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Prisons breeding ground for terror?

A shortage of Muslim chaplains at U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities nationwide threatens prison security and is a terrorist threat, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said yesterday.

"Without a sufficient number of Muslim chaplains on staff, inmates are much more likely to lead their own religious services, distort Islam and espouse extremist beliefs," Mr. Fine said.

An Inspector General's Office report on the selection, screening and supervision of Muslim chaplains, contractors and volunteers, who work with 9,000 Islamic inmates, blames the shortage on a hiring freeze. The bureau has no recruiting strategy or alternative measures to address the shortage.

"The presence of extremist chaplains, contractors or volunteers can pose a threat to institutional security and could implicate national security if inmates are encouraged to commit terrorist acts against the United States," Mr. Fine said.

"It is imperative the has in place sound screening and supervision practices that will identify persons who seek to disrupt the order of its institutions or to inflict harm on the United States through terrorism," he said.

Mr. Fine said only 10 Muslim chaplains are available to the bureau, three fewer than needed to overcome "a critical shortage," and none has witnessed inmates being radicalized by contractors or volunteers through inappropriate messages.

But, the chaplains told investigators, some inmates were being radicalized by other inmates.

One Muslim chaplain said Islamic-extremist inmates told other inmates that if they were going to convert to Islam, they had to overthrow the U.S. government because "Muslims aren't cowards."

The Inspector General's Office began the probe after several members of Congress expressed concern that the Bureau of Prisons had relied on two Islamic groups to endorse its Muslim chaplains, the Islamic Society of North America and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council. Both organizations have been under federal investigation as part of a larger probe into terrorist financing.

Endorsements by the national and local Muslim organizations are used to determine whether chaplain, contractor and volunteer applicants can provide appropriate religious services in prisons, said Mr. Fine. Candidates are required to obtain the endorsements to show they have mainstream religious beliefs and are qualified to teach in prisons.

The chaplains told investigators that convicted terrorists from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were put into general prison populations, where they radicalized inmates with teachings that terrorism is part of Islamic theology.

Concerns regarding the radicalization of Muslim inmates were heightened after former inmates Richard Reid and Jose Padilla were arrested for terrorist acts against the United States.

Reid, convicted for attempting to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with explosives in his shoes, converted to Islam in a British prison. British officials suspect he was radicalized by clerics who preached at the prison.

Jose Padilla, arrested for attempting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States, converted to Islam in a Florida jail, where authorities suspect his Islamic radicalization began.

The investigation also found that while a threat assessment sought by the bureau from the FBI in October on 82 national and local Muslim organizations that endorse Muslim chaplain candidates was completed in December, it had not been given to the bureau as of April 13. Investigators said the FBI found that some of the organizations were "of interest" to counterterrorism authorities.

Mr. Fine said that while the bureau had made improvements in how it selects and supervises Muslim teachers and preachers, deficiencies remain.

He said the bureau does not effectively use the knowledge of existing Muslim chaplains to screen, recruit and supervise religious services, or review the doctrinal beliefs of applicants for Islamic teaching positions to determine whether they pose a security threat.

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