British Prisoners: Ripe for Islamist Radicalisation

British prisons will turn into radical Islamist universities unless Britain steers clear of ratcheting up its draconian "anti-terror" legislation, Sukant Chandan warns

In the last month alone, Britain has seen 16 Muslims convicted of terror-related crimes. Politicians and the media have used these convictions and the attacks in London and Glasgow to heighten Islamophobia and scaremongering amongst the British public. British premier Gordon Brown and the head of the Police Officers Association have taken this opportunity to raise the prospect of introducing internment and detention without trial, used notoriously and ineffectually by the British state against the Irish Republican Movement. There are already 100 Muslim terror suspects in British jails awaiting trial, and internment, compounded with the probable increase in conflicts in the Middle East, will lead to hundreds more being detained in prisons. Filling Britain's already critically overpopulated jails with Muslims will bolster the ranks of alienated and radical Islamist youth both inside and outside prisons. This, like so many of Britain's foolish policies, will rebound against its security and foreign policy interests.

Not a day goes by without headline news of another individual or group of Muslims being convicted of terrorist-related offences. Although there are many other secular and left- wing movements on the list of proscribed foreign terrorist organisations, the message is that Muslims are the main enemy, and the main subject of the Islamophobic offensive by the West. This strategy has succeeded in criminalising Muslims and Islam in the minds of the majority of British people, and also in humiliating and incensing Muslims and progressive-minded people.

These convictions are significant for two main reasons: they set precedents for convictions, not for having been involved in or planning terrorist acts, but for distributing material on the Internet or being in possession of terrorist-related reading material, and they create a favourable political climate for pushing through further draconian emergency legislation, with internment being the most important and controversial.

The convictions of three people who were in total given 24 years between them were the first ever in Britain against those involved in incitement to commit terrorist acts through the Internet. Referring to convicted 23-year old Moroccan Younis Tsouli, Judge Openshaw said: "He came no closer to a bomb or a firearm than a computer keyboard," The judge recommended that Tsouli should be deported back to Morocco after serving his 10-year sentence.

28-year-old Yassin Nassari was given three and half years for possession of terrorist- related material given to him on an external hard drive by a friend in Syria while he was there studying Arabic. The jury failed to convict him on the greater charge of involvement in terrorism, an accusation made on the sole basis of an email from his wife while he was in Syria. Again, as in the case of Tsouli, Nassari was not found to have been involved in any planning or act of terrorism, and if being in possession of these files were so dangerous, why has the British Telegraph website re- printed the blueprints that were found on Nassari of how to make Al-Qassem rockets? In the case of Nassari it seems what is important about his conviction is not the prevention of possible terrorist attacks, as there is no evidence that he was connected to any, but setting a precedent to convict other people for being in possession of ambiguous "terrorist- related" materials. The jury's verdict meant that anyone who downloaded such material, whatever their intentions, was at real risk of being convicted under Britain's terrorism laws, and the judge at Nassari's trial said, "the sooner that is understood, the better."

When it comes to Muslims and the conflicts in the Middle East, the official media and British state discourse remains Blairite. The softer, more "reasoned" tone of Brown attempts to win back those voters the Labour Party has alienated. It seems that on an executive level, all that has changed is a slight re-arranging of the deck chairs, as a string of security sweeps is taking place against non-Islamic groups in Britain which remains unreported, while terror-related convictions of Muslims are the context in which Brown is seeking cross-party consensus on further emergency legislation. Scotland Yard has supported the proposal of the head of the Association of Police Officers on internment with no time limit to replace the current maximum of 28 days, a period which Brown has already said he wants to extend. In all likelihood the government will succeed in getting internment through in the absence of any serious and effective opposition to it inside or outside parliament.

The British military occupation of Northern Ireland already shows the counter- productiveness of internment which contributed to turning British prisons in Ireland into hotbeds of radical Irish republicanism, so much so that Britain's most notorious maximum security prison in Northern Ireland, Long Kesh -- The Maze, was dubbed the republican university by the Irish Republican Movement.

There are already warning signs as to what internment would mean for British security. Mukhtar Said Ibrahim, who was the ringleader of the 21 July 2005 attempted London bombing, spent time in Feltham and Aylesbury Young Offenders institutes, and is alleged to have been radicalised by imams there, as was the "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid during his time at Feltham.

More recently the Islamist prisoners being held in Belmarsh, awaiting trial now for many months, are already creating headaches for the prison authorities. Tariq Al-Daour, one of the first convicted in Britain to be imprisoned for inciting terrorism over the Internet, was caught allegedly making a website which encouraged armed struggle. A prison riot ensued between prison officers and Muslim prisoners when Al-Daour refused to hand over his laptop. If this is the situation with a handful of Islamist prisoners in Belmarsh, one can predict the crisis that will occur when Britain has to deal with hundreds of radical Islamist prisoners organising from and recruiting inside British jails. Vice-Chairman of the Prison Officers Association Steve Gough has warned that in five years terrorist and suspected terrorist prisoners will increase by a thousand-fold and these highly politicised and often charismatic prisoners could produce a new wave of radicals among other inmates.

Throughout much of the prison population in the West, Islam holds a special attraction. Most famously, it was Malcolm X (Malik Al-Hajj Shabazz) who went from street-hustler through a path of redemption to Islam and soon became America's greatest radical black leader. From being known as Satan by his fellows, he turned to Islam after befriending a fellow prisoner who was a member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X's auto-biography continues to be the most requested book by prisoners in the West.

In British jails Islam is the fastest growing religion amongst inmates. Wandsworth prison in London, Europe's largest, sees more Muslims attending prayers than all the other faiths combined across London's prison system. Gough himself states that the majority of the prison population is comprised of angry young men, disenfranchised from society. "It doesn't matter if they're English, Afro-Caribbean or whatever. These types of people are ripe for radicalisation."

Many inner city youth, including college and university students turned away from a life of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and disrespect towards the opposite sex, towards Islam in the search for a life of moral uprightness and knowledge. After 9/11 many of these youths were incensed by the oppression of their co-religionists in Somalia, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. These young people who try to make sense out of the tragedies and challenges that are befalling the umma are disturbed by what they see as the decadence of the West alongside its war and occupations.

Those who are imprisoned for terror-related crimes and who are awaiting trial are not, unlike the Irish Republican Movement prisoners until the late 1990s, part of a mass radical social and armed struggle in Britain. They are prisoners who are mostly isolated from the Muslim community in Britain, and as such constitute convenient targets for the British government to justify the introduction of further draconian measures.

Ironically, it may well be the introduction of these measures that will swell the ranks of radical Islamist prisoners in British jails and spread throughout their communities. The British state security response to this might be to introduce even further measures such as isolation cells and sensory-deprivation techniques that are used in other parts of Europe. It must be borne in mind however that these measures will not stop others from turning to Islam amongst the prison populations, whose message of rejection of Western decadence and its hypocritical concepts of democracy and human rights will find receptive ears and recruits from disenfranchised youth in British society, who may look beyond for retribution for their perceived injustices.

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