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The rise of Jihadi prison gangs Extremists are no longer pretending to be victims

A mere handful of extremists now rank in the hundreds (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

A mere handful of extremists now rank in the hundreds (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)


September 1, 2022   5 mins

By the last count, there were more than 200 convicted terrorists — most Islamist, but some far-Right — currently housed at Her Majesty’s pleasure in British prisons, with a further 200 or so convicted of other offences but deemed similarly radicalised. It is a testament to how “out of sight, out of mind” prisons are that attention among extremism and terrorism experts has meandered elsewhere —despite there being higher numbers of incarcerated Islamist extremists than ever before, and despite what we know about prisons serving as jihadist incubators across the world.

Many of Britain’s most dangerous jihadists are imprisoned, perhaps affording us this false sense of security. But the sporadic information we get from behind the prison walls is anything but reassuring. While much hope is pinned on the largely uncharted territory of “deradicalisation”, its targets are making a mockery of these efforts. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons made clear a few weeks ago, the highest-risk prisoners in the country are outright boycotting these interventions, with some offenders listening to music or pretending to sleep during their one to one sessions.

On the other hand, even those who appear to comply may pose a threat, as Usman Khan’s slaying of those who sought only to help him tragically demonstrated. While participating in an educational course or qualification can be taken by authorities as a sign of progress, it is no objective measure of deradicalisation, not least when the knowledge gained can be put to use for the cause, to better proselytise or wage war.

Prisons are not isolated and cut off from the world, their walls are porous: people, information and material come and go. Meanwhile, the jihadists inside do not see imprisonment as an end to their struggle — so nor should we. The West’s experience with jihadism, now into its fourth decade, shows how its adherents often see their incarceration as a rite of passage and opportunity: to better prepare for jihad, to gain qualifications and skills on the taxpayer, to forge crucial connections and relationships, to proselytise among the prison population, and to test their faith.

Prisons around the world have proven integral to the global jihadist movement’s remarkable resiliency and regenerative capability, but so has naivety. In 2005, a jailed Parisian named ChĂ©rif Kouachi led his social worker to believe he had been “tricked” into associating with extremists busy funnelling fighters to the insurgency in Iraq. On the inside, however, ChĂ©rif fraternised with jihadi veteran Djamal Beghal, who had helped recruit “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in London in the Nineties. Exactly a decade after being “tricked”, ChĂ©rif and his brother SaĂŻd burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine to massacre the writers, satirists and illustrators inside.

Today, no longer pick-up riding or passport-burning, the Islamic State’s jihadists are marooned in the dilapidated camps and makeshift prisons of Northern Syria, where — like the Islamists in Bosnia and Afghanistan before them — they play back our own tropes about their manipulation and vulnerability for the domestic audiences they once threatened on social media. Some even offer to help deradicalise or prevent radicalisation in future, while lying about their own trajectory into terror.

Inside the British prison system though, a more bellicose extremist subculture appears to be developing. According to a recent review, among the imprisoned extremists an Islamist gang culture has developed. The counterterrorism lead at HMP Whitemoor, the site of Britain’s first attack inside the prison walls, told an inquest that terror offenders are held in a kind of “perverse esteem”. while Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Johnathan Hall QC, wrote how some offenders enjoy a “distinctly heroic profile”.

The risk, though, is not just of attacks. The failed state-building project of Isis should have made clear there is an ideological endgame, an all-encompassing worldview, a way of living and a revolutionary overhaul of state and society which jihadis seek to usher in. In their own microcosms, imprisoned jihadists are trying to live their lives in accordance with this endgame from the inside. There are cases of extremists intimidating staff and prisoners who do not comply with their interpretation of Sharia and holding crude Sharia courts which mete out floggings. Self-styled ‘emirs’ exert such influence over prison wings that authorities sometimes appeal to them to help restore order.

Surrounded by like-minded practitioners of their faith, they are living pure, virtuous and rigorist lives in accordance with God’s will. To them, this life of belief is the straight and narrow, while the rest of us are morally decayed hypocrites and criminals. For them, the idea they need deradicalising or rehabilitating is a bad joke and worthy of scorn. Just a few hours a week of mentoring and interventions stands little chance of competing with the offender’s entire social circle, the moral universe which colours it, the norms which govern their every action and interaction, and the status they enjoy as a terrorism offender on the inside.

This is not to say that there is no hope, but that it will take an almighty effort to dismantle a worldview that we don’t seem able to fully comprehend, or at times even discuss out of misplaced sensitivities. Being realistic about the scale of the challenge and treating the extremists as intellectually serious and rational beings, rather than unthinking vessels driven to terrorism by circumstances beyond their control, gives the best hopes of averting tragedy like at Fishmonger’s Hall.

As we have seen, when the chips are down, jihadists have historically pleaded innocence or ignorance. But the reports above suggest this is not how Britain’s imprisoned extremists are behaving. Far from it. This indicates that they do not perceive themselves to be in a state of weakness but in one of strength. After living their lives as close as possible to the ideal Islamic state from inside the prison walls, it seems likely that upon release, many will continue to try to do so while they wait for the caliphate or divine reward they are assured will eventually arrive.

I have written before about the possibility of the jihadist movement in Europe evolving into a belligerent and destructive social force, rather than one merely focused on mass-casualty attacks, which were only ever a means to an end. The subcultures developing in prisons translating to the outside world would see these extremists creating micro-communities which reject and withdraw from the surrounding unbelief of society, in order to instil their own norms and values in line with the principle of “loyalty and disavowal” (al-wala’ wa’l-bara’).

Of course, the problem should not be overstated: the numbers being discussed here may be unprecedented, but they are nonetheless small. There are graver threats and societal issues facing Britain and her allies. But at the same time, being prepared to combat the threat, not just through security or intelligence, but intellectually, is critical. In certain locations, a mere handful of extremists have already been able to multiply their followings into several hundred over the course of a decade. The networks — perhaps better thought of as micro-communities— they fostered would go on to fill the ranks of Isis.

Far from radicalised online and overnight, many of those who migrated to Isis’s Caliphate project were extremist activists who were already, as Bernard Rougier put it, “living in an imagined caliphate” from inside the unbelief of the West. Through the barrel of an AK-47, Isis transformed their fantasy into an irresistible operational reality, so they merely diverted their energy from practice and proselytising in the likes of Brussels, Trappes, Portsmouth or Gothenburg towards migration to Islamic State.

The risk is that the genie is again out of the bottle. 9/11 resulted in al-Qaeda’s decimation but nonetheless succeeded in advertising jihadism to the entire world on live television. ISIS, by contrast, declared itself a caliphate and invited confrontation with the West which reduced it to rubble, but nevertheless succeeded in advertising not just attacks, but the Salafi-jihadist endgame to the world. We do not yet know who and how many were paying attention.

With the time they are afforded in British, European and Kurdish prisons, the movement is currently assessing the mistakes and shortcomings of that episode so as not to repeat them. Some will conclude the attacks of Bataclan or Manchester Arena were counterproductive, so will channel their energies into other means but remain believers. Others will no doubt remain committed to more of the same. Despite its apparent medieval rigidity, jihadism is a constantly mutating phenomenon which adapts to its own time and place. How the movement evolves and re-emerges from its current ailing condition depends on the discussion and debate happening right now inside cells and on prison landings. It’s time to start paying attention.


Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.

LiamSD12

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Michael W
Michael W
1 year ago

Our governing elites have forsaken our safety and destroyed our societies to look like they’re being nice.

These men should be put in isolated prisons. Where they are cut off from other prisoners that they could radicalise and also from any sources of food.

Declan Conway
Declan Conway
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael W

There is a prison to the west of the British Isles. It is almost limitless and has a depth of almost 30,000 feet.

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago

Our prisons, which are majority Muslim in France, have become an introduction service matching petty criminals with violent radicals. Prislam. It’s like Tinder for jihadis. Life sentences and/or deportation are the only options if we want to shut down this pipeline.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Why not Mademoiselle de la Guillotine? “You know it makes sense”.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
1 year ago

There’s a solution to this. It involves the terrorists being executed and the rest going through re education camps. Until they’re begging for mercy.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

hear hear!!!

Paul O
Paul O
1 year ago

* the last count, there were more than 200 convicted terrorists — most Islamist, but some far-Right*.

‘Some’ Is a very wishy-washy word. The democrats keep implying there are ‘some’ far-right terrorists, but why the vagueness.

Does ‘some’ mean 50, 30, 5 or 1.

And by far=right terrorist are you meaning someone who planned to walk into a concert dragging a suitcase full of explosives, or someone who used hurty words on Facebook.

Come on. I am sure there is one, but lets have a little honesty here as it is like someone is trying to create an enemy that doesn’t really exist, with the exception of a few lone wolf crazies.

We have enough problems in the world without implying that there’s a new bogeyman in town.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul O
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

So that’s 200 x $200k pa for perhaps 25-35 years!
There must be a cheaper opt? Or are we expected to pay for this nonsense?

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

If we are to be totally honest, we should admit that the rise of far-right violence is connected to jihadism. We are witnessing a trend of counter-radicalisation. Honesty would also require that we acknowledge that the supply of new bin Ladens is still exponentially bigger than the supply of new Breiviks.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

I’m struggling to recall the mass-casualty shootings, stabbings or bombings which put these right-wing terrorists behind bars.
I would, of course, deplore such actions.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

You are being harsh Paul. I’ve seen loads of far-right terror plots and incidents in the last couple of years. Although admittedly on BBC, ITV and Apple fictional shows…oh, I see your point.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

What these people ignore is that Islam is far right, much more so than your BNPs, MAGAs etc

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

There is no rehabilitation possible for men such as Suddesh Amman or Usman Khan. Once you have a person who genuinely believes that whatever evil they commit is divinely mandated then it is impossible to convince them of their error. What logic or reason is going to persuade someone who believes, as a matter of fundamentalist faith, that murdering unbelievers will earn them an eternity in paradise?
Returning ISIS fighters, those who attended Al Qaeda training camps and even those home-grown jihadis who can view beheading videos and nod approvingly, pose a real and present threat to this country. Not even North Korean style ‘re-education’ is going to cure such twisted thinking.
There will always be well-intentioned do-gooders who’ll suggest that we cannot give in to fear or hate and that we must try and reach out to such people. But we are dealing with people who believe – and I mean REALLY believe – in paradise for the faithful and eternal conscious-torment-in-fire for unbelievers. No amount of well-intentioned do-goodery on the part of the state will move them from that position one inch. What rational, temporal argument could one put forward that would be seen to countermand a spiritual, holy mission, if that is what the jihadi believes his actions to be?
The only “reformed” Islamist I’m aware of is Majid Nawaz – though he came to the realisation himself, rather than being deradicalised by a kindly probation officer. I would suggest that if a man with such an obvious intellect, a man with such finely calibrated ethics, can be persuaded to the cause of Islamist extremism it only goes to show what an insidiously “attractive” ideology it can be if fed to a disaffected young man seeking answers.
So what can a Govt do with home-grown Jihadis? No civilised culture should condone indefinite detention but short of capital punishment what is the alternative? You cannot “solve” the problem of imprisoned Islamist extremists, you can only hope to contain it. And certainly you must separate them from the general prison population and young, disaffected prisoners who they would undoubtedly attempt to radicalise. Once inside a place like Whitemoor, which appears to have become a UK Jihadi finishing school, it would be safe to assume that any former inmate poses a real and ongoing threat to society.
We must stop tip-toeing around this issue. Politicians insisting “Islam is a religion of Peace” and pretending such attacks have “nothing to do with Islam” is a dangerous fantasy. The UK Govt, since the threat of Islamist terror came to our shores, has been at pains to try and ignore the fact that these jihadis explicitly commit atrocities in the name of their faith. The state seems reluctant to admit this obvious fact for fear of upsetting Muslim communities. Of course the majority of Muslims do not condone such atrocities, though many seem reticent to condemn their co-religionists publicly.
Not being free to discuss that point is, itself, a real problem and only provides cover in which Islamic extremism can flourish in our midst, unchallenged.
To rehabilitate was memorably defined as “To invest again with dignity”, a noble aim, and one that in the long run saves the state money. Funding adequately to achieve this will pay for itself many times over. Most right minded people would believe in that as a general rule.
However, to equate such high-minded goals with our necessarily harsh treatment of Jihadis and Hate Preachers is entirely self-defeating. With ISIS fighters it would be better for all concerned if they were killed in battle – however we cannot simply murder those that are captured. With home-grown jihadis all we can do is arrest them and, in the majority of cases, hold them indefinitely and isolate them from ‘regular’ prisoners – because there’s no way you can expect to win in a situation where the state is trying to rehabilitate a petty offender whilst his cell-mate believes he is doing God’s work trying to turn him into a mass murderer.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

“Attention among extremism and terrorism experts has meandered elsewhere” Yes, Hope Not Hate says that the far right are the real threat! You should be devoting all of your attention to manufacturing white supremacists and driving them into penury. Fighting Islamist extremism is so 2005.
In all seriousness, a most interesting article. It feels like a logical successor to a previously good article on the subject.
https://unherd.com/thepost/stop-inflating-the-danger-of-the-far-right/

Nick Croft
Nick Croft
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

I work in a university in the north of England. Recently, there was a ‘Extremism Awareness Week’ held on campus, with speakers from the security services in attendance. It focused exclusively on white far right and ‘incel’ extremism, not a word (so far as I could tell) about Jihadist/Islamist terrorism and extremism. It is not hard to see the agenda that is being pushed, and what is being swept under the carpet.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nick Croft
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago

Solitary confinement is the answer. I know that this is supposed to be inhuman in some way and isn’t allowed, but it would certainly solve the problem.

Sean Booth
Sean Booth
1 year ago

The majority of comments, long and short, seem to call for the death sentence for terrorists. I totally agree. You cannot de-radicalise a person who has been brainwashed to believe literally every word of a medieval religion from the day they were born. They see themselves as servants of their prophet with a God given mission to convert, or kill all non-believers. So the death penalty is the only answer.

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
1 year ago

Sounds like we’d be better off doing away with them. It’d be best.

Hibernian Caveman
Hibernian Caveman
1 year ago

If people knew their Russian history, they might have taken warning from the example of Sergey Nechayev (1847 – 1882), who radicalized not only his fellow prisoners but also the guards.

R S Foster
R S Foster
1 year ago

…if they are British Subjects, they committed Treason. So reinstate and then impose the traditional penalty…although we could probably miss out the “drawing” and “quartering”…!

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
1 year ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Oh no, let’s go for the whole shebang, it would be more entertaining than another series of Strictly Come Dancing!

frigus amarum
frigus amarum
1 year ago

In Islam, Taqiya or Taqiyya is a precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice…A related term is Kitmān, “action of covering, dissimulation”…
now quoting article: when the chips are down, jihadists have historically pleaded innocence or ignorance…
I got low-down on Islam from BBC. Taqiyya: dissimulation to defeat infidels/kaffirs. Honest. Sarcasm aside; if there would be any hint of a problem I am sure BBC etc., would illuminate the Nation so as to focus an address. Now guess. 

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 year ago

Civilization will never turn back barbarism by trying to be even more civilized.

Dave Lowery
Dave Lowery
1 year ago

Someone please tell James O Bingo. He thinks none of this exists.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
1 year ago

The UK needs a US- style ‘Supermax’ prison.
It is impossible for terrorists to radicalise others when kept in a concrete box in solitary confinement.