Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old self-proclaimed member of al-Qaida who was killed after a 30 hour standoff with an elite police tactical unit in Toulouse France was a prime example of a homegrown terrorist. Prior to his violent ending, Merah had admitted to killing at least seven individuals including three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school, as well as three members of the French armed forces. His motive he said was vengeance in the name of Allah.
Just how does a young man, a son of Algerian immigrants, become so full of rage and anger that he thinks killing innocent people pleases God. He was not always like that.
According to a woman who knew him since he was a little child, he moved in a downward spiral to a life of petty crime, including 15 arrests, to prison, and finally to radical Islam.
"He was a normal kid, very cute, with no problems at all," she told a reporter. "But he started to get into trouble – he became a delinquent. Things started to degenerate when he was in his teens. He did some hold-ups of shops, he snatched bags. They sent him to prison before he was even in his twenties. He must have met someone inside who introduced him to radical ideas because when he came out, his mother told me that he was completely changed. She had no idea how to relate to him anymore. His older brother is even more radical and the two of them went off to Afghanistan together..."
And after the shootout with police, French Prosecutor Francois Molins informed reporters that Merah himself told police that he had been radicalized in prison during which time he began to read the Koran.
Islamic radicalization in prison. Where have we heard that before? Last June, I testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the subject to the nay-sayings of liberals who complained that we were singling out one religion. The evidence was incontrovertible. According to the New York State Police Vigilance Project report in 2010, almost half of all homegrown terrorists arrested since 9-11 have had some prior contact with the criminal justice system. The Newburgh Four, which included career criminal and ex-con James Cromitie. In 2009, they chose the same types of targets as Mohammed Merah: Jewish religious houses and military personnel. Even Jose Pimental, the pipe bomb builder, had been arrested in 2005 for credit card fraud and served a period of probation.
The NYPD got the threat assessment right five years ago when they issued their findings in a report, Radicalization in the West, The Homegrown Threat. They found that one of the environments where potential terrorists could incubate was prison.
French authorities have known for a time of the cauldron brewing in their correctional system. In the mid-1990s, after an unprecedented campaign of terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government dismantled several Algerian GIA-backed terrorist cells and sentenced both operatives and financiers of the attacks to lengthy prison terms
These anti-terrorism successes created a different set of problems as radical Islamists began proselytizing their views to fellow inmates and recruiting new followers in prisons. Pascal Maihlos, the director of France's domestic intelligence agency, Renseignements Généraux (RG), put it plainly in a 2006 interview with Le Monde: "It is there, in prison, that a minority of radical Islamist terrorists (about 100) hook up with petty criminals who find their way back to religion under its most radical form."
Despite the warnings, an individual like Mohammed Merah was let out to prey on the innocent.
Still there are those who deny the reality of Islamic radicalization in prison. In February, Charles Kurzman, a sociologist from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published a report "Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11" for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. In it he said, "Prison does not seem to be a major source of Islamic radicalization."
Oh really? Tell that to the families of the seven victims in France.
The all-too-common path from petty criminal to violent jihadist is a very real threat.
The sooner we recognize this and deal with it effectually the safer society will be.
Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad.