Shedding Light on the “Prison-to-Jihad” Pipeline: Islam, Radicalization, and Terrorism in French Prisons

Shedding Light on the “Prison-to-Jihad” Pipeline: Islam, Radicalization, and Terrorism in French Prisons

Since the Islamic State’s creation in June 2014, France has witnessed the most terrorist related violence across all of Europe and the United States. Brookings’ scholars McCants and Meserole recently published a landmark study identifying Francophone status as the biggest determinant for whether European countries experience Sunni radicalization and violence. These two data points highlight the continued risks posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) to the government of France and its citizens. Terrorism in France is too often wrapped up in conflicting narratives of nationalism, Islam, and immigration. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen frequently used the trope of Middle Eastern refugees seeking to unleash violence against France in the name of Islam, a narrative that secured her one-third of the national vote in the 2017 presidential elections. Yet the overwhelming majority of recent terrorist attacks haven’t been carried out by refugees, but by French citizens socialized in the country’s secular schools. Moreover, a wide variety of groups have engaged in terrorism across France since the 1800s, including Basque, Breton and Corsican separatists, pro- and anti-Algerian independence movements, the far-left Action Directe, the far-right Organisation Armée Secrète, neo-Nazis, and more recently, Islamic extremists. Islamic extremists, as defined by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), engage in the violence in the name of a faith-based ideology in order to impose strict regulations on social life, though they often lack even rudimentary religious education. In the case of Islamic extremism in France, this violence is particularly anti-state, as the French government’s strict interpretation of secularism, or laicite, results in heavy restrictions on Islam in public spaces. Yet the roots of radicalization lie in specific social processes which take place at the individual rather than community level. While Muslims in France, and overlapping African and Maghrebi immigrant populations, face state violence and widespread economic discrimination, the overwhelming majority continue to reject violence and extremist ideologies. Prisons offer a clearer view of this complex relationship between government policies, Islam, radicalization, and terrorism. If authorities are to effectively dismantle radicalization networks in prisons, they must create targeted rehabilitation programs, end isolation of suspected radicals, empower Imams as independent authorities, and avoid securitizing entire populations who face continued discrimination.

Race and identity in the French criminal justice system

French pundits consistently highlight prisons as “incubators” for radicalization. The government estimates that 1,400 radicalized inmates currently reside in prison, 300 of whom are serving sentences for terrorism charges. A major blind spot for security services comes not from convicted terrorists, but from petty criminals who are radicalized while serving their sentences and who carry out attacks upon leaving. Notable former inmates charged with crimes like petty theft, drug possession, and larceny include Mohammed Merah, perpetrator of the 2012 Toulouse attacks, Mehdi Nemmouche of the 2014 Brussels Jewish Museum attack, and the assailants from the January 2015 Paris attacks, Amedy Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi. Countering violent extremism (CVE) policies must, therefore, highlight both convicted terrorists and inmates more broadly susceptible to radicalization, despite clear indicators.

Hardline ideologies in French prisons exist alongside more broadly followed religious practices, namely Islam, which plays a major role in inmates’ social networks. Islam spread rapidly across the prison population in the 1970s with the spread of Tablighi, a movement within Sunni Islam which emphasizes piety. At first, prison authorities welcomed this trend and its stabilizing effect on prisoners, as it weakened the influence of organized criminal groups. It was only in the 1990s, during the Algerian Civil War and the growth of Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) cells across France, that prison officials began securitizing Islam, resulting in greater surveillance and the use of isolation on Muslim inmates. Currently, more than 60 percent of inmates identify as Muslim (almost 40,000 inmates total), despite making up only 12% of the general population. One reason for this overrepresentation stems from the failure of integration on the part of the government, as explained by sociologist Moussa Khedimellah. Many Muslim inmates come from banlieues, segregated neighborhoods predominantly populated by immigrant communities, with few opportunities for higher education or employment. Arrest rates in these neighborhoods far surpass the national average. While the government is prohibited from collecting statistics on race or religion, French Muslims, mostly from Arab or African descent, are estimated to comprise the majority of those arrested on drug charges, especially for marijuana. Another potential reason for the skew is widespread institutional violence directed towards France’s Arab and African population. The state of emergency passed in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks saw wide-scale police repression targeting French Muslims, with tens of thousands targeted with random searches and online surveillance, and thousands more subjected to house raids. Economic and political discrimination create additional issues. French Muslims are reportedly 400% less likely to receive a job offer than their Catholic counterparts, even when controlling for education and skill level. Second and third generation citizens with Arab and African surnames are told to change their names when submitting job applications. As a result of this widespread discrimination, charismatic “influencers” in prisons have little difficulty persuading inmates about the perceived irreconcilability of French identity and Islam when they can easily draw on lived experiences of institutional Islamophobia and the openly racist and violent discourse of political groups like the French National Front.

While the linkages between impoverished banlieue and radicalization are appealing, a closer look at recent attacks shows a more nuanced picture. In fact, while some attackers like the Kouachi brothers fit an expected pattern of fragmented social networks, poverty, barriers to employment, and repeat criminality, other attackers emerged from middle-class, secular families with access to education, like Coulibaly. Moreover, the average French citizen traveling to Iraq or Syria to fight for the Islamic State is increasingly white, middle-class, and occasionally female. France must address the rampant economic and social exclusion facing Arab and African populations in banlieu neighborhoods but should do so without the pretense of addressing the root causes of radicalization, which are far more nuanced. While difficult conditions certainly shaped the path to radicalization for some notorious individuals, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of ‘banlieusards’ are not taking up arms against the French state. Therefore, while environmental factors can serve as stressors to sensitize an individual to radicalization, the unique social process that place in prisons requires a closer look.

The “Prison to Jihad Pipeline”

Most literature supports the idea that prisons, under certain conditions, can serve as potent incubators for radicalization. Across the Middle East, prisons hosted numerous jihadist figures, including Al Qaeda notables Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Spanish, British, Belgian, and French prisons have all produced terrorists socialized during their detention who went on to carry out major acts of terrorism. Given the varying quality of life and style of detention across these different countries, radicalization is likely an individual process of socialization exacerbated by broader environmental stressors. Prisons offer unique opportunities for ideological indoctrination. The combination of emotional shock, isolation, and the need for social belonging push many prisoners to turn to moral frameworks or spirituality during their incarceration. Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar explains prison radicalization as a multi-stage process. Often, vulnerable inmates enter prison on minor charges and have little to no religious education. Once in prison, highly charismatic individuals will approach them and offer them a sense of belonging, beginning a gradual socialization process. The ideology used is designed to push individuals out of existing social isolation by giving them a worldview that is both empowering and highly intolerant, one that is especially attractive to those who already hold anti-state views. Once the relationship is established, the influencer uses a combination of violence and social norms to create a social network. These groups can outlast prison sentences, and connect former inmates to other extremists across Europe, and even with VEOs around the world. This radicalization process is seen clearly in the cases of Merah and Coulibaly. Both grew up in mostly non-religious households, and as a result of repeated experiences with criminal networks and the French justice system, came into contact with charismatic convicts who socialized them to violent, anti-state ideologies. This process of socialization continues to produce terrorists within the criminal justice system, and requires a strong policy response.

The general French state’s response to terrorism, informed by waves of domestic terrorism in the late 20th century, established a system that easily arrests and convicts suspects by casting a broad net over any individuals remotely linked to terrorist networks. While this allows a whole-of-network approach and can theoretically preempt terrorist attacks, it also solidifies otherwise weak links between terrorist networks and larger illicit economies present in banlieues. For example, the trabendo criminal networks present among first and second generation Maghrebi communities are mostly unconnected to terrorism, yet are frequent targets during mass arrests targeting potential terrorists, creating new linkages. Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving perpetrator of the November 2015 Paris attacks, managed to evade capture for over 150 days using social and family networks tied to the drug trade in the suburbs of Brussels. The very same ISIS cell involved in the attacks previously worked with petty criminals and drug dealers to recruit fighters for ISIS. While terrorism ought to be treated as a law enforcement issue, the government’s current approach is to broad and risks strengthening ties between otherwise unaffiliated criminals and terrorist cells. Moving beyond this approach would require greater intelligence gathering to target individual suspects, as well as broader policy shifts in urban development and limited drug legalization to weaken existing illicit economies.

Beyond arrests, the French approach towards deradicalization within prison focuses on more on sentencing than rehabilitation, an approach which undermines the potential for effective deradicalization programs. Over the last decade, in light of high profile attacks committed by former inmates, the government adopted several new approaches. First, prison officials gained an increasing power to overrule prisoner rights, notably the right to privacy, in the name of security. With the creation of a new Bureau of Prison Intelligence, prison officials can now wiretap phones, place hidden cameras, and examine electronic communications, using tools previously only available to intelligence services. Second, the government launched a new program designed to separately target “influencers” and inmates in the process of being radicalized. The program involves a higher ratio of wardens to prisoners, with staff trained in psychology, sociology, Islam, and history. Inmates are offered theatre workshops, debate seminars, and courses covering subjects ranging from legal studies to Japanese literature. These programs are intended to last six months, after which the inmate is released into the general population under close supervision by prison staff. Beyond prisons, the government has attempted to passed new laws to counter radicalization within schools, by better communicating the reasons for laicites to faith communities, teaching more colonial history in classrooms, and encouraging Arabic language courses within public spaces, although these have proven politically unattractive with conservative voters. This combination of policies seeks to deradicalize individuals through a variety of tools, which combat root factors in marginalized populations, engage with individuals along the path of radicalization, and isolate individuals deemed “too far gone.”

Results so far have been mixed. While the combination of isolation targeting influencers and robust CVE engagement with those at risk of radicalization has reduced the number of reported incidents of radicalization in prisons, analysts warn against premature declarations of success. In fact, many argue that influencers are now more hidden than they were in the past, as the policies have not stopped radicalization but rather pushed it further underground. This mirrors the government’s crackdown on hardline Imams in the early 2000s. One unintended consequence of this policy was that radicalization moved underground into social spaces where it couldn't be monitored or challenged by the government or community members. Another policy, the construction of dedicated isolation facilities for radicalized inmates, poses numerous problems. First, radicalization is difficult to measure and this sort of segregation results in pious inmates being lumped in with hardened extremists. Second, isolating radical prisoners from the general population risks pushing them furthers their radicalization, as they lose exposure to information beyond their personal beliefs and that of prison officials. Finally, this move risks empowering more radical cells amongst convicted terrorists. When the UK established such a special segregated unit in 2005, it put members of Al Qaeda, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and smaller Algerian outfits in the same unit. The result was a book, Limatha Intasarna (Why We Were Victorious), written by one of the inmates, collecting lessons from different inmates on military and organizational tactics, which was then smuggled out of prison for distribution to VEOs worldwide. Isolating radicals in special units may give the appearance of greater security, but simply enforces existing hardline ideologies and reduces the chance for radicalization to be challenged through a marketplace of ideas with other prisoners. However, the higher staff-to-inmate ratios and opportunities for education are promising, and show strong results in other countries where they are already deployed.

Beyond the potential backlash produced by isolating high-level influencers and radicalized inmates from the general population, these programs fail to fully interact with the environmental stressors that make inmates vulnerable to radicalization. One major issue in French prisons is the lack of faith services available to Muslim inmates. Research points to the crucial role that Imams can play in counter-radicalization efforts, as they can use theological arguments to dispel extremist ideologies. Yet as of 2008, only 100 Imams serviced France’s 200 prisons, compared with 480 Catholic, 250 Protestant, and 50 Jewish chaplains. More broadly, general debates about religion are heavily stifled by France’s strict interpretation of secularism, or laicite. In stark contrast to the United States, which bans government interference in religion, French laicite places strict restrictions on religious displays in public, notably in schools. Yet the country’s strong Catholic roots ensure that, to some degree, these restrictions target French Muslims to a greater degree than any other group. What debates do occur within prisons, are often undertaken by underpaid Imams and Islamic scholars who are vetted by authorities.  The strict regulations placed on their sermons by officials limit their ability to engage with radicalized inmates and result in their image as a tool of the state. As a result, radicalized inmates avoid contact with them, out of suspicion or fears of being punished for interacting with them. The government ought to empower Imams with more resources and independence, in order to create strong voices in prisons which can mediate between prisoners and officials, and counteract the power of influencers.

In addition to empowering religious figures, French prisons must better support the freedom of Muslim inmates to express their faith while serving their sentences, as current restrictions on gives additional ammunition to influencers. While Muslim prisoners can forego pork products, true halal meals are not an option in most prisons. Christian inmates receive special gifts from family members for Christmas, but Muslim inmates don’t receive the same on Ramadan. French authorities can significantly weaken “influencers” by enforcing religious requirements in line with standards established by the European Court of Justice and the United Nations. These include, among other things; defined halal menu options, alarm clocks to indicate prayer times, access to Korans, flexible dinner schedules to accommodate for fasting during Ramadan, the provision of soap and water at prayer spaces, and the right to meet with spouses in a private room. Religious accommodations in line with international standards can only serve to weaken influencers, and is crucial to promoting human rights in prisons.

If France seeks to break the prison to jihad pipeline, it ought to move beyond discourses which securitize broad segments of the population and empower moderate voices in prison indirectly, by giving Imams more support and autonomy, while ensuring that prisoners can freely practice their faith. While targeted support for prisoners at risk of radicalization can provide positive outcomes, it should be done in a manner that doesn’t fully isolate them, at risk of cementing hardline views. Finally, the prison debate should force a broader discussion in French society about the treatment of Muslims in general, with an emphasis on economic inclusion and genuine police reform.

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