Prisons are likely to become more – rather than less – significant centers of gravity for the jihadist movement. We discuss some ways in which prisons matter during the radicalization process.
Scholars suggest that an individual’s criminal past impacts possible terrorist futures for the jihadist movement. In particular, Basra et al.’s research has emerged four main themes.
Radicalization and recruitment
The redemption narrative offers a radical change of values and behavior while encouraging a guilt-free sense of rebellion and anti-establishment. Crime is justified on religious grounds, whether or not the recruit has a religious background or understanding of Islam. In this instance, recruitment can be viewed as an unintended merging of criminal and jihadist narratives.
Prisons as a milieu
Prisons expose vulnerabilities in individuals susceptible to “cognitive openings” and the willingness to identify with new beliefs. Networking opportunities in prison lay the groundwork for radicalization, with rapid mobilization and solidification of radical beliefs occurring post-release.
Jihadists also take advantage of criminal skills in prison, such as connections to gangs and weapons, and the soft skill of staying under the radar by using fake documents and safe houses. Familiarity with violence is also considered a skill transfer, as recruits with violent pasts are less likely to be psychologically hesitant to commit violent terrorist acts.
Petty crime and criminal operations are known to finance terrorists, particularly their return to Syria. There has been a shift in terrorist financing from state-funded to micro-level self-funded methods (through criminal efforts). Jihadists also leverage the criminal financial strategy of encouraging a low barrier to entry, sharing their ideology to justify their crimes, and encouraging continued criminal behavior by simply shifting the purpose to meet jihadist ideals.
These findings challenge traditional views of radicalization and significantly impact counter-terrorism responses, forcing authorities to consider prisons a breeding ground for radicalization where, previously, foreign fighters were recruited from universities and places of religious worship.
Again, the criminal challenges of society (which now include terrorism) come back to addressing societal needs and effective rehabilitation efforts to impact change. Exploring this demands an entirely new discussion, but essentially, incorporating rehabilitation and post-release services as a priority in prisons rather than punitive measures could protect the vulnerable isolation of offenders and reduce recidivism (in the form of terrorist action).
There are several examples of jihadists who have emerged from the criminal-terrorist nexus in prison and caused severe damage. The case of Omar el-Hussein demonstrates both arguments — that prisons are a location for radicalization and that offenders are vulnerable people whose rehabilitation and reintegration are largely neglected.
El-Hussein was radicalized in prison and even red-flagged by authorities. After his release, a technicality prevented him from accessing probation services, leading him to be homeless and jobless, during which rapid radicalization occurred. Destitute and radicalized, he carried out the deadly shootings at a cultural center and a synagogue in Copenhagen in February 2015.
- Basra, R., Neumann, P., and Brunner, C. (2016). Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus. London: CSR.
- Burchett, J. & Weyembergh, A. (2023). Prison and detention conditions in the EU. IPOL | Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Accessed on September 23, 2023, from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2023/741374/IPOL_STU(2023)741374_EN.pdf
- Clarke, C. (2016). Drugs and Thugs: Funding Terrorism through Narcotics Trafficking. Journal of Strategic Security, 9(3).
- Mikkelsen, R. (2007). U.S. prison system a costly and harmful failure: report. Reuters. Accessed on September 23, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-prisons-idUSN1841666120071119
- UNODC. (2017). Roadmap for the development of prison-based rehabilitation programs. Criminal Justice Handbook Series. Accessed on September 23, 2023, from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/17-05452_ebook.pdf