Inside French Prisons, A Struggle to Combat Radicalization

With 2,500 inmates, the penitentiary institution of Fresnes, about 20 miles south of Paris, is one of the largest prisons in Europe. Like most French prisons, Fresnes is overcrowded. Built in the late 19th century, its tiny cells, each meant for one prisoner, most often house three.

Inmates scream curses and catcalls from their barred windows as I visit a small, empty sports yard ensconced between cell blocks. Plastic bags and punctured soccer balls are caught in the surrounding concertina wire.

The prisoners here yelled out in just this way back in November 2015, refusing to honor a minute of silence for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Paris cafes and the Bataclan concert hall.

Fresnes prison director Philippe Obligis says he began to see a radicalization problem here well before those attacks took place.

“There were some radical Muslims who were putting huge pressure on regular Muslims to adopt a certain kind of behavior,” he says. “Like taking a shower with their clothes on and not listening to music or watching TV.”

In 2014, Fresnes became the first French prison to separate radicalized inmates from the general prison population — they were put in an entirely separate wing, one person to each cell, and had different guards from the other prisoners.

After 2015, which began with the January attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, and ended with the Bataclan attack in November, some other French prisons began separating inmates too. Several of the terrorists who killed nearly 150 people that year were common criminals who had become radicalized in prison.

In 2016, the French government put money into a rehabilitation program for radicals deemed not too far gone. The prisoners in these new anti-radicalization units received visits from psychologists and historians; they had the chance to attend some workshops or receive some training.

The radical units were controversial, especially after two guards at one prison were attacked in September of last year. In November, the French interior minister announced an end to the program.

Instead, the French government boosted security around the most dangerous prisoners — both radicals and not. And intelligence collecting in prisons was beefed up. A bureau of central intelligence for prisons was created earlier this year.

Around 350 French prisoners are serving jail terms for terrorist-related offenses. And a further 1,340 inmates convicted of regular crimes are identified as radicalized.

Businessman Pierre Botton went to jail for white collar crime in the 1990s and founded Together Against Recidivism, an organization devoted to improving the lives of prisoners. He says it’s nearly impossible to think about reforming in jail because prisoners are mainly just struggling to survive.

He believes radicals should be separated in different prisons entirely, because otherwise, they’ll inevitably interact with the rest of the prison population. He notes what happened when the only surviving terrorist from the Paris Bataclan attacks landed in a French jail last year.

“When Salah Abdeslam arrived, they clapped,” says Botton. “Do you understand what I’m saying? When he arrived in the jail, they clapped. They applauded.”

Botton says criminals like Abdeslam are icons in jails in the Paris region, where up to 70 percent of inmates identify as Muslim. Keeping records on the religion and ethnicity of French citizens is illegal, so there are no official statistics. But Botton says about 70 percent of prisoners in the Paris region observe the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

“So when you put guys like this who represent a certain ideology in the heart of a prison, surrounded by 4,000 inmates, there’s a huge risk they’ll contaminate the others,” he says.

Yannis Warrach, a Muslim cleric who works in his spare time at a top-security prison in Normandy, says prison is so brutal, inmates can only survive if they’re part of a gang. He has seen how the radicals recruit newcomers.

Imam Yannis Warrach helps prisoners resist radicalization at a top-security prison in Normandy. He says radicals recruit newcomers by “brainwash[ing]” them “little by little.”

“The ones who preach and proselytize will at first be nice to a detainee. They see his desperation,” he says. “They’ll befriend him, give him what he needs. Then they’ll say it’s destiny. They’ll say that God has a mission for him. And little by little, they brainwash him, telling him French society has rejected him, he can’t get a job because of his Arab last name, and he was always put in the worst classes at school.

“The problem is,” says Warrach, “it’s often true.”

Warrach says these young men must have hope for a different future to break out of the spiral of failure. He says French leaders have failed to change the socioeconomic factors that keep many French people of Muslim descent on the bottom rungs of the ladder.

Another big problem, he says, is the prevalence of hard-line, Salafist reading material in jails — often French translations of Saudi, Wahhabist tracts that advocate literal, strict interpretation of religious doctrine.

“I work to debunk this stuff,” says Warrach. “I give inmates under pressure a historical context of the faith and another narrative of Islam.”

He says that because of the pressure from radicals, who consider him an agent of the French government, he has to meet secretly with inmates who desperately want his help. Instead of meeting in rooms designated for religious worship, which are open, they meet in special prison visiting rooms for inmates’ lawyers, where no one can observe them.

Because of its strict separation of religion and state, Warrach says France is the only country in Europe where being a prison cleric is not considered a profession. He says he only receives a small stipend, but that he can’t build a life around it — there are no retirement plans or other benefits. Because of this, there can’t be an imam at the prison every day, which creates a huge void, he says. And it leaves plenty of room for uninformed, extremist interpretations of Islam in French prisons.

Judge rejects inmate’s suit seeking cleric from Muslim sect

SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal judge had dismissed a former inmate’s religious freedom lawsuit against a Pennsylvania jail, saying he had no right to a cleric from the specific Muslim sect he preferred–the Nation of Islam.

Courts have ruled inmates have a right to practice their religious, but that right isn’t unlimited and must be balanced against the jail’s ability to run safely and efficiently.  In this case, the judge agreed with an attorney for the jail who argued that the jail did offer Muslim services and religious items but the inmate didn’t participate because the cleric wasn’t affiliated with the Nation of Islam.

Egyptian-American woman freed in Egypt goes home on U.S. military plane

Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian who holds U.S. citizenship, was acquitted by a Cairo court on Sunday along with seven others who had worked with street children. Hijazi was released from jail on Tuesday, having been held for nearly three years.

She was flown to Joint Base Andrews, the U.S. military airfield on the outskirts of Washington.

President Donald Trump had privately asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help out in the case when Sisi visited the White House on April 3, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

French jihadist sentenced to ten years in prison following return from Syria

Nicolas Moreau, a convicted French jihadist who returned from Syria, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criminal association with a terrorist organization.

The 32-year-old Frenchman was not present at the Paris correctional court since he refused to leave the prison where he is being held for the hearing.

Prosecutors had argued that Moreau presented an “extremely dangerous threat” and warned that he risked returning to his “jihadist commitment” once released.

 

A former fisherman from Nantes, Moreau fell into a life of petty crime before he was radicalised in prison and left France to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. He stayed in the region for nearly a year and a half, according to prosecutors, and even ran a restaurant in the IS group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, during the last three months.

At a hearing on December 14, 2016, Moreau warned the court that if he was sentenced to more than 18 months in jail he would “return to armed combat”.

Born in South Korea and adopted by a French family at the age of four, Moreau lived in the western French city of Nantes and fell into delinquency after his adoptive parents divorced. He was sentenced to five years in jail for violent robbery and converted to Islam while in prison.

It was a trajectory of radicalization similar to his younger brother, Flavien Moreau, who became the first French jihadist to be tried upon his return from Syria. In November 2014, Flavien was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Both the brothers were born in South Korea before they were adopted as infants. But Flavien, the younger brother, spent only a few weeks in IS group-held territory since he was unable to cope with the jihadist group’s no-smoking policy. He entered Syria in November 2012, but returned to France weeks later to pick up an electronic cigarette. He was arrested in Turkey on his way back to Syria. Flavien is currently serving a seven-year term.

During his trial, Nicolas Moreau, the older brother, told the court he left the caliphate because he “became aware of the excesses of Daesh. He told judges he wanted to get married and return to normal life. But he also warned judges that: “If you put a heavy penalty on me, it will be harder to reintegrate me [into society]. I will take up arms again.”

Prosecutors however argued that Nicolas Moreau required a 10-year sentence since “he would return to his jihadist commitment” if released.

FBI: Hate crimes against Muslims in US surge 67 percent

Number of anti-Muslim hate crimes rose in 2015 to the highest level since the aftermath of 9/11.

Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States shot up 67 percent in 2015 to their highest levels since the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to new FBI statistics.

Overall, 57 percent of the 5,850 reported incidents were motivated by race or ethnicity, while 20 percent of hate crimes were related to religious bias, the federal law enforcement agency reported on Monday.

There were 257 incidents of anti-Muslim bias in 2015, compared with 154 the previous year. The number is second only to the surge in hate crimes following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when 481 incidents against Muslims were reported.

While there was a huge increase in crimes against Muslims, Jews remained the most frequent target of religious-based hate crimes in the US, representing 53 percent of all those reported, the FBI said.

Famously while campaigning, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. He also promised to build a wall to block Mexicans.

In the first television interview since his election, Trump said he is planning to immediately deport or jail as many as three million undocumented immigrants.

President Obama’s Statement on Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d “handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.”
But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.
Like everyone else on the planet, Michelle and I mourn his passing. But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that The Greatest chose to grace our time.

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.

CAIR-MN Welcomes New Hennepin Co. Policy Allowing Hijabs in Jails, Booking Photos

March 20, 2014

 

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) today welcomed a new Hennepin County policy that will allow religious headwear, including hijabs (Islamic head scarves), in jails and booking photos. Hennepin County is the first in the state to create a comprehensive policy on religious headwear.

CAIR-MN received cases recently from Muslim women arrested for unpaid traffic fines, protests and other relatively minor crimes who were denied the hijab in booking photos and provided inadequate religious accommodations in jail.

“We welcome this new policy on religious headwear as another example of Hennepin County showing leadership and setting positive precedents for other counties,” said CAIR-MN Civil Rights Director Saly Abd Alla. “The new religious headwear policies sends a strong message throughout the state that, regardless of who the individual is or what their situation, we must uphold our principles and follow the law.”

Ms. Abd Alla said both federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against incarcerated individuals based upon religion.

CAIR-MN provided Hennepin County with sample policies from county jails around the country to help them develop “policies that allow inmates to follow their religion and still satisfy safety concerns.”

Hennepin County agreed to provide jail-issued hijabs and other religious headgear to individuals who request it.

In 2011, CAIR-MN asked the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office to accommodate a Muslim woman’s religious beliefs and let her wear a hijab in jail. The jail refused and the woman was transferred.

 

Cair.com: http://cair.com/press-center/press-releases/12411-cair-mn-welcomes-new-hennepin-co-policy-allowing-hijabs-in-jails-booking-photos.html

Individuals Convicted, Fined for Ibn Ghaldoun School Exam Theft

February 14, 2014

 

The three individuals suspected of stealing tests from the Ibn Ghaldoun school in Rotterdam have been convicted for the theft and distribution of 27 exam papers. The sentence is one month in jail and 170 hours community service. Since all three spent time in custody during the investigation, they will not have to return to jail to complete the sentence. The three have also been told they are responsible for paying 86,000 euros to the education ministry to cover the cost of exam retakes.

Dutch News: http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2014/02/school_exam_thieves_now_face_b.php

Earlier euro-islam news summary of the issue: http://www.euro-islam.info/2013/06/20/national-final-exams-stolen-at-rotterdam-islamic-school/

Dutch Court Releases Two Men in Pending Syria Case

February 4, 2014

 

A court in the Netherlands has released two young men from custody, pending their trial. The two men (aged 26 and 21) were arrested in Germany in August, allegedly en route to Syria to fight in the civil war. The public prosecution claims this means the men were preparing to take part in terrorist attacks. The two have been allowed out of jail pending their trial for plotting terrorist offences, but must remain in the Netherlands.

Dutch News – http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2014/02/two_men_released_from_jail_pen.php