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“You’re seeking hope and when someone holds out a hand, you take it,” he said. However, in a subsequent encounter the new friend urged him to “kill the infidels wherever you find them”.
“The idea was to go get myself trained and become a violent Jihadist,” said Mokhtari, adding that the recruiters work on inmates’ hostility to the prison system and to a country where they often have been unable to find work.
Nearly two decades ago Mokhtari resisted such pressure. Today, aged 35, he works with youth to keep them out of prison and has co-written a book, “Redemption”, about his experiences.
Prison workers say the vast majority of Muslim inmates are not radicalised. Yet leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2005 cite a warning by French officials that the prisons and poor suburban neighbourhoods were top recruitment areas for radical Islamists, and refer to a report by French intelligence services describing radicalised prisoners as “time bombs”.
Chaotic jails bear the brunt of overcrowding due to constant arrivals of uncharged suspects, and in cells or the yard, petty hoodlums quickly cross paths with serious criminals.
“It’s the little guys who bother us the most, because on the inside they meet the big guys. Then the consequences are bad,” said Gangbazo, the Villepinte guard. “At our level, the guards are powerless against that.”
UNDER THE RADAR
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira warned foreign journalists in March against overestimating the threat of prison radicalisation, but added it was “certainly worrying”.
Asked how authorities were tackling the problem, she cited measures to transfer inmates found to be proselytising to other jails, aiming to disrupt any recruitment efforts to radicalism.
This policy helps to control those prisoners already identified as radical Islamists, but not all recruiters have been convicted under France’s anti-terrorism laws. The task is tougher with inmates serving terms for unrelated offences who have turned to radical Islam unnoticed by the authorities.
Untrained staff tend to confuse devout Muslims with potential radicals, said sociologist Khosrokhavar, author of a 2004 study commissioned by the Justice Ministry that was the first to highlight the level of Muslims in French jails.