The Terror Within: Radicalization Behind Bars

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Amedy Coulibaly, and Mehdi Nemmouche all have something in common, and it’s not just that they have committed barbaric acts of violence to advance their cause but they were all radicalized in prisons. In the wake of the White House Summit To Counter Violent Extremism, repeated criticism for the administration’s attempts to disassociate groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic state from Islam and Graeme Wood’s widely read article claiming the contrary have overshadowed one of the most important yet underemphasized fronts in the international effort to prevent terrorism: radicalization in prisons.

Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai was once known as the “Messi,” in reference to Lionel Messi the famous Argentinian striker, of his mosque’s football team according to a profile in the Telegraph. He received a master’s degree and doctorate in Islamic Studies at Islamic University in Baghdad and while he was certainly a religiously conservative adherent to salafism, it is uncertain exactly when he became a militant. What is clear is that after spending four years in Camp Bucca, Iraq Awwad had transformed into the brutal extremist leader we now know as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not only radicalized beyond the point of rehabilitation, but now a source of radicalization himself.

Amedy Coulibaly was a troubled youth who spent time in and out of prison starting in 2001, when he was sentenced to jail for robbery according to reporting by the Washington Post. Coulibaly was not particularly religious, but after being convicted again of armed robbery in 2005 he met Djamel Beghal, a European-based al Qaeda recruiter serving a 10-year sentence for plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001. It was in France’s Fleury-Merogis prison, one of many hailed to “have a reputation as factories for radical Islamists,” that under Beghal’s tutelage, Coulibaly began a path of radicalization and violent extremism culminating with the attack on a kosher market in Paris.

Mehdi Nemmouche, arrested in June of last year, now stands trial for the May 2014 murders of four people outside of the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. Nemmouche, convicted of various petty crimes including armed robbery, similarly was in and out of prison from 2001 onwards, where it is believed that he was radicalized during his final five year sentence while he grew close to “radicalized Islamists.” He had been released from prison two years prior to the attacks in Brussels. Additionally, early reporting indicates that Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, the alleged attacker of the shootings in Copenhagen last month, may have been radicalized in prison. He too had been released just two weeks before the attack.

The radicalized populations in Iraqi prisons were so important to the Islamic State that it launched an entire campaign in July 2012 entitled “Breaking the Walls” targeting prisons to bolster its ranks. Poorly resourced and run prisons around the world not only provide the grounds for the radicalization of individuals, but also serve as propaganda for violent extremists. Images of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and abuses in Abu Gharib are ubiquitous in the propaganda and recruitment videos of nearly every violent extremist organization including al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab.

As Daniel Byman pointed out in a recent Washington Post editorial, there is no single path to radicalization. While social isolation, lack of economic opportunity, and political disenfranchisement create the conditions that allow religious extremists, irrespective of their religious orientation, to radicalize vulnerable populations, they are not the sole causes and thus their alleviation will not bring an end to violent extremism. A whole of community approach like that employed in the Danish city of Aarhus needs to be implemented not only to reintegrate returning fighters but also to prevent their radicalization in the first place. Prison populations represent a vulnerable segment of society in which governments can actively control the conditions to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

Despite years of reporting on this issue and countless attacks conducted by common-criminals- turned-extremists, the importance of addressing radicalization in prison continues to go underemphasized in policy. The 2011 strategy document to Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States mentions the word “prison” or “jail” only once. In the remarks at the summit by President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of State John Kerry, “prison” or “jail” was similarly mentioned only once. The Fact Sheet from the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism doesn’t mention prison at all.

In order to counter this trend, the international community needs to prioritize prison reform as a part of its global strategy to counter violent extremism. Proactive radicalization prevention programs need to be properly resourced and implemented in prisons worldwide. International guidelines for the proper administration of prisons should be established to empower countries with best practices to prevent radicalization behind bars and hold those accountable that fail to abide by them. Prisons around the world are over-crowded and understaffed not only by guards and social workers, but also by moderate clerics of all faiths. US aid earmarked for prison reform, protection, and administration can be leveraged to encourage reforms and address these failings.

Despite some criticism over last month’s summit, the Obama administration took important steps to begin formulating and implementing a global strategy to counter violent extremism in collaboration with international partners. The failure to prioritize prison reform as a pillar of any such strategy risks neglecting a key vulnerable population that will either emerge from prison ready to reintegrate as a constructive, contributing member of society or an extremist beyond the reach of rehabilitation.

Michael McBride, US


Michael McBride is a former Ranger and Army Infantry Officer with multiple deployments in support of the Global War on Terror. He currently works as a consultant for the United States Government. He holds an M.A. in Security Studies from the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a B.A in History from Brown University.

  • John_Breckin

    This was good. Very very good. Why the radicalization of the prison population hasn’t been properly addressed is a mystery to me. Mr. McBride’s last line hints at the problem: most societies don’t view prisons as centres of rehabilitation but places of punishment. Anything that would be considered ‘helpful’ to the prisoner is discouraged. No wonder that some released inmates go out and commit the same crimes or worse. Maybe terrorism will help spark a larger, deeper debate on how to treat prisoners. And we can stop painting efforts towards prison reform as the fantasies of limp-wristed softies. Preventing our prisoners from becoming worse versions of themselves is a matter of national security.

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