Radical Muslims are using U.S. prisons to recruit hardened criminals for terrorist activities, counterterrorism experts told Congress on Wednesday.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the hearing was called because "the danger remains real and present, especially because of al Qaeda's announced intention to intensify attacks within the United States."
Recent attempted attacks by Islamist convicts in California, Florida and New York highlight the threat, he said.
Several law enforcement specialists bolstered his statements.
"The prison population is vulnerable to radicalization by the same agents responsible for radicalizing Americans outside of the prison walls," said Patrick Dunleavy, former deputy inspector for criminal intelligence for New York state prisons.
The testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee followed an earlier hearing in March on Islamic radicalization in the United States that prompted protests by Islamic groups and committee Democrats.
U.S. officials have said several hundred Americans, many of whom converted to Islam in prison, traveled in the past several years to Yemen for terrorist training with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Security officials say these converts could be used by terrorists to more easily pass through security screening.
Four witnesses at the hearing said the number of cases of prison inmates turning to radical Islam was small but the problem poses a serious national security threat.
"Radicalization of even a small fraction of this population holds high consequence for Americans and innocent people around the world," said Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing, commander of counterterrorism for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Kevin Smith, former attorney general for California's Central District, said radical clerics who convert inmates to their cause have passed along a distorted form of Islam he called "Prislam."
The experts disagreed about whether radicalized convicts can communicate with terrorists outside prison, potentially increasing the danger of coordinated attacks.
Bert Useem, a sociology professor at Purdue University, said prison authorities had become more effective at limiting communication in and out of their facilities.
Mr. Dunleavy disagreed and said, "Despite appearances, prison walls are porous."
The hearing sparked debate of the topic of Islamic radicalization between Republicans and Democrats, with many Democrats stating that hearing was too narrowly focused.
"Limiting this committee's oversight of radicalization to one religion ignores threats posed by violent extremists of all stripes, and there are other threats to be concerned about," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and ranking member.
Laura Richardson, California Democrat, said the committee was unjustly singling out Muslims in its investigation of radicalization.
Mr. King said an earlier hearing triggered "mindless hysteria" by opponents of the hearing.
"Countering Islamic radicalization should not be a partisan issue," he said. "I would urge my Democratic colleagues to rise above partisan talking points."
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