Prisons: the trap of radical Islam

June 8, 2014

In recent weeks the story of Mehdi Nemmouche, suspected of killing three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, has made international headlines. His chilling story illustrates the “plague of radical Islam in prison.” As a child, Nemmouche grew up in a chaotic household and was a repeated offender at a young age–jailed five times for robbery. It was during his last incarceration from 2007 to 2012 that he became associated with Salafis. Pinned as a “thug turned terrorist,” by Bernard Cazeneuve, Nemmouche acted on his transformation when he was released from his last prison term.

Prosecutor François Moins says that Nemmouche transferred prisons in March 2011 for security reasons. His character was “illustrated by extreme proselytizing, [he was] a member of a group of extremely radical Islamists, and frequently called others to prayer.” During his time in prison Nemmouche wrote to support groups for Muslim prisoners to gather information about the obligation of Muslim women to wear headscarves and to understand how Muslim men should trim their beards.

Le Figaro reports that in 2014, approximately 150 Muslim extremists attempted to indoctrinate their fellow detainees with radical beliefs. This number has barely changed since 2008, when a confidential report was released that mentioned 147 instances of proselytizing by radical Muslims. Le Figaro states that “clearly, the same ‘strong core’ is still fanning the flame of jihad at the heart of the incarcerated population that is composed, for the most part, of Muslims.” According to experts this number “approaches sixty or seventy percent in prisons in the banlieues.”

For religious extremists, prisons are especially conducive to promoting radicalism. They are overpopulated and often filled with young people with “shattered futures” seeking attention. Despite this, there are few resources available to combat the growing problem. The prison administration has developed an informational bureau, EMS-3, which is charged with monitoring the most dangerous inmates. The bureau is not permitted to monitor prisoners’ phone calls, and instead is “forced to tinker with the methods at hand to accomplish their missions.”

The EMS-3 has called on imams to stop the spread of radical Islam in prisons. There are 167 imams at the bureau’s disposal but according to sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, the EMS-3 needs “three times that much” to counteract the influence of extremist groups. “For the moment, too many imams still have an outdated view of Islam and don’t understand the experience of young people coming from the ghettos…A number of imams refuse to intervene in prison, on the grounds that the detainees are bad Muslims…”

The government is currently considering a “counter-discourse” that is used by moderate preachers whose availability is limited. According to a survey by Ifop-Atlantico, 76% of Frenchmen fear acts of terrorism by individual jihadists. At the end of June, Bernard Cazeneuve will present new measures aimed at strengthening special services to counteract the spread of radical Islam in prisons. Cazeneuve stresses that the need for such services increases as a growing number of Frenchmen are returning from fighting in Syria.