Accessibility links

West: 'Shoe Bomber,' 'Dirty Bomber' Put Spotlight On Islam In U.S., U.K. Prisons

  • Kathleen Moore

First there was Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," who allegedly tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in midair with bombs in his shoes. Then there was Jose Padilla, whom U.S. authorities suspect of planning to explode a dirty bomb. The cases of these two terrorist suspects, who converted to, or had first contact with, Islam while in prison, raised concern in the West that jails could be a fertile breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. So how justified are the concerns? RFE/RL talks to experts in the U.K. and in the U.S., where a conference on Islam in American prisons opens today.

Prague, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Richard Reid accepted Islam while serving time in an English jail. Upon his release, he is said to have drifted into the company of religious extremists, an association that allegedly led him to try to blow up a jetliner over the Atlantic last December.

Jose Padilla reportedly first became interested in Islam while in jail for assault. Now known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, he's the man U.S. authorities believe wanted to explode a radioactive "dirty" bomb in America.

In their respective countries, the two cases have shone a spotlight on the role of Islam in prisons and prompted some to ask if jails are fertile breeding grounds for fundamentalism, a place where radical Islamists could find easy converts or even potential terrorist recruits.

A recent "Wall Street Journal" opinion piece by Chuck Colson answered that question with a resounding "yes." Colson spent time in jail in the 1970s on charges related to the Watergate scandal that toppled U.S. President Richard Nixon. He now runs Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Christian organization. "Islam, certainly the radical variety, feeds on resentment and anger all too prevalent in our prisons," he wrote. "Al-Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be 'disenchanted with their country's policies.' Terrorism experts fear these angry young recruits will become the next wave of terrorists. As U.S. citizens, they will combine a desire for 'payback' with an ability to blend easily into American culture," Colson said.

So what are the dangers of radical Islam in prisons? Experts contacted by RFE/RL suggest the fear has been exaggerated and is being attached to exceptional cases. They say the confused and angry young men that fill prisons might be more receptive to Islam than other faiths, but that doesn't make them prey to the radicals. And they point out that Islam is a force for rehabilitation in prisons, which they say actually makes jails a less likely recruiting ground for homegrown terrorists.

Many of America's Muslim inmates are converts who have accepted Islam while in prison. Of these, most are black Americans adopting mainstream Sunni Islam and, to a lesser extent, the teachings of the Nation of Islam, according to Robert Dannin, author of "Black Pilgrimage to Islam."

Aside from the self-discipline prison converts to Islam display, Dannin said there is another factor that suggests prisons are not the place to look for would-be terrorist recruits. Prisoners and former convicts, with their fingerprints and police records on file, are hardly ideal targets for terrorists cautious about the operatives they select. "I don't think that a sophisticated terrorist operation is going to risk their entire network by recruiting people who are immersed in the U.S. criminal-justice system. It's just an absurd proposition," Dannin said.

He noted there could be exceptions, but warned against the unfair targeting of incarcerated converts to Islam. "I think we have to be very careful here because someone who does his time to pay for a crime that he's committed has certain rights when they get out. And what I fear is being organized here is an easy scapegoat for the next attack. [If] the [Bush] administration is incapable of finding the real perpetrators, it then becomes a shadow play to round up the usual suspects. And in certain cases, even more ominously, to round up anybody associated with a particular sect or a particular venue where they made their conversion and reincarcerate them," Dannin said.

Some have suggested that prison life could foster a sense of hopelessness and despair that could then be exploited on the convict's release from jail.

If so, Sayyid Syeed hasn't seen this. He's the secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America and the speaker who today will open a Chicago conference on Islam in American prisons. "Our prison authorities and those who are in this field, they tell us that recidivism is the lowest among the Muslim inmates. That is, when a Muslim inmate is released from the jail, his life is totally transformed, and he is rehabilitated and reformed in many ways. And then when he goes back to life, there is less possibility to falling victim to the same crimes and same style of life. So recidivism is very low. Those who accept Islam don't go back to prison because they are changed," Syeed said.

He said the concerns about radical Islam and prisons have been exaggerated. "We can't rule out the exceptions. There must be people who don't have enough exposure to Islam or they fall into the wrong company and get a wrong understanding of Islam. This is true about everything. There will always be exceptions. But that does not mean we should undermine the positive and constructive impact of Islam on a large scale in rehabilitating our neighborhoods, in giving a new sense of discipline, a sense of mission, and meaning in life to many, many criminals who otherwise would be very dangerous to society," Syeed said.

In England and Wales, most jails have imams to cater to Muslims. Last year, there were some 4,300 Muslim prisoners, making them the third-largest and fastest-growing religious group in prison.

Jim Beckford of Warwick University in the U.K. has done studies on religion in prisons. He said that, of the Muslims in prison, only some 500 or 600 are white British prisoners who have converted, though he stressed that this is only an unofficial estimate based on inmates' family names.

After the 11 September attacks, the prison service disciplined several imams for inappropriate remarks and cautioned all religious staff not to draw inmates into discussions that could "inflame feelings."

But Beckford said this shows the U.K. authorities are guarding against radical Islam's taking root in the country's jails. "The prison service in England and Wales goes to some lengths to ensure that the people who visit prisoners as imams -- visiting ministers of Islam -- are indeed qualified to do so and are not irresponsible and are very unlikely, in fact, to lead prisoners into radical versions of Islam. And as you say, the fact that some imams were disciplined following September 11, 2001, indicates that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that what happens in prisons in the name of Islam is not left to the free choice of prisoners or the free choice of imams, but is in fact quite carefully monitored," Beckford said.

And Beckford firmly disputes the notion of prisons as recruiting grounds for radical Islamists. "I know of no case where that has happened. There have been a couple of cases of young men who have associated with Muslims in prison who have then, on release from prison -- and I stress that fact, on release from prison -- have then associated with radical elements within Islam within Britain and elsewhere," Beckford said.

A Home Office spokeswoman who declined to be named told RFE/RL recently that all imams go through a thorough selection process by a Muslim adviser to the prison service, who was appointed three years ago. She said there is no need for closer monitoring. "I don't think they monitor C of E [Church of England] chaplains every week, so why should they monitor imams every week? They've obviously been through a recruitment process, and they were warned to be careful about discussions with prisoners that might incite racial feelings," the spokeswoman said.

Until the prison service appointed its Muslim adviser, an organization called Iqra Trust helped train prison imams. RFE/RL talked with a spokesman affiliated with both Iqra and the National Council for the Welfare of Muslim Prisoners, who also asked not to be named. He said prison is the last place a fundamentalist group would think of looking for recruits, as there are always prison officers about during visits by religious ministers.

He pointed to the three young men currently held by U.S. authorities in Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of fighting beside the Taliban in Afghanistan. He said these three -- all British-born Muslims -- were indoctrinated and approached by fundamentalists in mosques. None had served time. "If a fundamentalist group wants to take advantage of someone," he said, "they may pick on people outside, youth and people who have no formal religious education. They will not go to a prison."