Europe’s prisons are ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’, new study claims

Europe’s prisons are ‘breeding grounds for terrorists’, new study claims

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Crime-terror nexus: Europe’s prisons are turning criminals into terrorists, study finds

Prisons in Europe are becoming “breeding grounds” for jihadist groups, with some criminals seeing violent extremism as a form of redemption for their crimes, a report by a British think tank dubbed as “new crime-terror nexus” said.

Jihadist and criminal groups are recruiting from the same pool of people, while their social networks are also converging, according to a study on jihadist groups published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), a British-based think tank.

“There is a complete connect now between these social circles and, on the other hand, the message coming from the Islamic State, which is basic, it is almost like a gangster-like message, a lot of it is geared towards guns, adventure,” says Peter Neumann, director of ICSR and co-author of the report. “It’s no longer like 10 or 15 years ago when you looked at Al-Qaeda and they were using religious arguments to justify it to make a case that this is legitimate.”

The 56-page study details how the Islamic State (IS) group turns to the criminal underclassin prisons to recruit individuals with a history of crime.

The report, titled Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures, profiles 79 European jihadis who progressed from petty or violent crime to hardened jihadism on the continent or the Middle East. It finds that criminal and extremist groups recruit from the same social pools, resulting in the transfer of skills and an environment that suit those susceptible to violence and experienced at averting law enforcement agencies.

Of the 79 jihadis profiled, 45 (57 percent) had been incarcerated before they were radicalized, indicated that their prison time was an influential factor in their journey to jihadism. It includes jihadis from some of the European countries most affected by radical Islamism; the U.K. (16), Germany (15), Belgium (13), France (13), Netherlands (11) and Denmark (11).

The report found that 40 percent of extremist plots in Europe are part-financed through petty crime, such as drug-dealing, theft, robberies, burglaries and counterfeiting.

Crime, Jihadism, and prisons

ICSR estimates that 12 (27 percent) of those were indeed radicalized in prison. The factors vary but a primary cause of their radicalization while doing time is the opportunity for criminals to cross paths with jihadis, opening them up to new ideas and values that they are already vulnerable to. Some prisoners also wish to redeem themselves for the behavior that landed them in prison, turning to religion and a cause they believe to be honorable, essentially another outlet for their violent nature.

“Prison is a perfect place if you are looking for a place where those two social circles interact in the most intimate way,” Neumann explains, saying that these facilities serve as incubators for extremism to reach “ripe” and “angry” young men. “We have seen attempts to recruit people inside of prison and we think prisons will be become even more important than they were in the past as a place where this happens.”

Ali Almanasfi, a British-Syrian from London who fought in Syria after serving a jail term for violent assault, was cited in the report as saying: “I want to do something good for once. I want to do something pure.”

57% had been imprisoned before radicalisation

Over the past five years an estimated 5,000 Western Europeans have travelled to the Middle East to join jihadist organisations such as the IS group and the Syrian Fateh al-Sham Front, a former al Qaeda affiliate, the report said.

Of those studied, 57 percent had been incarcerated before being radicalised and at least 27 percent of those who spent time in prison were radicalised behind bars.

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 prisons with better-trained staff increases 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.

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