For ISIS, prisons have become terror incubators
Beirut - The recent surge of murderous attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) across Western Europe was carried out by what Belgian counterterrorism expert Rik Coolsaet has called “the fourth wave” of jihadists — bitter, alienated young Muslims who turned to crime and were largely recruited while in prison.
There is growing evidence that, across Europe and in the United States, prisons have become key incubators for this new generation of jihadists as more young, alienated Muslims turn to crime.
Coolsaet observed that the “street gang dynamics and… foreign fighters’ networks have much in common”.
Europe’s prison system is a “breeding ground” for jihadist militancy, stated a recent British report on what it warned is an emerging “crime-terror nexus”.
The report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, London, released on October 11th, stressed that there is a “complete connect” between jihadist groups and criminal organisations across the continent that comes together in Europe’s prisons.
This is in sharp contrast to the jihadist wave that followed the 1979- 89 Afghanistan war with the emergence of al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden.
Then, few, if any, of the recruits had criminal records or significant brushes with the law because the organisation sought to avoid scrutiny by security services.
Most recruits were motivated by the extreme interpretation of Islam as espoused by bin Laden and his war against those he called “crusaders” who had invaded the Muslim world.
That changed with the emergence, around the turn of the century, of a generation of apocalyptic extremists such as Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, a Jordanian with a long criminal record, who set up his own hard-line group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS.
ISIS was created by the inmates of US military prisons in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. These men included followers of Zarqawi before he was killed in a US air strike in June 2006.
Among them was a little-known Islamic preacher named Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, who became known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s leader and self-proclaimed head of the Islamic caliphate ISIS declared in 2014.
The links between the jihadists — ISIS in particular — and the criminal milieu stems to a significant extent from the large number of marginalised and disillusioned young Muslims trapped in dead-end ghettoes in Western Europe’s cities, especially in France, Belgium and Spain, where North Africans have settled since the 1950s.
“Analysts have long been conscious of the high number of young men with previous involvement in petty or serious crimes among volunteers (for jihad) and the importance of family ties in contemporary Islamic militancy,” observed Islamic terrorism expert Jason Burke.
“They are increasingly aware that ISIS has combined the two in a devastatingly effective way,” he wrote in a March analysis published by the British newspaper the Guardian.
“A study of the 2001-2009 period, before the rise of ISIS, showed that around a quarter of militants identified in Europe had (criminal) convictions. This proportion, evidence suggests, has risen.”
In August 2015, the Brussels government said half of Belgian jihadis had a criminal record, usually convictions for theft or assault. Several of the November 2015 Paris attackers had histories of petty crime and came from the margins of European society.
Burke, author of several books on jihadists, argues that, unlike al-Qaeda, currently led by the 64-year-old veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al- Zawahiri whose pronouncements tend towards theological treatises, ISIS propaganda, especially its hard-core videos, is about unbridled violence, excitement and even sexual fulfilment.
Several of the jihadists who carried out the March 22nd suicide bombings in Brussels had criminal backgrounds and served time in prison. Two of them, brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, aged 26 and 29, were convicted of armed robbery and other violent crimes and became radicalised while behind bars.
The father of Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian who, German authorities say, drove a truck into a crowded Berlin Christmas market killing 12 people, said his son became a jihadist militant when he was in prison on Sicily for conviction on robbery and arson charges.
Amri “spent four years in jail in Italy where he first met extremist groups, which attracted him,” his father told the Times newspaper.
Amri left the family home in Oueslatia, a small town in northern Kairouan province in 2011 and made his way to Italy in the turbulent aftermath of the Tunisian revolution that ignited the “Arab spring”.
He was released in May 2015, thrown out of Italy and arrived in Germany several weeks later. There, German authorities say, he was spotted as a potential militant because of his connections to a Salafist radical known as Abu Walaa.
Amri fled Germany after the Berlin atrocity and made his way back to Italy, where he was shot dead by police in a gun battle outside a Milan railway station on December 23rd.
Boubaker al-Hakim, a French- Tunisian ISIS leader killed in US air strikes on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa in northern Syria on November 26th, also found his way to jihad through the European prison system.
He told the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq in early 2015 that he went to Iraq after the US invasion of March 2003 to fight the Americans. By his own account, he joined the jihadist group led by the hard-line Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was the genesis for ISIS.
In 2004, Hakim moved to Syria where he was arrested by the regime of President Bashar Assad and spent nine months in the notorious Far Falastin prison with other hardened jihadists.
He was deported to France, where he said he was “imprisoned for seven years”. That was “difficult”, he told Dabiq, but noted it was also “a great gate for da’wah (proselytisation) to Allah” and a “school” for indoctrinating others in jihadist ideology.
Amedy Coulibaly, one of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killing spree in Paris on January 9th, 2015, became a jihadist while serving 6-year sentence in a French prison for bank robbery.
In 2010, investigators asked him about Islamists he knew. He replied: “I know all of them: The ones from the Chechen networks, the ones from the Afghan networks.” He admitted he knew them from prison.
The key figure behind his entry into jihadist terrorism while behind bars was Algerian-born Djamel Beghal, a French citizen convicted in 2001 of leading a jihadist plot to blow up the US embassy in Paris and widely seen by the French as a diehard jihadist ideologue and skilled recruiter.
Louis Caprioli, deputy chief of France’s domestic counterterrorism unit from 1998 to 2004, called Beghal a “sorcerer, seducer — anyone who came in contact with him could not have helped but become more radicalised.”
In 2005, Coulibaly, then a 23-year-old petty criminal, met Beghal, then 40, in the sprawling Fleury-Merogis prison, the largest in France, when Coulibaly began his sentence for bank robbery.
Cherif Kouachi, another young Muslim whose life would be changed forever by Beghal, joined them in 2005 and spent 20 months there while awaiting trial for various offences.
During the seven months Kouachi and Coulibaly were in Fleury-Merogis together in 2005, they were radicalised by the mesmerising Beghal and thrust towards their doom a decade later.
Counterterrorism officials describe Beghal as a key link between generations of European terrorists, including the 2011 shoe-bomber Richard Reid, 9/11 participant Zakarias Moussaoui and fiery London ideologue Abu Hamza al-Masri.
As fate would have it, Masri was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges by a US federal court in New York on January 19th, 2015, the day that Beghal’s recruits, Coulibaly and Kouachi, along with his elder brother Said, massacred 17 people in Paris in a series of landmark attacks that triggered a wave of terrorist strikes across Western Europe. All three jihadists were killed by police.
In January, Britain’s prison service disclosed that 1,229 of 5,885 men behind bars in the country’s eight maximum-security prisons — those convicted of the most serious crimes — are Muslim. That is nearly 21% of what are known as Category A prisoners.
A month earlier, Nick Hardwicke, the outgoing chief prisons inspector warned that Islamists were using British prisons as a key recruiting venue.
He said that a “small number of very dangerous men motivated by a religion or an ideology… are trying to recruit other people so they’ll go on to commit offences linked to that ideology or religion”.