While 2018 saw a decrease in the number of jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe, extremism still poses a strong threat. Currently two of the main challenges are radicalization in prisons and the imminent release of radicalized prisoners.
In most Western countries, prisons have long represented hubs for radicalization, where radicalized individuals can establish ties with each other, as well as engage in proselytism and recruit other inmates. The recent increase in arrests for terrorism-related charges has led to a swell in the radicalized prison population and endangered those considered to be “at risk” of radicalization, although this definition is often unclear and changes depending on the prison authorities of different European countries.
Thousands of jihadi extremists have been arrested across Europe over the course of the past five years, causing a spike in the radicalized prison population. According to Eurojust, most terms handed for terrorism related charges in the European Union are of five years in length – relatively short stints which place a high number of individuals in the near term release segment.
The latest attack in Strasbourg has highlighted this factor. The attacker, Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year old born in Strasbourg of North African origins, had 27 past-convictions and had been flagged by French Intelligence as having become radicalized during his time in prison.
A joint ISPI-GWU Program on Extremism-ICCT study that I have worked on assessed jihadist terrorist attacks in the West following the declaration of the establishment of the Caliphate by Islamic State in June 2014. It found that almost a third of the attackers had spent time in prison prior to an attack. Some had been serving time for terrorism-related activity, while others had committed crimes unrelated to terrorism.
The profiles of the individuals analyzed were varied, as is often the case in extremism assessments. However, most had been serving sentences for drug-related crimes, possession of weapons, robbery, or physical violence and assault, as opposed to terrorism-related crimes. While the number is significant, the link between the radicalization of the individuals and the time spent in prison was harder to determine.
In the prison sphere, criminals and extremists are placed in close contact with one another, creating situations that can serve as an amplifier of radicalization. Common resentment is shared and at times the search for “redemption” for one’s crimes can lead down the dark path of radicalization and extremism. Certain criminals also possess skills – and connections – that can be useful for terrorist groups, such as knowing how to acquire and handle weapons.
The cell that carried out the attacks in Paris in 2015 reportedly used its previous criminal connections to obtain weapons – AK-47 variants from Eastern European countries that had been “demilitarized” and adapted to fire only blanks. They were then reconfigured and modified to be able to fire live ammunition.
Anis Amri on the other hand, who radicalized while in prison in Italy, had close links to a network of document forgers operating out of southern Italy. The connection between terrorists and document forgers has often been observed in terrorism cases in Italy, where figures such as Anwar Shabaan, a radical imam who became the emir of the Arab foreign fighters in Bosnia during the war in the 1990s, used to make fake documents for foreign fighters who traveled to wage jihad.
Similarly, the sale of narcotics was often used to provide funds to militant networks and for individuals who were seeking to purchase tickets to travel to the areas of conflict in Syria and Iraq. As Rajan Basra and Peter Neumann of the ICSR have pointed out, Islamic State has exploited this link between the criminal world and terrorism. In its propaganda, the group has often touched upon this factor, at times conveying the message that “you do not need to change your behavior, only your motivation”. This could push criminals to embrace jihadism in the hope of acquiring redemption. With regards to jihadist terrorist attacks in the West, in total around 50% of attackers had criminal backgrounds in activity that ranged from terrorism activity to drug dealing and robberies.
France provides an example. The Ministry of the Interior has reported that there are approximately 500 individuals serving time in prison on terrorism related charges, while a little more than 1,200 prisoners have been labeled as being radicalized. Of these, at least 50 people serving terrorism-related sentences will be released in 2019, alongside 400 individuals who reportedly radicalized in prison. In an attempt to mitigate the risk tied to the release of radicalized prisoners, the 2018 French National Plan for the Prevention of Radicalization called for the creation of a permanent unit that would monitor these individuals once they are released from prison.
Similarly, in the UK there are reportedly 228 subjects in prison serving terrorism-related sentences. No fewer than 82% of them are Islamists, although the threat posed by other types of extremists, such as right wing radicals, should not be underestimated. Furthermore, over 40% of people sentenced for terrorism-related crimes over the last decade will have been released by the end of the year. As in other European countries, most extremists tried for terrorism offences in the UK were given five-year terms at most and, according the British Ministry of Justice, of the 312 that have been released since 2014, 171 had served less than four years in prison.
In a case from May of this year, a prisoner on 48-hour leave in the Belgian city of Liege attacked and killed two police officers with a bladed weapon and shot a bystander. The attacker, a 36-year-old Belgian citizen named Benjamin Herman, had a long criminal record and had been in prison for drugs, assault and robbery. At the time of the attack, he was serving a short term in prison for drug related charges and had reportedly converted and become radicalized while incarcerated, although according to Belgian authorities, his radicalization “was not a clear-cut case”.
In another case from September 2016, a French individual named Bilal Taghi, who had been detained in the Osny prison in the outskirts of Paris, turned to violence while in prison when he attacked two corrections officers with a bladed weapon. The man had been arrested as he attempted to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State with two friends and his wife, and had pledged allegiance to the terror group.
The case of Djamel Beghal, Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly is perhaps the most telling on the topic of radicalization in prison. Beghal, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, had served time over a thwarted al-Qaeda plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Beghal had previously been arrested in 1994 for his connection to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), but only spent three months in prison. He then set off for England where he attended several radical mosques in London and Leicester, which French officials saw as being “Osama Bin Laden’s representatives in Europe”. Beghal engaged in activities such as disseminating propaganda, collection of funds, and even travelling to Afghanistan for training.
It was during his internment in the Fleury-Megoris prison, the largest in France, that Beghal met and indoctrinated Kouachi and Coulibaly. Kouachi had been arrested as he attempted to travel to Iraq, while Coulibaly was a petty criminal. The two developed a strong bond with Beghal, despite the fact that Beghal was prohibited from seeing other inmates, and Beghal deepened their indoctrination and radicalization, setting in motion the chain of events that would eventually lead Coulibaly and Kouachi to the attack. Beghal was ultimately deported from France in July of this year.
The network involved in the 2016 Brussels bombings was also comprised of many individuals who had served time in prison. Brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El-Bakraoui, who detonated suicide vests in the Brussels airport and metro, had long been involved in the criminal world. The two had multiple convictions for carjacking and bank robberies and even attempted murder, as Ibrahim had opened fire with a Kalashnikov on police officers who were responding to a bank robbery. A eulogy by Dabiq, one the Islamic State’s official English language magazines, featured profiles on the two brothers. “While incarcerated, he followed the news about the atrocities against the Muslims in Shām. Something clicked and he decided to change his life, to live for his religion”, it claimed of Ibrahim. Similarly, his brother Khalid “was guided while in prison after having a vivid, life-changing dream”.
The piece in Dabiq also highlights the change in Khalid’s actions following his release, explaining how he began proselytizing and writing articles on the “crusades fought by the West against the Muslims”. It also goes on to explain how the two brothers acquired the weapons and explosives used in the attacks in Paris and Brussels. It is significant that these aspects are highlighted in jihadist propaganda: the change in ideology and motivation that takes place in prison and the acquisition of weapons on behalf of the brothers, who, having been bank robbers, had the necessary contacts to access assault rifles.
These are important aspects that the group purposely seeks to convey in the hope that others will take them as an example from and emulate the attackers. While much has been said about Islamic State’s support network in Europe, most attacks in the West were carried out by individuals who were rather loosely connected and affiliated to the group. Some were completely unconnected, in fact, while others have a “relationship” with the group limited to one or more individuals who did no more than influence them or introduce them to radical ideology.
Ideological guides are part of the picture, but most attackers lacked actual established support groups that could supply them with weaponry, leading them to carry out attacks only with knifes or vehicles. For this reason, criminals who have their own contacts are particularly attractive to a group such as Islamic State, as they have the means and connections to acquire the weaponry and material needed for the execution of deadlier attacks.