Note: This article has been updated to correct an error regarding plans for the next radicalization hearing.
Los Angeles police have several active investigations involving radicalized prison converts, a commanding officer with the LAPD told a House committee hearing Wednesday.
"We have ongoing cases that involve convert prison radicals that are out in the community now," LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing told the House Homeland Security Committee.
The hearing, "The Threat of Muslim-American Radicalization in U.S. Prisons," was the second called by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to address radicalization within the Muslim American community. The first, held in March, included testimony of two family members of radicalized Muslims.
Wednesday's hearing focused on the threat from "Prislam," which Downing described as an extremist "cut and paste" version of Islam practiced by inmates. The resulting ideology is what former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Smith said he saw in some New Folsom prison inmates whom he prosecuted for plotting to attack Jewish targets in Los Angeles and the LAX airport.
Smith testified that Folsom inmate Kevin James created the radical prison group Jam'iyyat Ul-islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) in 1997. JIS supported the killing of Jews and the implementation of an Islamic government in the United States. James recruited a fellow inmate named Levar Washington, who recruited two others upon his release, including an LAX employee, to assist with the terror plots.
"From the prison [Kevin James] was able to set up and set out an operation cell of would be jihadists on the streets of Southern California," said Smith. "James set up a system where he would send the protocol to mail on the outside."
The person on the outside would send the protocol back to inmates inside other prisons, spreading the JIS ideology.
Several factors contribute to inmate conversions to "Prislam," witnesses testified, including the accessibility of radical literature inside prison walls and prison chaplains who espouse radical beliefs.
Downing noted that the works of radical al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood scholar and al-Qaida inspiration Sayyid Qutb can be found in prisons.
"I would not be surprised to find a copy of al-Qaida's Inspire magazine in any prison," said Patrick Dunleavy, who retired after 25 years working in the New York State prison system as its deputy inspector. Dunleavy, author of the forthcoming book, The Fertile Soil of Jihad: Terrorism's Prison Connection, also said that literature has been sent directly from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to New York State prisons.
Dunleavy's testimony emphasized the need for stricter chaplain vetting processes. He cited Imam Warith Deen Umar, former head of the New York State prisons' Muslim chaplain program, who has called the Holocaust punishment for Jews "because they were serially disobedient to Allah" and preached that Muslims should "be prepared to fight, be prepared to die, be prepared to kill." Umar called the 9/11 hijackers martyrs and heroes and has since been banned from New York State prisons.
"[Radicalization] often matures and deepens after the release," Dunleavy said, pointing to the case of four men who plotted to bomb a N.Y. synagogue and shoot missiles at U.S. military planes. The men, two of whom converted to Islam while in prison, did not know each other while incarcerated, said Dunleavy, but met each other in a mosque connected to Umar.
Even if all chaplains were properly vetted, inmates could still spread radical versions of Islam, Dunleavy said. Sometimes, inmates will elect their own imam to supersede the authority of a government-appointed chaplain. Similarly, Smith reminded the committee that "the prison system is not in the position to say you can't preach your version of Islam to your fellow inmates."
Dunleavy's testimony echoed points made in a 2010 FBI Bulletin. "Prisoners with little training in Islam have asserted themselves as leaders among the prison population, at times misrepresenting the faith," it stated.
Witnesses and committee members spent much of the question and answer session debating the merits of the hearing's focus. Democrats criticized its focus on a specific religion and raised the specter of threats from a variety of other prison gangs.
"How many of the street gangs have an ideology that is dedicated to the destruction of the United States?" asked Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Cal. "None," witnesses replied.
"A gang member is interested in enriching themselves personally," Smith said, while jihadists are ideologically motivated to commit violence to terrorize the public.
"Prislam" is doubly dangerous, Smith said. "The jihadist mentality is basically overlaid on an individual who knows how to operate weapons," he said.
Wednesday's criticism from Democratic House members and some in the Muslim American community echoed complaints about the first radicalization hearing in March.
King defended the focus on Muslim radicalization in his opening remarks.
"The danger remains real and present, especially because of al-Qaida's announced intention to intensify attacks within the United States," he said.
King then cited a report by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., which said, "Three dozen U.S. citizens who converted to Islam while in prison have traveled to Yemen, possibly for al-Qaida training."
Several House members questioned the scope of Wednesday's hearing. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., asked the panel whether Christians are capable of radicalization. "Anyone that goes about killing in the name of God is an ideologue," Dunleavy responded. "I don't know that Christian militants have foreign country backing," he added.
"What I disagree with is the scope of this committee only focusing on one particular group," said Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Cal., calling the focus "racist" and "discriminatory." King fired back, noting that Democrats controlled the Homeland Security Committee for four years but never sought hearings on radicalization involving other groups.
Even Purdue Sociology Professor Bert Useem, who testified that prisons have not served as a major source of jihad radicalization, agreed that "jihadists are the most dangerous … They are out to damage the country," he said.
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, suggested that prison radicalization isn't a problem at all, saying only two examples have been connected to Islamist prison radicalization. "Our greatest threat is from lone wolves and solitary actors," he said. "We are not in danger from people who are already locked up."
But other participants in Wednesday's hearing emphasized that radicalization behind bars is indeed a problem. "It's a very serious issue that I don't think we yet know the scope of," said Smith. "We do have a problem. Prisons are communities at risk," Downing concluded his testimony.
Joe Molyneux, who retired last year from the FBI New Orleans office's intelligence program, agrees. Molyneux responded directly to a statement Thompson released last week, which claimed that "the facts have proven that prison radicalization is an unfounded fear in America."
"I am not sure where Congressman Bennie Thompson is coming from," he told Investigative Project on Terrorism. "It is real and is happening," Molyneux said. At least one agent in all FBI field offices serves as a liaison with area prison wardens to collect information on Islamic radicalization in the prisons.
The next radicalization hearing, scheduled for late July, will examine Americans who join the Somali terror group al-Shabaab along with concerns the group might try to partner with Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.