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Damned if They Do, Damned if They Don’t: The Gordian Knot of Europe’s Jihadi Homecoming
By Zach Goldberg
The homecoming of Europe’s jihadi volunteers (or émigrés) from Syria remains an enduring source of public disquiet. That battle-hardened and radicalized Muslim-European passport holders would return to leverage acquired “skills” at home is a specter haunting law enforcement across the continent. A recent discovery by French police of some 1000+ grams of explosives, nails and bolts in the apartment of a recently repatriated Jihadi émigré, did little to assuage such concerns.
Understandably, many European governments are throwing down the gauntlet on returning and hopeful émigrés, as well as their facilitators. Britain’s head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, for instance, has threatened to deal “robustly” with any such individuals, threatening sentences of life-imprisonment and/or revoking their citizenships. Other countries have followed suit. In October, Holland established a legal precedent when it convicted and sentenced a would-be 22 year old émigré–publicly identified as ‘Omar H’–to a year in prison on charges of planning “arson or explosions” and adhering to “Jihadist ideas.” And most recently, in March, a French court slapped prison sentences ranging from 2-5 years on three Muslim citizens—previously arrested trying to board a plane for Turkey—for “criminal association with the intent to commit terrorist acts.”
On the face of it, the crackdown is common sense: better to take prospective ‘ticking time-bombs’ off the street than leave tragedy to chance. Unfortunately, the infusion of global jihadis into a European prison system teeming with Muslims may create medium to longer-term issues.
‘Prison Emirates’: Appraising the Problem
Prior to his 4-month jail sentence for car theft, an 18-year old French-Algerian Khalid Kelkal did not “know how to write and read Arabic.” Once behind bars, Khalid affirmed to himself: “I must not waste my time. There was a Muslim Brother with us…I learned Arabic fast.” Khalid quickly found his niche among the “tight-knit group” of Muslim cellmates. It was like he experienced a “great opening of the spirit.”
In 1995 that charm revealed its true colors when Khalid was convicted both for the murder of a moderate Muslim cleric as well as the attempted bombing of a high-speed rail link between Paris and Lyon.
The extent of prisoner radicalization in Europe is certainly debatable. Like any other terrorism related issue, the discourse has its share of alarmists and skeptics. But regardless of one’s stance, it’s important not to equate radicalism with terrorism; the two aren’t invariably synonymous. Radicalism is certainly a sine qua non for terrorism—yet it need not express itself as such. Beliefs don’t always manifest themselves through acts of terrorism.
Thus, assessing the scope of prisoner radicalization is a muddy undertaking. One can very well ‘radicalize’ in prison and—though he/she may periodically contribute to dubious Islamic ‘charities’– go on to live a virtually ‘non-violent’ lifestyle. Moreover, as was the case of Muslim-convert and failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid, one can also have his/her initial religious exposure in prison and only after (perhaps even years later) gravitate towards the realm of extremism.
That said, Islam—particularly its extremist iteration—is a growing fixture in many European prisons. In the UK, despite constituting just 4.7% of the population, Muslim inmates have doubled to nearly 12,000 in the past decade and now represent 14% of the custodial population. The situation in France, where that figure is estimated to range between a whopping 70-80%, is even worse. This phenomenon is, to varying degrees, the rule rather than the exception throughout much of Europe (see chart below). And considering that Islam has become “the fastest growing religion among prisoners in Europe,” non-Muslims going in may be Muslims going out.
The etiology of the above is complicated and cannot be thoroughly articulated in brief. Suffice it to say that Europe’s Muslim youth are beset by a host of social, cultural, and economic barriers that render lives of crime a seductive alternative. Unable to obtain meaning or purpose in their lives, they chase a transient, impish fix (i.e. drugs, theft, gangs) to numb the pain. When confined to a cell, however, that emptiness has nowhere to hide. With plenty of time to brood over their ontological vacuums, they long for a way to fill it. And Islam, with the brotherly endearment and communal belonging it bestows, is a potent filler.
In and of itself, the preponderance of Islamic embrace in prisons is innocuous—if not beneficent. In fact, one studyof Muslim converts in British penitentiaries found that Islamic faith provides inmates “with a moral framework from which to rebuild their lives,” while instilling a self-imposed discipline that, in turn, “gives prison authorities a convenient force in helping them maintain order.” However, given the hermeneutical nescience of these religious neophytes (as in the case above), the risk they’ll fall under the sway of pseudo-‘Sheikhs’ and those proselytizing a more radical Islamic persuasion, cannot be ignored.
Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of Muslim inmates won’t see their beliefs consummate through acts of terrorism. However, the adoption of radical creed, at a minimum, nurtures that eventuality. And the more that imbibe ideological chauvinism, the more room the violent ‘minority’ has to grow. As argued below, the increasing ingress of global jihadi veterans into the prison system could play a significant role in mediating such a trend.
Among the more notable prison-jihadi examples is Muktar Ibrahim, the leader of the July 21st London Bomb plot who adopted extreme Islamism while in prison for gang related violence in the 1990s. In Spain, prison radicalization proved integral to the hatching of the 2004 Madrid train bombings by a “loosely affiliated cluster of childhood friends, neighborhood home-boys, siblings, cousins, petty criminals, drug dealers, and former cell-mates.” And in France, where Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian savagely gunned down a total of 7 people (including 3 Jewish school children) in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Merah—who, according to his friends, “never even went to mosque”—served two short prison terms for robbery in 2005 and 2007-08. It was then, many claimed, that he made his induction to radical Islam.
Beyond serving as a fertile indoctrinatory venue, prisons can also be apt recruiting grounds. For instance, it was while serving time for credit card fraud in a Spanish prison that Mohamed Achraf, the convicted mastermind of a 2004 plot to blow up the country’s National court, recruited his co-conspirators. Similarly, it was in California’s New Folsom Prison that convicted Muslim convert, Kevin James, co-opted several radicalized inmates in an elaborate–ultimately disrupted–scheme to attack military sites, synagogues, and other targets across Los Angeles.
Admittedly, though the precise empirical data is lacking, the lion’s share of prisoner-turned-terrorist cases are believed to reside in the cramped, squalid and understaffed prisons of the Muslim world (i.e. Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, etc.). However, as evidenced by the legions of ex-convicts among the European-Muslims fighting in Syria today, the phenomenon in Europe is on the upswing. And, quite paradoxically, the more Syria-related incarcerations are dispensed in Europe, the greater this problem is likely to become.
As one British study posits with respect to the efficacy of radicalization counter-measures (i.e. segregation/isolation of high risk inmates): “It seems likely that, as the number of convicted and remanded violent jihadist prisoners in Britain grows, the resources available to the authorities to manage this difficult prisoner population will become increasingly stretched.”
Europe’s Catch 22
As such, Europe has quite the catch-22 on its hands. In sending global jihadis to jail it’s, in effect, sending ‘rock stars;’ men who will be revered by their fellow inmates for not just talking the talk, but having the temerity to ‘walk the walk’.
Of course, there will be plenty of time for ‘story-telling.’ And through tales of angels descending from the heavens to the battlefield and divinely propelled victories, the imprisoned jihadi-veterans will make quite the impression on their vulnerable peers; sowing the seeds of zealotry as they go.
No less consequential is the bridling resentment both jailed jihadi-émigrés and attemptees are likely to harbor towards their captors; sentiment they may act on upon release. That the West not only sits on its hands while thousands of Muslim innocents are slaughtered in Syria, but also has the gall to penalize those succoring the helpless is not lost on these fettered ‘humanitarians.’
The imprisonment of convicted Jihadi recruiters and ‘travel agents’ is also fraught with risk. Rather than disrupt their efforts, Muslim abounding prisons may fuel them; affording recruiters an intimate and susceptible pool of potential prospects. With many Muslim delinquents only serving sentences of months to a few years, it’s not implausible that some will head to Syria or other jihadi theatres upon their release. For example, in one study of Swedish fighters it was revealed that at least “8 out of 18 subjects had criminal records.”
Counting ‘Em Up
Discourse on the secondary and indirect externalities of the West’s jihadi émigré posture has been virtually non-existent. Being that an upsurge of jihadis within European prison population could be just as pernicious as those lurking in the public midst, this lacuna needs to be filled.
To jump-start the process I’ve taken inventory of all reported Syrian Jihad (emphasis on Syrian) related arrests and convictions across major European and Western countries since January 2012. This includes: a) those suspected of having fought among the ranks of jihadi groups (i.e. JN, ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham) who were subsequently arrested upon return to Europe; b) those arrested trying to join such groups (i.e. caught on the Turkish border, at the airport) c) Syrian jihadi recruiters and facilitators (i.e. including those bankrolling such ancillary activities); d) those with ties to Syrian jihadi groups (i.e. through direct correspondence or having previously been active within their ranks) who were arrested for domestic jihadi activities (i.e. fundraising, acts of terrorism, incitement)
Before presenting the data, some qualifications are in order. Firstly, the tally was compiled exclusively through open-source information. This poses several significant limitations. One is the potential existence of arrests/convictions not covered or reported by the media: There’s simply no way to rule out this possibility.
Another concerns the frequent non-descriptness of media coverage; crucial information is, at times, either unknown or undisclosed. For example, one source reports on the trial of 19 Belgians charged with financing and recruiting a contingent of Muslim-nationals to join “armed terrorist groups in Syria and Somalia.” It further mentions an undisclosed number of the 19 who “went to fight along with the so-called ‘al-Shahab Movement’ in Somalia.” As one could imagine, sorting out those relevant to Syria from those of other Jihadi theatres is problematic. In cross checking alternate sources I was able to learn that 3 of the 19 individuals were recently extradited back to Belgium from Kenya for their al-Shabaab affiliations. Still, that leaves 16 individuals whose backgrounds are indeterminable. Sans knowing their identities, I cannot discount the possibility that some were those arrested in cases previously accounted for in my survey.
Therefore, to avoid ‘double-counting’, I’ve designated this group as ‘?/16’; meaning an unknown number among them are Syria-related. This same design was applied to other instances as well. Kosovo, for example, arrested 6 individuals on domestic terrorism charges. The source highlights that “some of them were affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra. (JN) ” Here again, how many were affiliated with JN is impossible to deduce, and is thus listed as ‘?/6’on the chart.
The survey also includes those arrested and ultimately released (at times placed under follow-up surveillance) or those tried and acquitted of charges. Because our focus is limited to those convicted/incarcerated and those whose cases are likely to conclude like so, I added a ‘Net Total’ column which deducts the individuals no longer under sanction. Still, as assiduous as I was in cross-checking my data, I can’t eliminate the possibility that the ‘Net-Total’ may include those who’ve since been exonerated; though I’m convinced any such aberrations would be few in number.
Finally, some individuals were charged with both fighting among terrorist groups in Syria as well as recruitment/support activities upon their return to Europe. Accordingly, this cohort is enumerated normally under the ‘Support Efforts’ column while represented as ‘+(x)’ in the ‘Fought’ column. To illustrate, France arrested a total of 5 charged with fighting in Syria + (4-5) who fought in Syria but were also charged with recruiting: thus, this computation is denoted below as 5+ (4-5).
|Syrian-Jihadi Related Arrests (2012-2014)|
|Attemptees||Domestic Activities||Total Arrests||Released/Acquitted/KIA||Net Total||% Muslims in Prison Population|
|Albania+Bosnia+Kosovo||1 + (?/6)||7||6||14||14||——-|
|Belgium||6 +(1)||<-(1)23+?/16||8||37+ (?/16)||1||36+(?/16)||45%|
|France||5 +(4-5)||<-(4-5)22||22+(?/12)||12 (?/12)||66||5||61||70%|
|Italy||8||1||9||1||8||35% (Including 181 Imams/Spiritual leaders)|
|United Kingdom||9 +(1)||<-(1) 13||21||8 (?)||51||6||45||14%|
As shown, Europe+Australia has made a net total of 193-209 arrests; 34-41 of which were ex-fighters, 91-105 recruiters/supporters, 55 migratory attemptees, and 27 charged for domestic terrorism activities. I must note that had I broadened my search to include those arrested for ties with Global Jihadi organizations of other theatres (i.e. AQIM, al-Shaabab, etc.) the numbers would be indubitably greater (for example, a cursory probe I conducted turned up least 28 such individuals).
Naturally, the majority of those arrested emanate from a bloc of countries (UK, France, Belgium) putatively at the forefront of Western émigré activity. Incidentally, this trio also features some of the more Muslim populated prison systems in Europe.
Many experts profess a correlation between “potential for radicalization and the degree to which prisons are safe and orderly.” When penitentiaries are adequately staffed, overcrowding is limited, and intramural education opportunities are readily available, the “space for sub-cultures and conflicts between inmates is” minimized and prisoners remain “mere prisoners, not rebels with a cause.” In addition to sustaining order, these elements also “make it easier for authorities to collect intelligence and pick up on emerging signs of radicalization.”
While anecdotal, evidence from France, Spain and the UK suggests that: “‘radicalisers’ do take advantage of poorly run and overcrowded prisons and that Muslim prison gangs tend to form in environments in which resources are scarce, ethnic and religious conflicts are rife and the prison management can no longer ensure the safety of inmates.”
Ominously, the prisons in the countries leading the ‘arrest board’ all suffer from over-crowding, staff-shortages and alas, increasing conversion or reversion into radical Islamism. According to one British Ministry of Justice audit: “ Conditions in the prison made participation in Islamic practices the most available option for those looking for belonging, meaning, ‘brotherhood,’ trust and friendship.”
As the Syrian Civil War drags on, European prison systems will likely to sustain indefinite influxes of jihadi inmates. This is not to argue that the continued crackdown and incarceration of such individuals is ill advised. Rather, it’s to highlight the unavoidable catch-22 of the status quo. If Europe expects to maintain its ‘robust’ zero-tolerance policy vis-à-vis global jihadi activities, it mustn’t neglect the risks inherent in doing so. Specifically, should it fail to shore up the deficiencies of its penal system, it may unintentionally create more jihadis than it takes off the street.
Zach Goldberg is an independent researcher and runs the blog 21st Century Jihad, which you can find here: http://www.21stcenturyjihad.com/
Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo