It is often argued that prisons may accelerate the process of radicalization by virtue of having vulnerable prisoners isolated from mainstream society under circumstances in which they may be potentially exposed to virulent ideologies and charismatic recruiters.[1] Numerous violent extremists and terrorists have been radicalized in prisons. This report discusses issues of recruiting for violent extremism in prisons as well as examines vulnerabilities for prison radicalization and potential prevention and intervention strategies for the management of violent extremism in prisons.

Prison as a “University of Jihad”

“As long as we have prisons, we have training camps for our youth,” Ahmad Sa’adat, general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told the first author in 2004. Sa’adat spent most of his life in prison (more than 17 years) but did not in any way view that as lost time. He took advantage of the situation and began indoctrinating and recruiting among the vulnerable Palestinian prisoners with whom he found himself surrounded. “We recruited and trained inside the prisons,” he recounted. “They had gathered all our students for us.”[2] Indeed, in many parts of the world, prisons are known to serve as fertile grounds for terrorist recruitment, with terrorist leaders sometimes celebrating the fact that they can operate in an environment where their recruits are already assembled around them.

In November 2006, the first author was contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense to advise on the feasibility of building an effective prison deradicalization program for the 20,000-plus detainees and 800 juveniles held there at that time by U.S. forces in Iraq. Terrorist leaders in the U.S.-run prisons and detention centers in Iraq were indoctrinating and recruiting among the assembled youth. Some terrorist leaders had even been observed training young protégés on how to assemble IEDs by drawing maps and instructions in the sand. Al-Qaeda terrorists grouped together in Camp Bucca later set up shariah courts that ran in some of the cellblocks, sentencing and carrying out punishments to those who defied them.[3] In Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner and his staff attempted to disrupt terrorist leaders and ideologues operating in the prisons by transferring and isolating them from the more vulnerable prisoners. However, as the numbers of detainees swelled and the terrorist leaders learned how to hide themselves among the vulnerable, it became impossible to do so. As a result, the U.S. leadership sought to institute a deradicalization program.[4]

While a prison rehabilitation program was made for Iraq, it was never carried out as intended, and not ever applied fully to the highly radicalized detainees. The changing politics at the time required Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone to carry out mass releases of less-radicalized prisoners to satisfy demands of the tribal leaders in the Anbar area, who were willing to join the “Awakening Movement” but demanded their sons be returned home in order to do so.[5] The long-term effects of not attempting to disengage and deradicalize an entire group of dedicated jihadists operating there, however, turned out to be a mistake that continues to haunt the world to this day, as these very same prisoners later emerged to reform and create what became the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. While prison radicalization of that scale is unlikely to be happening elsewhere in the world, it does set a lesson for avoiding grouping dedicated militant jihadist prisoners, and at least attempting to disengage and deradicalize them.

From Petty Criminals to Lethal Terrorists

Prison for those first entering the system is a time of heightened vulnerability. The new convicts are separated from existing support systems and may find myriad alliances and potential threats inside the prison for which they may be unprepared, and therefore must find a way of protecting themselves. In some cases, prisoners find solace among Muslim prisoners who organize themselves for prayer and study and who band together for self-protection. Those who convert in prison in order to belong to such groups are vulnerable to any radicalizers among them, as converts are typically naïve and ill-equipped to judge any claims set forward about the correct way to practice Islam. Thus, the newly imprisoned and new converts may easily fall under the influence of a violent extremist who teaches them a virulent interpretation of Islamic beliefs, such as those espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Violent extremist recruiters understand that being imprisoned for the first time is usually a period characterized by feeling lonely and frightened. They also understand that while they may be serving under a longer sentence, their ability to recruit young, first-time offenders into their ideology and groups and then feed them back, within a relatively short time period, to a network outside the prison presents an opportunity to enact terrorist violence essentially by proxy—by convincing their “brothers” with shorter sentences and who are about to be released to carry out terror acts on behalf of the group. This also presents a challenge to security officials who may not expect an inmate convicted on non-terrorism related charges to emerge as a lethal violent actor. Consider the example of Harry Sarfo, a German of Ghanaian descent who was radicalized in a prison in Germany after serving prison time for his role in an armed robbery of a supermarket.[6] He traveled to Syria and became a member of the ISIS emni (intelligence arm) and was later accused of participating in ISIS executions. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), two-thirds of ISIS supporters they had studied have served a prison sentence, but only 27 percent credited their radicalization as occurring in prison.[7] This is still a large number and constitutes a serious threat to security.

In the past decades, al-Qaeda ideologues hoped to incite a “leaderless jihad,” in which spontaneous cells and homegrown terrorist plots would emerge. In their vision, however, they failed to account for the difficulty that potential would-be homegrown terrorists would face in executing terrorist attacks. Arguably, nowadays, the leaderless jihad is being infused with knowledge shared within the prison walls, as young and vulnerable new recruits coming from the criminal world continue to fall under the influence of those in prison, who can equip them with terrorist tradecraft and link them with the network of individuals who can assist them in their endeavors following their release from prison.

From Career Criminals to Violent Extremists

Career criminals are also prone to prison recruitment. Some of the most infamous cases include Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who together with his spiritual mentor in prison, Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, served four years in prison and were released by royal pardon implemented by King Abdullah II in 1999. Zarqawi later emerged as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.[8] Other prominent career criminals who turned to terrorism in part due to prison radicalization and as a result of contact with extremist prisoners include the cases of Richard Reid in the UK and Jose Padilla in the United States, which are often presented as quintessential cases of the dangers associated with prison radicalization and their capacity to facilitate and breed violent extremism.[9] Consider also the example of Benjamin Herman, a 36-year-old Belgian. After being released from prison in 2018 on a two-day pass, he first killed a drug dealer he had met in prison and then attacked and shot dead two policewomen in Liege, Belgium. His case demonstrates the danger emanating from a career criminal who had converted in prison and fell under the influence of jihadist ideology in prison.[10]

Prison Recruitment Tactics

The ways in which violent extremists recruit in prison varies by context and the amount of exposure a recruiter is given to vulnerable and naïve recruits. Researcher James Brandon studied official government documents as well as accounts, letters, and testimonies smuggled out of British prisons by suspected and convicted extremists to learn about the manifestations of radicalization to violent extremism within the British prison system.[11]

In one such account, a prisoner formerly held in London’s Belmarsh prison, the United Kingdom’s main prison for convicted and suspected terrorists, wrote: “Some brothers approached me and said that they had been expecting me. At first, I was a bit apprehensive as to whether I should trust them or not. But afterwards I felt comfortable. One of the brothers, Masha ‘Allah, he packed some fruit and a chocolate in a bag and handed it to me before I went back to my cell.”[12]

Another Belmarsh prisoner, Omar Khyam, convicted of planning terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, described how Rachid Ramda, a French Muslim who was later convicted in France of organizing the 1995 Paris metro bombings, approached and befriended him: “The first thing that struck me most about Rachid was the way he greeted me and the new Muslim arrivals, three hugs and a smile. He made me feel as if I had known him for years, such a warm personality and character, making everyone feel wanted and important, as if you’re his best friend.”[13]

ICSVE researchers have also found that a prison setting enables recruiters to exploit prisoners’ perceived or real grievances. Iraqi Abu Ghazwhan told ICSVE researchers how he was arrested in 2013 with a group of youth in relation to a tribal killing. He bitterly noted that the Shia youth arrested with him were immediately released but he felt that he was singled out as a Sunni, and as a result spent time in prison. He explained how his parents had to find money to hire a lawyer to get him out. During his short time in prison, he fell under the influence of a terrorist recruiter, who played upon these perceived or real grievances.

Abu Ghazwhan recounted, “There was a guy [in prison] named Ziad. I joined [ISIS] through him. When I got released, he asked for my phone number. I gave him my number [and] he gave my number to the organization outside, and they called me to join them.” There was no evidence to suggest that Abu Ghazwhan had been involved in terrorism prior to his 2013 arrest. Upon his release, he met with the “brothers” and agreed to set IEDs outside the doors of the Shia security officials, who he felt had been involved in unfairly imprisoning him. As explained, “[I was] avenging myself. They arrested me, even though I was innocent.”

Recruiters generally have good communication skills, possess high emotional intelligence, and discount any criminal background of their followers, and may indeed value it. This presents an attractive mix to lost or confused young criminals who suddenly find their criminal background is nothing to be ashamed of in the face of their recruiters and who may be told that they were right to steal from the kafirs (unbelievers), and should continue to do so, but now in the name of Allah. Such an attitude perpetuates continued criminality while overcoming any sense of shame they may have been experiencing for being caught and punished for their crimes.

Charismatic Leaders in Prison

As explained above, prison recruitment often occurs through charismatic leaders who easily bring frightened and angry youth into their violent jihadist orbit. When ISIS entered Iraq seizing its first swaths of territories in 2014, Abu Islam (a kunya) was studying Islamic law at a university. Abu Islam told ICSVE researchers who interviewed him in 2017 that he immediately became enamored of the group and believed it would set up a legitimate Islamic State in Iraq. As a result, he joined them. Abu Islam’s job inside ISIS was teaching shariah and indoctrinating youth and new recruits. Over time, he became an ISIS emir (military commander, a chief).[14] Peshmerga soldiers credited him with being responsible for more than 500 deaths in which he had sent young men to their deaths in suicide operations. When ICSVE researchers interviewed Abu Islam in prison, it was clear that he had a charismatic presence and spoke with pride and confidence about the Islamic State and its operations. The Peshmerga soldiers who were holding him said that in prison they could not leave Abu Islam alone for any measure of time with young prisoners, as he was capable of quickly radicalizing youth in prison, meaning powerfully engaging the youth and convincing them of the terrorist ideology.

Ahmad Sa’adat, the Palestinian PFLP leader referenced above, was a similar character: exuding warmth and authority. A political prisoner who spent over a year in the same cellblock as Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who later became the leader of ISIS in Iraq, recalled how Zarqawi was also a charismatic and caring person. “There was a young man in a wheelchair in our prison and Zarqawi always took care of him, and would wheel him around,” he recalled.[15] Care and charisma can be a potent force to attract vulnerable and frightened prisoners to listen to the message being put forward.

Jihadists Experiences in Prison

It is not only the young and naïve who are radicalized in prison. Those already on the terrorist path, as well as dedicated terrorists, may also deepen their commitment to militant jihad – as well as widen their networks – while in prison.

Some, for instance, blamed the rise of ISIS on concentrating the arrested al-Qaeda terrorists during the American occupation of Iraq in cellblocks in Camp Bucca. In truth, there were far more factors involved in the rise of ISIS than simply concentrating jihadists in Camp Bucca. The demobilized military, police and intelligence composed heavily of Sunnis losing prestige, employment and retirements, the sudden bi-directional sectarian ethnic cleansing happening in Baghdad and beyond, the lack of basic services and the crippling of government capacities and infrastructure destroyed during the war, the rise of Shia power, and continuing security violations by Shia militias against Sunni civilians all played a role. Likewise, many of the ISIS leaders were already radicalized and linked to one another before entering Camp Bucca.

However, anytime one gathers jihadists in prison blocks without effective measures to rehabilitate them, as was done in Camp Bucca, it does give them opportunity to share their ideological views and tradecraft, as well as idle time to further their networks and plot for the future once released.

In Kosovo, ICSVE researchers interviewed Abu Albani (a kunya) about his experiences in ISIS, as well as reasons for joining and defecting from the group. Upon return, he was tried and convicted on terrorism charges. When interviewed in prison, Abu Albani stated that he had become disillusioned with ISIS and angered over how they treated sick and widowed women. He was also angry about how Albanian ISIS leaders mistreated a young orphaned boy who he brought back to Kosovo from ISIS and complained that he feared ISIS cadres in prison might kill him for having defected. However, after his release, when Abu Albani was interviewed a second time by the same ICSVE researchers, he told about joining a group inside the prison with access to militant jihadist materials in Albanian.

These jihadists studied together with a great sense of camaraderie, according to Abu Albani. “I deepened my understanding of jihad in prison. Me and the brothers studied Maqdisi’s Millat Ibrahim in Albanian,” he told ICSVE researchers. As a result, Abu Albani returned out of his three-and-half-year prison sentence as, if not more, threatening than he went in – despite a prison rehabilitation program being active during some of his time in prison. During the second interview, he told ICSVE researchers, “We should all follow the words of Abu Mohammad al-Adnani [ISIS’ now-deceased leader of the intelligence emni and propaganda arm of ISIS], that ‘you need to attack in every place and at every time.’” Learning the researchers were soon traveling into Syria, he added, “I hope you meet Jihadi John in Syria and he [beheads you both].”[16]

Prison Disengagement and Deradicalization Programs

Various prison deradicalization programs have been constructed since the rise of al-Qaeda and similarly minded groups and nearly every country runs some variation of a program. Most of these programs rely on either a combination of, or just a prong of, Islamic challenge and psychological treatment. On the Islamic challenge side, the programs generally involve an imam or Islamic scholar creating rapport with the prisoner and trying to engage the prisoner in a discussion of the Islamic texts upon which the person bases his or her militant jihadist views. This is done in an attempt to demonstrate to the prisoner the virulent Islamic claims made by jihadist ideologues that do not hold up to real Islamic scholarship and scrutiny. On the psychological side, programs generally look for the motivations and vulnerabilities in the prisoners and try to redirect them to more useful ways of meeting the needs and challenges in their lives.

The likely best and ideal approach to trying to affect cognitive, behavioral and emotional changes among the militant jihadis is to use a psychologist to get at the inner needs and hurts that led the person to embrace violent extremism and what continues to fuel embracing that mindset, alongside a well-versed and credible Islamic scholar who can address the manipulation of Islamic scriptures that underpin the person’s jihadist beliefs. That said, in determining key risk-assessment factors, specifically as it relates to religion and ideology, one must not consider them as the only, or even the most important, factors, facilitating violent extremism. As the research indicates, recruits to terrorism and violent extremism often have simplistic understandings of the ideology and religion compared to their movement’s leadership. In fact, more profound understandings and commitments to religion and ideology may only occur after time spent in prison, which allows prisoners to engage with one another in detailed discussions about religion and ideology.[17]

In the case of Abu Albani discussed above, he explained that he had been invited into a prison deradicalization program run by the Kosovo prison authorities but refused to participate. “They brought an imam from BIK [the Kosovo Islamic Community] and they tried to force me to talk to him. I never accepted. …We don’t need to learn anything from them.”

Indeed, those already on the terrorist trajectory have often narrowed their focus and only trust information that comes to them from like-minded individuals who share their same experiences, vulnerabilities, and motivations. This is an argument for using former violent extremists and/or Salafi scholars as those who try to engage violent extremists in prison. The risk with using formers, however, is that they are often not psychologically healthy and may make outrageous statements, and sometimes even re-propagate their previously held beliefs and views. Governments also often find it problematic to employ Salafi scholars who may preach religious views against homosexuality or feminism that directly contradict government policies and laws.

In this regard, videos of defectors, returnees, and ISIS cadre prisoners that challenge the terrorist group from an insider point of view in the simple language used by their peers might be the safer alternative, as once video recorded, the message does not change.[18] It is also known that violent offenders and addicts are often resistant to individual treatment and may do better with challenges from other insiders, in group therapy settings etc., where they may begin to see themselves as the words of their peers begin to break through their defenses.

Abu Islam, the charismatic ISIS emir mentioned earlier, was challenged by ICSVE researchers in prison after speaking with bravado about ISIS’ activities using two videos from the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project. Surprisingly, he was very emotionally engaged by the videos, watched them carefully, and after viewing them, hung his head in shame and admitted, “We were wrong. We gave a bad face to Islam.”[19]

Researcher Andrew Silke has pointed out that in the past, European ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist prisoners were not challenged in any way about changing their ideological views but simply began to disengage from their peers and terrorist activities by spending time in prison.[20] Moreover, low recidivism rates among terrorist convicts even in the absence of de-radicalization programs, both among jihadi and ethno-nationalists, are often cited as successes.[21] While this is an important point to consider, it may also be that the nature of terrorism has changed drastically with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other similar groups now co-opting basic religious beliefs. These groups differ drastically from ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist groups of the past by virtue of invoking religious imperatives, namely that the followers have a religious duty to carry out militant jihad, that suicide missions are acts of Islamic martyrdom, that punishment awaits those who refuse to participate, and that terrorists acts are carried out on behalf of the Muslim ummah (community).

As Scott Atran has pointed out from his years of field research with militant jihadis, these religious views about terrorism begin to fuse the individual’s identity with that of the group and certain beliefs that are taken on begin to represent difficult-to-change sacred values.[22] In these cases, it may be both necessary and worthwhile to engage with the prisoners’ worldviews and beliefs in support of violent extremism, which will require prison experts who are systematically trained to know the basis of extremist ideologies and trained to counter it.

That said, simple imprisonment without any disengagement/deradicalization program in place can completely on its own have a positive effect in terms of disengagement from the group by virtue of the prisoners being separated from their terrorist cadres. Over a quarter of Iraqi prisoners under life sentences, or awaiting what may become life sentences, whom ICSVE researchers have interviewed explained that their time in prison served to remove them from the ISIS’ takfiri ideology that rejects all other interpretations of Islam and to provide ample opportunity to reflect about the injustices and corruption they had witnessed and taken part of inside the group, as well as the price they were now paying for having served it. For instance, Abu Omar, an Iraqi who was arrested after serving in ISIS, in 2017 shared the following with the ICSVE researchers: “Prison changed me. Ever since I got in prison, things have changed in me.” He went on to completely denounce ISIS.

Anne Speckhard Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Ardian Shajkovci Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).  He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally.

Anne Speckhard
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is the author of five books including the just released, ISIS Defector: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate coauthored with Dr Ahmet S. Yayla, based on 32 interviews with actual ISIS defectors. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She has consulted to the U.S. Senate, House, NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, Justice Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and is also a sought after counter-terrorism expert appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times,The Washington Post, London Times and in many other publications.