves non-violent radicals.

Great Britain is not short of irritating, scoundrelous, extremist figures. One thinks of today’s Labour party leader, the Trotskyite Jeremy Corbyn, a ‘friend’ of Hamas and Hizbullah; the anti-Semitic far-left former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, recently suspended from the same party for anti-Jewish remarks; or George Galloway, who defended and lobbied for Saddam Hussein and called on the Iraqi leader to conquer Israel and retake Jerusalem. We have had more than our share of self-vaunting and holier-than-thou religious figures, too, notably the string of Muslim hate preachers who tour our universities and mosques, radicalising students and a host of other impressionable and easily-angered young people.

But for many of us, there is concern about the high rate of radicalisation engineered by Muslim extremists such as Anjem Choudary, who has tried to promote some of Britain’s most radical Islamist movements for some twenty years. His interview technique is to say things that are offensive, or at times seemingly demented, while remaining calm and apparently rational. He preaches hatred for democracy, loathing for British law, and a candid disrespect for all non-Muslims. In different circumstances, he would make a very able politician. In fact, he is a traitor to his country, a manipulator of the young and vulnerable, and is probably best revealed in his own words:

“We [Muslims] take the Jizya, which is ours anyway. The normal situation is to take money from the kuffar [non-Muslim]. They give us the money. You work, give us the money, Allahu Akhbar. We take the money.”


‘Next time when your child is at school and the teacher asks, ‘What is your ambition?’ They should say, ‘to dominate the whole world by Islam, including Britain, that is my ambition'”.

And, concerning the British hostage, Alan Henning, a volunteer aid worker about to be beheaded by the Islamic State: “In the Quran it is not allowed for you to feel sorry for non-Muslims. I don’t feel sorry for him.”

Or, prophetically, “If they arrest me and put me in prison,” he has said, “I will carry on in prison. I will radicalise everyone in prison.”

He has called for the “flag of Sharia” to be raised over 10 Downing Street; for Buckingham Palace to be turned into a mosque, and for Islamic shari’a law to replace British secular law — while predicting that this country will before long be taken over by Muslims. These might be childish dreams, but they are currently inspiring terrorist attacks and raising security threats.

Anjem Choudary (center).

Born in London in 1967, Choudary is a lawyer by training. He smiles contemptuously as he proclaims his superiority over the non-Muslim population of the UK. With Omar Bakri Muhammad, he created al-Muhajiroun, a Salafi group linked to half of the terrorist attacks in the UK during the past 20 years. When it was banned in 2005, it re-emerged under a string of aliases, reforming every time another ban was put in place: Islam4UK; al-Ghurabaa; the Saved Sect; Need4Khilafah; the Shariah Project; and the Islamic Dawah Association.

Choudary had been arrested more than once, but soon re-emerged into public life. His knowledge of the law has, until very recently, allowed him to evade punishment.

British police have now revealed his links to 500 Islamic State terrorists.

Mr Choudary, however, and a younger follower, Mohammed Rahman, between August and September 2014, posted speeches on the scarcely-secret website YouTube, in which they encouraged listeners to support and join the Islamic State, urging them to travel to Syria to take part in the fighting. Choudary had apparently accepted the claim of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be the latest in the long but interrupted chain of Muslim caliphs. Baghdadi continues to assert that claim through his leadership of the Islamic State terrorist group, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in several other Muslim countries — not to mention hundreds of operatives now infiltrating Europe. In accordance with long-established tradition, Choudary declared bay’a (formal allegiance) to the caliph.

Choudary was charged on August 5, 2015, under section 12 of the Terrorism Act (2000), of inviting others to support, between June 2014 and March 2015, a banned organization, the Islamic State. He was tried along with Rahman and convicted on July 28, 2016. His sentence will be handed down this month. It is estimated that he will be sent down for about 10 years.

If that sounds short, it could get shorter. Unlike the United States, where many offenders serve their full term, the UK system is more flexible. According to the provisions of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, introduced in 2005, any prisoners serving a fixed sentence are required to serve half of their sentence in custody. They are then released from jail and remain on licence (supervised by probation) for the other half of their sentence. In five years, therefore, Choudary could conceivably be back in the community and attending a mosque and religious festivals.

Ironically, that might be the least of our worries. Prison is the last place anyone with terrorist and radical affiliations should be sent. Radical publications are widely distributed to prisoners in British jails. In April 2016, a review ordered by Justice Minister Michael Gove revealed that extremist materials had been found in over ten jails in November 2015. Writing in The Telegraph, Sophie Jamieson summed up some of the report’s findings:

Extremist Islamic hate literature is available on the bookshelves of British jails and distributed to inmates by Muslim chaplains, according to a leaked report.

A review into extremism in prisons found misogynistic and homophobic pamphlets and hate tracts endorsing the killing of apostates were available in chaplaincy rooms, the Times reported.

Hate literature and CDs were reportedly discovered in more than ten prisons in November.

That extremism exists within the chaplaincy system of British prisons should not be too surprising. Samuel Westrop has pointed out that innumerable links exist between Muslim chaplains and radical organizations such as Hizb ut Tahrir, Jamaat-e Islami, Al-Hikma Media, and many more. In a major report, Unlocking al-Qaeda, published in 2009 by the Quilliam Foundation, close ties to groups such as al-Qaeda were identified among Muslim chaplains and inmates. The report recommended:

“The removal of all books, newspaper and televisions in de-radicalization centres will have [sic] will gradually create a great hunger among extremist prisoners (many of whom are highly literate and intelligent) for new information and literature. Prisoners who show good behaviour and evidence of reform, can be gradually supplied with counter-extremism books, written either by more moderate Muslim authors (including books by former extremists from groups such as al-Gamaa al-Islamiya). Such books should be supplied sparingly in order to force inmates to read them.”

Yet seven years later, a government report revealed that radical literature remains freely available to inmates.

The report identifies several factors that cause or play a part in prison radicalisation: extremism seen as a logical solution to other problems; extremism as a ‘new start’; prison deepens radicalisation (“While some individuals first adopt extremist ideologies only while in prison, in other cases individuals who entered prison as extremists become more radical as a result of their experiences there”); perceptions of mistreatment in prison; extremism as an extension of earlier behaviour; extremism causes dramatic behavioural changes; extremism can follow release.

One of the most troubling factors is the vulnerability of fresh converts to radicalisation. Because they start out with minimal knowledge of their new faith, converts are easily lured into adopting strict forms of Islam, a passage through which they may be guided by existing radicals and by the sort of extremist literature freely available in jail.

But there are reasons for the indulgence given to radicalisers and the newly radicalised in British jails. Citing an August 2016 classified report written for Britain’s Ministry of Justice by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, Peter Dominiczak, political editor of The Telegraph, argues that “political correctness in prisons is allowing extremism to flourish because guards are too afraid of confronting Muslims.”

Acheson warns that supervising staff are being “pressured” to leave prayer rooms during collective worship and that extremists are “exploiting… staff fear of being labelled racist”. The report concluded that “cultural sensitivity” among National Offender Management Service staff towards Muslim prisoners has “extended beyond the basic requirements of faith observance and could inhibit the effective confrontation of extremist views”.

The report also warned that “charismatic Islamist extremist prisoners [are] acting as self-styled ’emirs’ and exerting a controlling and radicalising influence of the wider Muslim prison population.” It concluded that some charismatic prisoners had exerted a radicalising influence over fellow Muslims. And it claimed that “some have attempted to engineer segregation, encouraged aggressive conversions to Islam, and been involved in the intimidation of prison imams”.

According to the BBC, “Muslim inmates now account for 14.4% of those behind bars, compared with 7.7% in 2002.” In other words, that “wider Muslim prison population” is extensive. In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, the number of Muslims in prisons rose from 6,571 to 12,106.

Under these conditions — which are replicated in France, the Netherlands, Spain and elsewhere — Choudary could easily, as he has promised, continue radicalising others — anyone predisposed to lend a hearing ear to his fulminations against the “infidel” world and his invitations to convert to Islam or to become a more radical Muslim. He could possibly recruit more to this cause than he did when on the streets.

There are many studies of the problem of radicalisation within prisons. On the one hand, our democratic laws are too weak to take radicalising preachers off the streets. Choudary got away with his Islamist language and his nods towards extreme action for twenty years. He was not alone. That weakness in the law, created by an understandable desire to allow free speech, remains crucial to everyone — Trotskyites, neo-fascists, and Islamic militants — who wants to tear down Western civilisation and erect a totalitarian regime in its place. But just taking agitators off the streets is objectively inadequate.

If we let men like Anjem Choudary on the streets, they will use whatever means they can to bring more young Muslims and Muslim converts in their wake, and some of those newly-baptized extremists will either head for the Middle East or work their way into terror networks in Europe. If we keep men with these mindsets in prison, new generations of proselytes will carry more than their personal effects when they check out of jail a month or a year later.

Following Acheson’s report, the government announced new measures to tackle some of the problems in jails. Their proposals will radically alter a fifty-year-old system of dispersing the most dangerous prisoners across many prisons. Liz Truss, who recently replaced Michael Gove as Minister of Justice (who had commissioned the Acheson review) has announced that the most dangerous extremists will instead be locked up in isolated high-security prisons-within-prisons, in order to prevent them radicalising other inmates.

Unfortunately, this proposal has already come under fire. An editorial in the left-wing newspaper The Independent quotes Professor Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London. Neumann argues that keeping Muslim terrorists apart from other prisoners exposes the system to two risks. One, he believes, is that putting these individuals together would give them a chance to create a military command structure tighter than anything they could achieve if dispersed. The other is that, by putting them in one place, there is a danger that this would award them a political status. The new arrangement would be portrayed as a “British Guantanamo” that will serve Muslims everywhere as a propaganda machine.

Neumann goes further, saying that it would be wrong in principle to treat one category of criminal as distinct from another because their crimes are ideologically motivated. He argues that under British law, murder is murder and terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the belief system in whose name such crimes are carried out. This seems extraordinarily naïve and politically correct. A man who stabs his wife to death in a jealous rage is very different indeed from someone who has killed in order to do God’s will and who tells other people they should do the same, perhaps in a massacre.

The editorial shows its political interests, saying:

The Independent has long been in favour of a radical rethink about the alternatives to custody for punishment and rehabilitation. That is the solution to the problem of prisoners learning how to be more serious criminals, and it is also the way to prevent petty offenders being radicalised in prison.”

Unfortunately, the author does not explain just what these “alternatives” may be. No doubt, there is much to be said about finding better ways to turn convicts away from a life of recidivism. When the present author sat as a magistrate in a British court, it was always depressing to be shown an accused’s record sheet (something we were shown, but never mentioned in court proceedings). Young men and women went in and out of prison so many times there seemed no easy way to break the cycle.

Islamic radicalisation in prisons currently possibly poses far greater risks to the public than drug addiction or theft.

For a start, non-Muslim experts must be brought in to evaluate prison chaplains or to decide that no more should be appointed. Certainly, such outside experts should make regular checks of the books available to Muslim prisoners in English, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish or Persian, and reject any that may be contentious.

It would be advisable to separate them out, even if jails are overcrowded. What we can also do is keep radicals or young men who have returned from fighting for the Islamic State well away from petty criminals and those at risk from radicalisation. In these cases, the best solution might be solitary confinement. This will be expensive and may be attacked as harsh. But if political correctness means that potential or actual terrorists continue to be treated with kid gloves, the lives of many innocent people will be lost. Radicals and terrorist recruiters do not deserve special sympathy. Being a Muslim should not be some sort of “get out of jail free” card.

Muslim extremists whose beliefs are deeply ingrained in their identity need to be treated differently from drug addicts or petty offenders. We used to send drug addicts to jail for six months, in the hope they would be kept in long enough to go through a thorough rehabilitation program. That can sometimes work. Schemes to provide young offenders with education and training are also capable of providing the means to steer clear of crime on release. However, many are critical of deradicalisation programs for Muslim terrorist or extremists. John Horgan and Kurt Braddock of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, at Pennsylvania State University, have argued against the effectiveness of such programs:

To date, there is no consensus on what constitutes success in reforming a terrorist, let alone what even constitutes reform in this context. There is, in addition, confusion about whether any kind of rehabilitation is necessarily brought about by “de-radicalization” (itself a term which has not been adequately conceptualized, let alone defined) as opposed to other interventions for eliciting behavior change. Recent research suggests that many of those who disengage (or desist) from terrorist activity are not necessarily de-radicalized (as primarily conceived via a change in thinking or beliefs), and that such de-radicalization is not necessarily a prerequisite for ensuring low risk of recidivism.

Much has been said about the extensive Saudi deradicalisation and rehabilitation program that was initiated in 2004 by Assistant Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, is run by the Advisory Committee based in Riyadh, and has seven regional offices. The Saudis have proclaimed tremendous success for their program, but Andreas Capstack, writing for the Middle East Institute offers severe qualifications for that success:

At first glance, the figures of the deradicalization programs in Saudi Arabia are remarkable. In 2007, Sheikh Al-Sadlan, a member of the Counseling Program, announced that 90 percent of its participants had renounced their radical views and that 1,500 of the 3,200 prisoners involved in the program had been released. Further, in November 2007 Prince Muhammad bin Nayef claimed that there had been only 35 recorded cases of recidivism—equivalent to a rate of less than two percent—and none of the acts of violence resulting from this recidivism occurred within Saudi Arabia. However, the small numbers of cases in which individuals have resisted rehabilitation cannot be ignored due to the severity of some of these cases. The most notable example is Said al-Shihri, who, after his release from Guantanamo Bay in 2007, completed and passed the Saudi deradicalization program but then proceeded to become deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen, orchestrating the bombing of the American embassy in Sana’a in 2008. It has been estimated that 10 percent of the incarcerated jihadists, many of whom have been previously detained in Iraq or Guantanamo by the United States, are “hard-core militants with entrenched deviant beliefs.” They are likely to refuse to cooperate with the rehabilitation process, dismissing the clerics as having been co-opted by the West-aligned Saudi government; as a result, they are probably beyond the reach of any deradicalization program.

This 10 percent “hard-core” figure neatly corresponds with the program’s 90 percent success rate, and would include the most violent and dangerous of the imprisoned extremists. Although these prisoners are unlikely to be released—rehabilitated or not (with al-Shihri’s case being an exception)—it still means that the effectiveness of the rehabilitation campaign is limited mainly to minor offenders and jihadist supporters and sympathizers who may already be looking for a way out of jihadism, having been disillusioned by the circumstances leading to their capture. The results of the Sakinah campaign, which announced in 2007 that they had persuaded 690 individuals from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to “recant their takfir and deviant views,” must be similarly qualified.

If the Saudis, themselves advocates of a Salafi approach, find it so difficult to deradicalise their hard core, there can be little hope that Choudary and his friends will leave British jails as reformed and integrated men.

A report issued in August 2016 shows that half of UK Muslims deemed to be at risk of grooming by the Islamic State have refused to participate in the government’s counter-radicalisation program, “Channel“, part of the wider Prevent strategy. A Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, called for the program to be made compulsory and pointed out that many of the mentors who are supposed to guide young people away from becoming radicalised are themselves non-violent radicals. This means that those at risk were being advised to agree to the ideology that ultimately leads to the violence. We clearly have a long way to go before governments take Islamic radicalisation as seriously as it deserves.

Denis MacEoin has studied, taught, and written about Islam since the early 1970s, has served as a magistrate, and has been a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute since 2014.

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