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.

Terrorism: Valls and Urvoas definitively exclude detention centers



June 15, 2016

French authorities have ruled out creating Guantanamo Bay-style detention centers for suspected Islamic radicals, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Wednesday. The announcement comes as the nation contends with a growing domestic terror problem, particularly in the wake of a fatal stabbing of two Paris-area police officers Monday night.


“Our first weapon is criminal law, and it is the legitimacy of the rule of law: to pursue, detain and put out of harm’s way all those who engage in these [jihadist] networks,” Valls said. “[It is] dangerous to confuse measures of surveillance with those of confinement,” he added.


Valls’ statement comes just two days after a French police officer and his partner, who also worked for law enforcement, were stabbed to death at their home west of Paris. They are survived by their 3-year-old son. The perpetrator of the murders had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group terrorist organization.


France had been considering the idea of creating detention centers — dubbed “French Guantanamos” — for people who are suspected of being potential terrorists or are being monitored by intelligence officials. More than 10,000 people throughout the country are categorized as “Fiche S,” or a potential security threat. Their offenses range from banditry all the way to terrorism, and not all are being actively monitored by intelligence officials.


The system has faced criticism, particularly after coordinated terror attacks in November killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more in Paris. Those attacks came just three months after a foiled attack on a high-speed train and 10 months after a pair of ISIS-inspired brothers stormed the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 12.

A system of detention for suspected Islamic radicals already exists in several French prisons. A few dozen of the most radical prisoners are determined by using a set of questions, and they are then confined with each other with the goal of preventing their philosophies from spreading. That system has faced much scrutiny as well, with critics arguing that it only facilitates communication among would-be jihadists.


Dutch universities host study to ask: Why would you become a jihad activist? [PDF DOWNLOAD]

coverdawaactivism-207x300Why would you become a jihad activist? Three reasons.

A group researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam presented their study among radical Muslims and why they’re interested in extremist ideologies. Three conclusions can be drawn.

1. Democracy is hypocrisy: events and the way the USA and other western governments have responded after 9/11 have caused a lot of anger among (radical) Muslims. According to them, Muslim are not allowed to express their opinion, while they themselves and their religion are being insulted regularly in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, by for example Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirshi Ali, Geert Wilders and the Mohammed cartoon in Denmark. They also feel that Muslims have been treated very badly in the name of democracy, referring for instance to the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and drone attacks in Muslim countries.

2. Discrimination of Muslims: Muslims feel discriminated and get annoyed because of the ‘Islam debate’, (judgmental) questions about Islam and the ban on the burqa and the negative coverage of the topic in the media.

3. Together against the rest: they feel safe within their own network, where they won’t feel judged by their opinions and where the kafir outer world won’t distract them from their ‘pure’ interpretation of the Islam. They enunciate however also their message outside this network, for example online.

A copy of the report (in Dutch) is available for download here.

Statement by Gilles Lebreton, Political Advisor to Marine Le Pen

“Two young Frenchmen appear to have participated in the bloody executions on November 16 by the Islamic State. They are Michael Dos Santos and Maxime Hauchard.

This confirms the reality of the danger that Muslim fundamentalism represents in the world, but particularly in France. Every young Frenchman, no matter their culture or religion, is susceptible to being indoctrinated and to becoming a killer in the name of an extremist interpretation of Islam.

It is urgent to take strong measures to counter this threat, including:

-separation in prisons of fundamentalists from other prisoners, to prevent them from proselytizing;

-prohibiting fundamentalist preaching in mosques and more generally throughout the entirety of French territory;

-pronouncing the dissolution of fundamentalist movements, including the UOIF;

-firmly condemning the fundamentalists who have committed grave acts of violence;

-reaffirming our values of secularism and reviving our traditional policy of assimilation;

-and fighting fundamentalism everywhere in the world where it tries to plant the roots of terrorism, such as in Mali or Iraq.”


‘Jihad-recruiter’ Abou Moussa is on a hunger strike

Abou Moussa’s lawyer André Seebregts has informed about the hunger strike of his client. Abou Moussa is held in custody in the ‘terrorist unit’ in the penitiaire institution in Vught and protests with his hunger strikes against his treatment there. According to him, he is making fun of, being mocked at, is only allowed to go ‘outside’ when wearing a ‘Guantanamo’-prisoners suit and his genitals are being frisked.

Abou Moussa is suspected of recruiting people for the jihad in Syria and Iraq and is being accused of the preparation of ‘murder/homicide with terroristic intentions.’

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.