Press "Enter" to skip to content

ICSR Study: Europe’s prisons are becoming Islamic State Universities

Europe’s prisons are recruitment and training centres for the Islamic State.

Following the Paris and Brussels attacks, there was a prevailing impression that has since been verified by numerous studies: terrorists appeared to be in their 20s, second generation migrants, and of immigrant background.

Emir of Molenbeek

In April, Europe’s public opinion got a glimpse of how radicalisation and petty crime go hand-in-hand, in the so-called “Emir of Molenbeek” trial in Belgium.

A Belgian Court of appeals sentenced Khalid Zerkani, 42, to 18 years in jail for his role in the recruitment and indoctrination of more than 500 jihadi fighters.

Zerkani boasted the recruitment of Najim Laachraoui, the Brussels airport suicide bomber, as well as the Paris attacks ringleader, Abdelhamid Abbaoud. The combined toll of these attacks was 162 people.

The jihadi preacher Zarkani was based in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek and had nicknames such as “guru,” “mentor” and “Santa Claus.”  His activity goes back to the attacks in New York on September 11, 2001.

Petty crime funded the network with youths staying ideologically loyal to the cause while being allowed to spend some of the proceeds on recreation.

Crime, Jihadism, and prisons

A 56-page study published by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) on Tuesday, focuses on the third parameter of radicalisation, that is, prison.

Up to 40% of terrorist plots in Europe are at least in part-financed through ‘petty crime,’ such as drug-dealing, theft, robberies, the sale of counterfeit goods, loan fraud, and burglaries, the report suggests.

But, the most significant contribution to terrorism comes from prisons, that is, the human resources epicentre of European terrorism.

It has long been known that prisons are the “universities of crime” in which petty criminals acquire skills to move up in their criminal career. Now, it appears, prisons are also becoming the breeding ground of Jihadism. That is a timely discovery, precisely because it seems that the imprisonment of people like Zerkani may not be the end of their activity.

On the contrary, it could be the beginning.

From a sample of 79 radicalised Jihadist fighters that the study examines, 45 have spent time in prison (57%). 12 out of these 45 (27%) first came into contact with Jihadism in prison.

This fact somewhat changes the meaning of the term “correctional facility.” The focus group studied by ICSR is a group of Jihadi militants from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Contacts and skills

Prison unleashes the destructive potential of Jihadist fighters, allowing for networking and access to know-how. For anything from the supply of guns and false documents, to the art of remaining undercover, the prison has its teachers.

The Director of ICSR, Peter Neumann, told AFP that “prisons will become more — rather than less — significant as breeding grounds for the jihadist movement.” The study cites the head of the Brussels Federal Police,  Alain Grignard, describing the Islamic State as “a sort of super-gang.”

For some, militant Islam offers the promise of redemption and dignifies their identity as former criminals. It is the continuation of gang life with the perk of going to heaven.

Policy recommendations

The profile of terrorists is changing. Gang members can be terrorists just as much as they can be seen as purists who are pious and willing to die for their faith. In this scheme, states need to stop cutting corners in correctional facilities and increase the quality of prisons. An investment in less crowded jails with better-trained staff rises safety against terrorism.

“Prison officers {must} maintain direct channels of communication with security agencies,” the study suggests.

Authorities need to follow the money in petty crime. And local authorities must be more involved because civic society contacts are increasingly more important. Positive relations with community leaders are paramount.