The introduction of some of the most prominent al-Qa`ida terrorists, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, into the U.S. prison system will risk radicalizing other inmates as well as providing a cause célèbre that other violent Islamists can rally behind. Like almost all things in the domestic counter-terrorism arena, one need only look to the Europeans, in this case the British, who always seem to face these problems before we do. The U.K.-based counter-terrorism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, just released a report demonstrating how Britain's most dangerous al-Qa`ida leaders continue to proselytize, recruit, and produce propaganda, all from inside some of Britain's highest security prisons, thus presenting a security risk to not only the prison population and corrections officers, but also to the British population writ large when the radicalized individuals are eventually released.
Radicalization in prison is a sub-set of the overall radicalization phenomenon; however, due to the audience, people generally predisposed to violence and anti-government sentiments, and the setting, a confined space without much in the way of distractions, the radicalization of Muslim converts in U.S. prisons represents a greater threat than radicalization in the larger population outside of prison.
Some of the most dedicated radical Islamists in the U.S. have been converts. These individuals feel that by dedicating their lives to violence on behalf of groups such as al-Qa`ida they will become true believers or prove their devotion. Unfortunately, many converts do so while in prison, thus coupling the idea of becoming a radical Islamist with someone that is already prone to violence and possibly already infused with anti-government or anti-establishment ideals. This creates the perfect embodiment of the violent Islamist, or terrorist, that Osama bin Laden would like to see operating within the United States.
According to the Quilliam report, Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as "bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe," published fatwas — religious rulings — on the internet while sequestered in one of the UK's "supermax" prisons. The report detailed how "last year, under the noses of [prison officials], Qatada and Adel Abdel Bary, leader of the UK branch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, were able to smuggle out a series of fatwas legitimising attacks by Al Qaeda and endorsing the murder of moderate Muslims."
Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber," was born in Britain to a Jamaican father and white mother. After dropping out of school and pursuing a life of crime, Reid was imprisoned. There he followed his father's example and converted to Islam, ultimately adhering to a more radical version of the religion and attending the notorious Finsbury Park mosque, the north-central London mosque infamous for its salafist imams preaching jihad as well as for its coterie of al-Qa`ida attendees. Reid eventually attempted to ignite explosives concealed in his shoes while aboard a trans-Atlantic flight from the UK to the U.S.
This phenomenon is not restricted to Europe. In 2005 Kevin James (aka Shaykh Shabaab Murshid), an African-American Muslim convert who, while incarcerated in California in 1997 founded the radical Jam`iyyat ul-Islam is-Saheeh (JIS), was indicted along with three co-conspirators with plotting to attack synagogues and U.S. military installations. According to media sources, James recruited one of his co-conspirators in prison who was then released and subsequently recruited another co-conspirator. Based on evidence obtained after the arrest of James and his co-conspirators, the plot was in the advanced stages.
In May of this year New Yorker James Cromitie and three others allegedly conspired to attack New York-area synagogues and shoot down U.S. military aircraft. All reportedly converted to radical Islam during one of their many stints in prison.
More recently, in late October the FBI and Detroit Police Department served arrest warrants for eleven members of the radical Islamist group, the Ummah, led by now-deceased Luqman Abdullah (aka Christopher Thomas). Abdullah led the Ummah on-behalf of Jamil al-Amin (aka H. Rapp Brown), who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer in Fulton County, Georgia in 2000. Al-Amin, formerly a Black Panther, espoused anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric. He wanted to create a separate state for his followers run under shari`a (fundamentalist Islamic law that can be taken too far such as in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan). For almost a decade, Abdullah, a Muslim convert who converted while in prison, continued al-Amin's work, preaching violent rhetoric to his followers, the majority of whom also converted to Islam while serving time in prison. Abdullah was killed during the arrest attempt in October when he fired on law enforcement officers, killing a police K-9 in the process.
By no means will all prisoners convert to Islam, nor are all prisoners who convert to Islam likely to carry out terrorist attacks once they are released back into society. However, it only required 19 terrorists to execute the 9/11 attacks, only four to carry out the 7 July 2005 attacks on the London transportation system. President Obama and Attorney General Holder need to carefully weigh the risks associated with allowing these al-Qa`ida icons into our civilian prisons where violent men are just awaiting spiritual guidance in the form of violent extremism.