American prisons have become prime recruiting grounds for incubating prospective terrorists.
Radical Islamic inmates have established their own system of indoctrination and recruitment under the cover of religious practice, a phenomenon known as “prison Islam.” Inmates who practice prison Islam generally adopt Muslim names and establish a cohesive social group of fellow Muslim prisoners who support and defend one another against other inmates.
Once they leave prison, they maintain contact as part of a social support group. Radical Muslim organizations provide a similar support structure from outside of prison by providing imams to indoctrinate the inmates, extremist Islamic literature, and a community that released inmates are encouraged to join upon their release.
A window into the serious dangers and extent of this terrorist challenge was revealed by the recent indictment of four radical Muslims affiliated with Jami’at Al-Islam Al-Sahih, a terrorist organization that was founded in Sacramento State Prison in 1997 by Kevin James, an African-American convert to radical Islam.
James preached that it was a duty for each member of his organization to kill the enemies of Islam, which he defined as Jews, supporters of Israel and members of the American military. James recruited other Jami’at Al-Islam Al-Sahih members while in prison. One of the recruits, Levar Washington, recruited Gregory Patterson, another radical convert to Islam, and Hammad Semana, a Pakistani, into the group.
James reportedly directed Washington to recruit five other members for the group who would be trained in covert operations. The recruits would seek to acquire guns with silencers and to either find a contact to construct bombs for them or learn how to build bombs that could be remotely detonated.
To help finance the attacks, the four men reportedly carried out 11 gas station robberies. They were reportedly plotting attacks in Los Angeles against two synagogues, the Israeli consulate, the El Al office and American military facilities. The terrorism was timed to occur on this year’s anniversary of September 11 or during the High Holy Days, which begin next week.
Public attention was first drawn to the issue of terrorist recruitment in American prisons after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when it became known that Al Qaeda operatives Richard Reid and Jose Padilla had become converts to radical Islam while in prison. Once released, they carried through on their prison indoctrination by seeking out Al Qaeda.
Dealing with the problem of recruitment for radical Islam in prisons has become more urgent as it has become apparent that many Muslim prison chaplains are part of the problem rather than the solution. A particularly glaring example is former New York State prison chaplain Warith Deen Umar, who praised the September 11 attacks to his prison congregants.
Unfortunately, many other chaplains either turn a blind eye to the radical activities of Muslim inmates or actively promote radicalism rather than transform them into future productive members of society.
Until 2001, the organization that administered the Islamic prison chaplaincies was the Islamic Society of North America, a Saudi-controlled group that promotes Islamic extremist ideology. In 2003, the Bureau of Prisons placed a hiring freeze on accepting chaplains endorsed by the society and by other Islamic organizations until it receives information from the FBI in order to determine whether any of the organizations should still be used as endorsers. That measure deals with the issue of chaplains hired in the future but does not do anything about the ones who are still in place.
Now that we have seen with the Los Angeles indictment one more example of the threats posed by the incubation of terrorists in our prison system, what can be done?
First, the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI must step up their efforts to monitor the entire prison system. Second, a reevaluation of existing Muslim prison chaplains should take place. Those who are found to be perpetuating radical ideology should be dismissed. Third, radical Islamic literature should be removed from prison libraries. Such materials should be replaced with classical works of Islam, including mainstream translations of the Koran, Hadith and standard works of Islamic theology. Fourth, new Muslim chaplains should not be certified as chaplains unless they have also been trained as counselors who will be able to work toward the rehabilitation of inmates. Muslim prison chaplains should be a force for transforming inmates into productive members of society. Fifth, future endorsements of Muslim chaplains should be given by Muslim organizations that are unequivocally anti-extremist, and the reviews of materials to be distributed in prison should be conducted in conjunction with these moderate groups.
The issue of terrorist recruitment in prisons has received scant attention in the four years since September 11. The recent arrests in California should serve as a wake-up call to confront a problem that is creating terrorists in our very midst.
Yehudit Barsky is director of the Division on Middle East and International Terrorism at the American Jewish Committee.