Islamic extremists in U.S. prisons have taken advantage of a lack of religious monitoring to embrace violent interpretations of the Koran, posing a threat of “unknown magnitude” to national security, a report said yesterday.
“Prisons have long been places where extremist ideology and calls to violence could find a willing ear, and conditions are often conducive to radicalization,” according to a study by George Washington University and the University of Virginia.
“With the world’s largest prison population and highest incarceration rate, America faces what could be an enormous challenge — every radicalized prisoner becomes a potential terrorist recruit,” said the study, which was conducted for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
An estimated 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, and 6 percent of them are Muslim, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said homegrown terrorism is a “grave enough concern” that Congress needs to consider whether to focus more attention and resources on it.
“What controls can we put into place to curtail such conversions? Unfortunately, the number of qualified Islamic chaplains, or imams, is insufficient,” Mr. Lieberman said, noting that although more than 80 percent of religious conversions in prison are to some form of Islam, only 10 of the 200 chaplains in the federal system are devoted to Islam.
The study said that just as young people may become radicalized by “cut-and-paste” versions of the Koran via the Internet, “new inmates may gain the same distorted understanding of the faith from gang leaders or other influential inmates.”
Although radicalization is neither unique to Islam nor a recent phenomenon, an inadequate number of Muslim religious services providers increases the risk, the study said.
Additionally, it said, the inability to track inmates after their release and a lack of social support to reintegrate them into the community give rise to a “vulnerable moment” in which they may be recruited by radical groups posing as social support organizations.
The study said “Jailhouse Islam” incorporates violent prison culture into religious practice; a lack of manpower and resources hinder efforts to combat prisoner radicalization; and information collection and sharing among federal, state and local prison systems to track radical behavior and religious services providers is “difficult to assess.”
The study said that no one profession was equipped to analyze and recommend change and that a multidisciplinary approach of religion, criminal justice, intelligence, law and behavioral sciences was necessary for “proactive analysis of the phenomenon.” It also called on Congress to establish a commission to investigate the issue.
According to the study, prison gangs may adopt a form of Islam that incorporates values of gang loyalty and violence, and several imams characterized the phenomenon as a significant threat to security in prisons.
The study noted several connections between former prisoners and terrorism, including:
Jeff Fort, a Chicago gang leader who converted to Islam while incarcerated in 1965. Fort founded a street gang known as El Rukn, which later brokered a deal with Libya to carry out attacks on U.S. police stations, government facilities, military bases and airplanes in exchange for $2.5 million and asylum in Tripoli.
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric who plotted to bomb New York City landmarks in 1993. Sentenced to a life term, he issued a decree from federal prison ordering Muslims to kill Americans “wherever you find them.” Terror mastermind Osama bin Laden later said that edict gave religious authority for the September 11 attacks.