French Prisons: Universities of Jihad

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Sociologist and author Farhad Khosrokhavar has estimated that Muslims make up between 50 and 80 percent of prison inmates in France. Given that Muslims account for between seven and eight perecent of the French population, this means that they are either more prone to crime than the indigenous French population, or that they are victims of discrimination by French law enforcement.

Given that many offenders are not behind bars but out on parole, wearing electronic bracelets, under house arrest or were not jailed on conviction but benefited from the leniency of the criminal courts, the real figure for the share of Islam in French crime is probably much higher than Khosrokhhavar’s estimate.

One of the disadvantages of this high proportion of Muslim inmates is that French prisons have become universities of jihad and incubators of terrorism.

French prison authorities were aware of the problem of radicalization way before the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015. Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people (including three schoolchildren) in Toulouse in 2012 and Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, had been radicalized in prison.

The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack had also rallied to the cause of radical Islam while doing jail time. But when prison governors notified the authorities of the rise in Islamic radicalism, they were not only ignored but accused of Islamophobia.

Official figures indicate that 18,000 Muslim inmates observe Ramadan. There are currently only 182 Muslim prison chaplains, a situation which contributes to the influence of self-styled imams from the Muslim prison constituency.

In that constituency, 1,400 have been identified as radical Islamists of which 300 are linked to terrorism. The extent to which Islamist extremists indulge in and spread their ideology is astonishing.

Calls to prayer are made from prison windows. Inmates who are considered “bad” Muslims — those who watch television, do not rise at dawn to pray or do not wear a jellaba after sunset — are expelled from their cells by their radical co-religionists.

Female Muslim visitors who wear Western-style clothing are insulted and some have resorted to changing into Islamic robes in the parking lot before visits. In 2014, 1,012 cellphones found in prisons were seized, of which 50 percent contained Facebook accounts, some with links to Syria and Yemen.

The most common argument used to entice new recruits is to tell them that they will be absolved of their sins and gain entry to paradise if they commit to waging violent jihad upon release.

In January 2015 Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled an $800 million project to combat the spread of radical Islam including the creation of dedicated prison units (U2P or Units for the Prevention of Proselytism) where Islamists would be separated from other prisoners. The project was rolled out in five prisons at a cost of $17 million.

One prison governor expressed scepticism at the scheme, saying it would not prevent the recruitment of prisoners to the cause of jihad.

“If we want to separate the radical inmates from the rest of the prison population, we would need to build a French Guantanamo. Is that what we want?” he asked.

A member of the national security intelligence service shares this view. “Our prisons are cauldrons of radicalization. Terrorist inmates are heroes and this facilitates proselytism and recruitment.”

The real question to consider is what restrictions on freedom are acceptable in the interest of national security.

A report published on July 6, 2016 by the inspector general of prisons evaluates the result of this project and the judgement is far from favorable.

Between February and May 2016, three inspectors visited four prisons and interviewed 64 U2P inmates and their handlers. The report concludes that the experimental model is unrealistic given the overpopulation in prisons and presents more disadvantages than advantages.

Moreover, the structures put in place are inappropriate given the scale of the problem and the spectacular increase in people (over 1,000) currently indicted for terrorism. The initial objective of combating proselytism has been supplanted by that of gathering radicalized inmates in single units.

The report echoes the concerns of counter-terrorism magistrates that putting radical Islamists together will facilitate bonding, networking and the intimidation of vulnerable inmates. While radicals in the U2Ps are held in private cells, they are still not completely sealed off from the rest of the inmates and continue to spread their ideology.

The isolation of jihadists in U2Ps is accompanied by deradicalization programs, which consist of lessons in citizenship, lectures and debates on political violence and structured seminars on disengagement from violence for groups of six to eight over a three-month period on a voluntary basis.

Commenting on the report, Guillaume Denoix de Saint-Marc, director of the French Association for Victims of Terrorism, stated that the only way to eliminate prison radicalization is to “make inmates reflect in order to prepare for their release.”

Given the high rate of repeat offending and the crossover from juvenile delinquency to violent crime and ultimately to jihad, such a statement belongs more in the realm of wishful thinking than reality.

Radicalization is also taking place at an alarming rate in prisons in the U.S. Watch a clip from the Clarion film, The Third Jihad: 


Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).

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