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Islamist deradicalization in prisons

March 24, 2016

Some of the terrorists of Brussels and Paris were at least partially radicalized in prison. But despite paying lip service to such problems, few German politicians have shown interest in deradicalization programs.

Symbolbild Deutschland Gefängnis Amnestie
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

Everyone seems to agree with the EU counterterrorism coordinator. "We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalization," Gilles de Kerchove said last January, when it was reported that two of the gunmen behind the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish supermarket in Paris were believed to be have been radicalized in prison.

Just over a year later, after two more major terrorist attacks have taken place in Western Europe, the pattern has returned: Both Ibrahim and Khalid El-Bakraoui, responsible for Tuesday's bombings in Brussels, had spent time in prison for crimes not related to terrorism.

The dangers of prison radicalization have been known for some time. Meanwhile, there are a number of convicted extremists imprisoned in Germany - such as those behind the failed Bonn station bombing in 2012 and a foiled bomb attack on Frankfurt in 2007 - who could potentially radicalize others.

Husamuddin Martin Meyer
Husamuddin says more imams need to work in prisonsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Horst Galuschka

'Mr. Imam, I heard that if someone doesn't pray, they have to be killed'

Despite the obvious urgency, Germany's politicians have only recently been spurred to action - and even then progress has been slow. Thomas Kutschaty, justice minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state, was embarrassed on Tuesday when state broadcaster WDR pointed out that his "five-point plan" for dealing with Islamist prison radicalization was not showing much progress. Indeed, the number of imams working with Muslim inmates in NRW prisons had actually dropped in the year since he announced the initiative.

Meyer Husamuddin thinks this is a major oversight. As an imam who has ministered to Muslim prisoners in the state of Hesse for the last eight years, he has heard enough disturbing things. "'Mr Imam,' the people sometimes say to me, 'I heard that if someone doesn't pray, they have to be killed.' Or, 'IS really is a proper Islamic State, isn't it?' Then you really need to work against that," he said.

Husamuddin is convinced that imams represent the best antidote to Islamic radicalization in prisons. "They can fulfill a double function: they can counter the ideological indoctrination," he told DW. "If there's an imam there who can say 'No, that's wrong,' then you've already gained a lot. On the other hand, there's the care for their souls. This radicalization often comes out of an inner dissatisfaction and an anger that can be used ideologically and become a danger."

But Husamuddin, who only spends 15 hours a week in a prison in the town of Wiesbaden and shares the time with two other imams, looks after some 100 Muslim inmates. He is paid by the hour by the government, but he thinks every prison should have one full-time imam per hundred prisoners. "Then you'd have enough opportunity to look after everyone adequately," he said. "The Christian chaplains have a full-time position, and they have fewer inmates to look after."

He said that things have started getting better, if only recently. "It was only last year that my pleas were heard, when they realized that most of the attacks are perpetrated by former prisoners," he said.

Thomas Mücke, Mitbegründer und Geschäftsführer des Violation Prevention Networks
Mücke says the ministries have been pushing the problem around for yearsImage: VPN/Klages

Secular options

German prisons also run secular deradicalization projects - but only in certain states. These are mainly managed by the nonprofit organization Violence Prevention Network (VPN), whose chairman Thomas Mücke doesn't think imams should necessarily have anything to do with de-radicalization.

Though the VPN does have Muslim workers, the group usually employs educators, social workers or psychologists to run specially designed programs, which in some cases can look after prisoners even after their release. "Of course, the imams can have a preventative effect, but that's not their job," he said.

But the VPN can only work where it has a contract with the state government, which at the moment is in five of Germany's 16 states: Hesse, Lower Saxony, Berlin, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. "That's the big problem," Mücke said. "That's what we've been demanding for years - a national deradicalization program. For three years, the Justice ministries and the Interior ministries have been pushing the responsibility from one to the other."

"Of course, things might change in the next few weeks," Mücke said. In fact, a Federal Justice Ministry spokeswoman told DW that deradicalization had been on the agenda in the latest ministries' conference. "But I've been watching this debate for seven years now," VPN chairman Mücke said.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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