Recent terror attacks in Europe have increased the focus on the connections between faraway conflicts and local extremism. Some of the radicalisation appears to happen in prisons, which creates a massive dilemma: Jail sentences for fighters returning from Syria and Iraq might increase the risk of attacks at home.
Two weeks. That’s all that passed from when 22-year-old Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein was released from a Danish prison until he, on a Saturday afternoon in February, put on a dark blue ski jacket and took a taxi to a cultural centre in Copenhagen, where a free speech debate was taking place. With him he had a stolen M95 automatic rifle.
Just nine minutes before his first bullets were fired, he had, via his Facebook profile, allegedly pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State.
Nobody can possibly know whether two civilians would have lost their lives in the first fatal terrorist attack in Denmark since 1985 if El-Hussein had not spent time in jail after having stabbed a fellow train passenger. In September last year, however, the Danish Prison and Probation Service warned Danish intelligence service that he had shown increasingly “radicalised behaviour” during his detention.
El-Hussein’s case is not a unique one, In fact, in a number of European countries there are examples of inmates that have adopted extremist values and committed terrorist attacks after their release. Even more fatal than the attacks in Copenhagen were the shootings in Paris that sent shock waves through the West just few weeks before. With 17 people killed, the assaults were the deadliest in France for more than half a century
The foreign fighters-dilemma
Both tragedies occurred while politicians across Europe were working to find ways of prosecuting so-called foreign fighters: EU nationals who leave Europe, or intend to, in order to fight for terrorist organisations.
Just a few days after the attack at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol said that the continent was facing its greatest security threat since 9/11 with as many as 5000 Europeans joining the fighting in Syria. He warned that they could return with the intent to carry out attacks similar to those in Paris.
Governments are addressing this issue with severe penalties. If convicted of being a ‘foreign fighter’ the potential punishments include both the confiscation of passports and decade-long jail sentences. Few politicians would like to be accused of sitting on their hands, with the risk of innocent civilians being gunned down outside their own front door.
There is, however, a snag, when governments choose a strategy of harsher penalties and longer prison sentences as their primary method of dealing with the foreign fighters. An overreliance on such tough measures might well result in making the public less safe as the former fighters themselves can harden further within prisons and radicalise their fellow inmates.
In January, the counter-terrorism co-ordinator of the EU, Gilles de Kerchove, told the Financial Times, that jihadists “with blood on their hands” must face criminal justice. At the same time, however, he warned against throwing thousands of Europeans in jail as they return from fighting in Syria and Iraq. It would be “an invitation to radicalism”, he said, and called for more rehabilitation programmes both inside and outside prison.
Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director at the Swedish National Defence College, is concerned about this issue too. Over the past 20 years, he has worked closely on terrorism issues worldwide with a focus on Islamist extremism.
He warns that countries that do not have programmes aimed specifically at dealing with radicalisation inside the prisons are at risk of releasing people who are “more hardened and more committed” than they were, when they were initially put behind bars.
The security threat arises, according to Ranstorp, when foreign fighters who have built up ties to international terrorist organisations return to Europe . As well as this, they may have developed “a lower threshold for violence” and wider knowledge of how to handle weapons. At the same time, those that have directly participated in the conflict are likely to have an “enhanced position” in certain circles. A position which may lead to them becoming incubators for extremism amongst their fellow inmates:
“They will start recruiting other people, so they spread their influence”, Ranstorp says.
Why some prisons foster terrorists
There is a wide difference in how countries across Europe address the problem. Ranstorp mentions Denmark as an example of one approach: The country has gained recognition for its successful de-radicalisation programmes such as the “Aarhus-method”. The programme is based on mentoring radicalised youth in order to re-integrate them within society. Meanwhile, certain countries further south have a tendency of taking an overwhelmingly tough stance:
“France is a good example – and even in Belgium – there is an over reliance on repressive means that delays the issue with dealing with the problem”, Ranstorp says, “ – and may actually make it worse. “
Two of the perpetrators behind the Paris attacks, Chérif Kouachi and Amédy Coulibaly, met each other less than ten years ago while they were both serving a sentence in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, south of the French capital.
At that time, the facility was notorious for its overcrowded cells and terrible conditions – which, according to the International Observatory of Prisons, posed a threat to the health and security of both inmates and staff. Such circumstances may well have been crucial in the brothers’ turn to radical Islamism.
Ryan Williams, researcher at the University of Cambridge, recently spent 18 months on a research project on ‘locating and building trust’ inside two British high security prisons. He claims that feeling alienated or discriminated against can erode trust, which can increase the risk of extremism.
Williams described the importance of staff and prisoner relationships when one prison instituted a new policy on the ‘shemagh’ (an Islamic headdress) during religious services. The new rules were justified from a prison security point of view; as the garment party covers the face, and thus makes it difficult to identify inmates. But members of staff understood and implemented the new policy in different ways. Some of the guards communicated the new rule to the inmates on a person-to-person basis explaining the reasoning behind the new policy. Meanwhile, others interpreted the new rules to include all items not on the prisoners’ inventory list, which included, in one instance, a prisoner’s prayer mat and Koran. When prisoners were provided a space to express their concerns with how this policy was implemented, one prisoner expressed frustration, proclaiming that his wing was “the frontline of Iraq”.
“It was quite haunting that this, which was going on an local level, actually reflected greater, even geopolitical, conflicts”, Williams says: “If only the policy was exercised better, then you could avoid generating this type of anger, and you could avoid feeding into this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ perception.”
Guards in need of training
Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová recognises that the EU has to do more to prevent radicalisation within prisons. She is now “making EU funds available” to train prison staff across the EU. In an email to InEurope, she said, that “with an adapted training”, the staff “should be able to better identify young people susceptible to radicalisation”.
The French Defence Ministry is now trialling a new de-radicalisation strategy based on separating its prison inmates so they can be closely watched and counselled. Meanwhile, in Denmark, the head of the Danish Prison Officer’s Union, Kim Østerbye, says that the guards are doing what they can to avoid another terrorist developing inside their cells – but it is not always easy to spot budding extremism amongst their inmates:
”If we discover it, we use the tools we have”, Østerbye says: ”However, some of our tools are simply not good enough. Among other things, we are not able to speak Arabic.”
The final responsibility for the handling the potential threat of the Europeans who choose to go to war in Syria lies with Denmark, France and the rest of the member states. How to balance between tough penalties and softer, de-radicalisation measures so the prisons do not turn into factories for radical Islamists is a national-concern too. People like Ranstorp, who work closely with the issue, tend to prefer the latter, because, as he says: “It’s better to try to help them. By helping them you help the rest of society:”
Featured image: European prisons – a hotbed for radical Islamism? Niels Kliim, Creative Commons
Did they radicalise in prison?
(2001) Richard Reid aka ”the Shoe Bomber”
British national who in December 2001 attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoes, eraning him his nickname. Passengers on the flight bound from Paris to Miaimi subdued Reid and he is now serving a 110-year prison sentence. He was intitaly radiclaised after in a stay in Feltham Juvenile Prison, United Kingdom.
(2004) Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras and Jamal Ahmidan
Trashorras, a Spanish drug dealer, and Ahmidan, a Moroccan petty criminal, were both recruited by an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cell while they were serving sentences in Spain’s Topas prison. They went on to take part in the 2004 Madrid train bombing which left 191 dead and injured over 2000 people.
(2005) Muktar Said Ibrahim
Originally a Somalian refugee, Ibrahim became a British citizen and was radicalised during a stay a Huntercombe Young Offenders institute in 1998. Seven years, on the 21st of July 2005 he failed in an attempt to dentonate a bomb aboard a London Bus.
(2015) Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly
Serving sentences together in Paris, they later planned and executed the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and hostage taking in a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January. Both were suspected of wanting to set free the Islamist Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, who was behind the bombing of the Paris Metro in 1995, which left 30 people died.
(2015) Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein
The 22-year-old Copenhagen resident, with Palestinian roots, was placed in prison in 2013 after committing a stabbing on a train. Two weeks after his release in January 2015, he carried out three separate shootings in Copenhagen. Killing two civilians.