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Sarkozy has called self-radicalization “the worst thing for democracies,” apparently referring to the difficulty in detecting this solitary transformation without trampling on civil liberties.

Sarkozy ordered authorities to find new ways to tackle the emergence of a new breed of radicals behind bars after police said the 23-year-old Merah killed three paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish school children. Merah was killed March 22 by an elite police squad after a 32-hour standoff at his Toulouse apartment.

Merah spent about a year and half in prison for theft and made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan after being freed.

There are currently 200 inmates in French prisons under surveillance for radical Islamist tendencies — 75 of them already imprisoned for actions linked to Islamist terrorism, according to Justice Ministry spokesman Bruno Badre.

The seemingly small number of prisoners tagged as potentially simmering threats has doubled since 2008 and there is a fear that unbeknownst to authorities some inmates may be radicalizing in isolation after petty crimes, like Merah.

French authorities have not elaborated on Merah’s path to radicalism, nor have they offered proof that he didn’t have teachers or guides. His brother was known as an ultraconservative Muslim, and was handed preliminary charges in the investigation as a suspected accomplice.

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist, believes that self-radicalization of Muslims in a prison is rare, and that religion is part of a larger process of finding identity for disenfranchised minorities, “for kids in the middle … born in France but not French.”

“You are just in-between, a mid-level delinquent. You know you won’t become chief of the gang.” In this context, Bauer said, “religion is just a cover for a personal way to become somebody.”

Prison intelligence “gets you on a list where you’re surveyed” but doesn’t explain the road to radicalization. He says that police didn’t understand quickly enough that a gangster can also be an Islamist terrorist.

French prison officials only started acting to detect the risk of Islamist radicalization in the past decade, several years after deadly bombings around the country in 1995 blamed on a brutal Algerian insurgency movement.

Officials trained to decipher early signs of radicalization have been assigned to large prisons on a full-time basis, and part-time in smaller facilities, according to the Justice Ministry spokesman. Since 2002, the ministry collects noteworthy prison intelligence and information can be shared with intelligence services.

Experts say standard overt signs of radicalization can include growing a beard, a change in behavior with prison personnel, notably going from a good to a deteriorating relationship, or even hanging out in the exercise yard with the same group of prisoners.

A “manual of good practices” enumerating what to look for and how to cope with extremism was distributed to prison officials in 2008, produced in a joint effort by experts from France, Germany and Austria. Its contents have never been made public.

While prison officials may track suspected budding radicals or transfer problem cases to another facility, the Muslim chaplain at Fleury-Merogis, France’s largest prison, has another approach — to listen to inmates.

“My role is, above all, to listen … but if I see there is a lack, a deficiency, then I try to set things straight,” said Abdelhak Eddouk.

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