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Radicalization in prison

Matthias von Hein / cc
January 15, 2015

The Paris attackers were radicalized in prison. There are radical Islamists in jail in Germany too - including the first fighter to return from Syria.

Symbolbild Gefängnis Haft Gitterstäbe Mann Verbrechen
Image: Fotolia/rudall30

The facts speak for themselves. Two of the three perpetrators of the Paris attacks were in large part radicalized in prison. The same is true of Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. Mohammed Merah also did time in French prisons, before killing seven people in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012.

Last December the first fighter to return from Syria was sentenced in Frankfurt to just under four years in juvenile detention for membership of the "Islamic State" militia. In court, Kreshnik B. did not distance himself from radical Islam. Some 600 Germans have joined "Islamic State," which indicates that in future more radical Islamists will be interned in German jails - in addition to suspected or already convicted Islamist terrorists such as the "Sauerland Group," the Cologne suitcase bombers, the Bonn station bombers, or Arid Uka, who shot and killed two people and severely wounded two others at Frankfurt Airport in 2011.

This raises the question of how to prevent prisons becoming centers for radicalization. It's a particular concern for Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "We've seen this happen often: individuals go to prison and there they radicalize others," he says.

Kreshnik B. Urteil 05.12.2014 Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt
Kreshnik B. was the first 'IS' fighter to face trial in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Parallels with right-wing extremism

The pattern is not new. Career criminals also expand their networks in prison, explains Joachim Kersten, a criminologist and research professor at the German Police University in Münster. In an interview with DW, Kersten highlighted the parallels with right-wing extremism. "You saw this in prisons in the new federal states after the fall of the Wall," he explains. "Cells formed that then consolidated these sorts of ideas."

In addition, the Salafist scene is organizing support for the prisoners, as for example with the online portal "Ansarul Aseer," set up within the jihadist scene with the specific aim of helping prisoners. Its Facebook page, which has around 3,500 likes, calls on people to write letters to prisoners or make donations, and it disseminates propaganda accusing the authorities of despotism or the mistreatment of fellow believers. Individual activists work directly with prisoners, such as the former leftist terrorist Bernhard Falk, who converted to Islam.

Such activists maintain contact with their "brothers" in the prisons, ensuring they don't turn their backs on the faith, and support attempts to radicalize fellow prisoners. Falk, for example, regularly attends Islamists' trials, visits prisoners in detention, and collects donations for prisoners' families.

Failed lives are given simple explanations

The problem is that prison is precisely where highly ideologized jihadists find a susceptible clientele. This is especially true of juvenile detention centers, stresses Thomas Mücke, a pedagogue and political scientist who is co-founder and executive director of the Violence Prevention Network. "It makes them susceptible to simple explanations - you're in prison because you're not accepted in this society, because Muslims are being persecuted all over the world," he told DW.

Many radicalized jihadists have had contact with the criminal fraternity in the course of their lives. "Quite a number of them have drawn attention to themselves with violence, burglary, or drug crime," he said, which is why Mücke is calling for preventative opportunities in prisons. Because many young people who join the Salafist scene are uneducated and not properly informed about their own religious roots, Mücke thinks these preventative measures must include the work of Muslim clerics in prisons. He stresses that when young convicts hear for the first time what Islam is - or is supposedly - about, it should not be from extremists.

One goes in, six come out

This is something that also worries Husamuddin Meyer. A convert to Islam, he has been working in the Islamic prison ministry for six years now. "If an ideological individual comes into contact with others who are full of hatred and rage, he quickly acquires a kind of following," says Meyer. "If one goes in, six or seven soon come out."

Thomas Mücke, Mitbegründer und Geschäftsführer des Violation Prevention Networks
Thomas Mücke wants preventative opportunities in prisonsImage: VPN/Klages

Meyer, an impressive figure in full beard and turban, describes "ideological counteraction" as a crucial part of his work. As a Muslim cleric, he is trusted by the prisoners, and his word carries weight - for example, when he talks to them about "Islamic State," and explains that the group has nothing to do with Islam. His listeners don't trust the media.

Nonetheless, Meyer says, jihadist ideology exerts a dangerous pull. "You can quickly rise from the bottom rung of society to become a hero, someone who's hunted by 80,000 policemen and filmed on camera," he explains. Meyer recalls how after the shootings in Toulouse in 2012 prisoners said Mohammed Merah had done the right thing, and that he was now a hero. The attacker at the Jewish Museum in Brussels apparently felt the same way. And Mehdi Nemmouche followed every minute of the showdown in Toulouse on television - in prison.

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