One group, radicalized Muslims, dominates the UK prison system, Britain's Ministry of Justice found in a study into prison gangs released earlier this month.
The study included interviews with 83 inmates and 73 staffers from several prisons.
Operating as a prison gang, the group calls itself the "brotherhood." And while it doesn't appear connected to the Egyptian Islamist movement, it does try to enforce its version of Islamic law on all prisoners regardless of faith. Rules cover personal hygiene and what inmates are allowed to eat in their cell block. Some inmates may be forced to pay a tax to the Muslim brotherhood.
In fundamentalist Islam, non-believers pay a tax known as "jizya."
The brotherhood "was the only group mentioned by staff and prisoners; they did not consider there to be any other significant groups of prisoners," the report said. Most members simply wanted "to practice their faith peacefully and become more immersed in the scriptures of Islam as a framework to elicit change in their life and to cope with custody," it said, something prison staff viewed as positive.
But an influential element takes advantage of the situation "to be anti-authority, violent and intimidating."
The researchers acknowledge that some members of the Muslim gang they interviewed may have been instructed to mask the gang's nature and minimize its influence in the general prison population.
Obedience is achieved by violence and intimidation carried out by members of the group known as enforcers. "Those who had committed terrorist crimes often held more senior roles in the gang," the study found, "facilitated by the respect some younger prisoners gave them."
Leadership gives the orders for all acts of violence. No member acts on his own. If he does, one inmate said, he is taken aside by a leader.
In my experience, the term "take them aside" usually refers to a new convert being instructed as to who is in charge of the group. If he does not listen the first time, he will be subjected to some form of discipline which may include corporal punishment.
The study described the leaders as manipulative, dominating, and outspoken and yet found they were able to portray themselves to prison staff as compliant and polite. In other words, "jail wise."
The leadership expanded from a single cell block, to a particular prison, and to the prison system as a whole. Muslim gang leaders were able to communicate from prison to prison even so far as to order a hit on an inmate who had transferred to a different facility.
Other roles identified were recruiters, foot soldiers, followers, and enforcers. The followers consisted of recent jailhouse converts new to Islam.
But inmates described tremendous risks if they had a change of heart. That includes significant violence that might follow an inmate transferred from one high security prison to another.
"Once I go to a [lower security prison], I'll say goodbye to Islam," one inmate told researchers. "If I said I didn't want to be a Muslim, I'd need to watch out in case someone stabbed me. It's very dangerous to denounce Islam."
The brotherhood controlled all of the criminal activity in the prison system which included contraband, smuggling and extortion.
Since Muslims account for only 15 percent of the overall UK prison population, one might reasonably wonder how so small a group was able to dominate. Should authorities have seen this coming?
Research (historical reports) shows they should have.
U.S. and allied intelligence services including the CIA, NSA, Defense and State Departments conducted a study after 9/11, called "Terrorists: Recruiting and Operating Behind Bars."
I was assigned to "Operation Hades" at the time, a multifaceted investigative group of federal, state, and local agents, analysts, and law enforcement officers tasked with exploring the level of radical Islamic recruitment in the prison system.
The study found that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida did not see prison as an obstacle. Quite the opposite, they viewed it as an opportunity to organize and expand.
In prison, terrorists designed an organizational structure providing specific roles for each member, roles identical to what was just found in the UK; leaders, recruiters, enforcers, foot soldiers. The intelligence report also said that terrorists would operate their group in prison like a "brotherhood," and that recruitment would thrive because they had a large "pool of vulnerable people" from which to draw.
Success was defined by the depth of control, whether it was a specific cell block, one prison, or a group of prisons. The report pointed to Turkey as an example of what could happen if prison administrators ignored a terror group's influence. There, the terrorists were able take control of the entire prison system, not through a riot but by organizing and intimidation.
The similarities in the two reports – written on two continents, 17 years apart – demonstrate the consistency of terror groups' behavior when it comes to incarceration.
The 2002 report's recommendations to thwart terrorist activities in the prison system included identifying known leaders, disrupting communication and recruitment efforts, and building a liaison between the counterterrorism community and prison administrators.
Once leaders were identified, they could easily be isolated from other inmates or transferred to other prisons.
Prison authorities are legally permitted to listen to telephone calls and review inmate correspondence. The intelligence gathered from these methods could then be shared with outside agencies to help identify any external extremist links or plots.
Recruitment can be disrupted through properly-vetted Muslim clergy who promote an alternative ideology to jihadism. Islamist leaning inmates should not be permitted to preach or lead pray services in the prison mosque.
Taking no action, in light of what the UK study found, is not an acceptable option.
Failure to build a vibrant relationship between prison authorities and intelligence services would only lead to terror organizations growing in ranks through prison recruitment, the 2002 report warned.
The United States seems to have fared better curbing radical Islamic groups organizing in the prison system than our UK and EU counterparts. This may be due in part to the Correctional Intelligence Initiative program operated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which continues to build on the recommendations of the 2002 report.
If there is one shortcoming, it is in the area of post-release supervision of convicted terrorists.
As we have previously reported, more terrorists are being released from custody with no viable de-radicalization program or monitoring system in place.
Where they live or work, as well as any social media involvement after their release, needs to be strictly monitored. Any important intelligence gleaned from this should be shared across the board with participating agencies. International travel should also be restricted.
The UK study recommended the use of "mentors from similar backgrounds to the prisoners," and increased training for staff in Islamic culture as a means of decreasing the radical Muslim gang's influence. This is similar to the findings in a study by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, which recommended earlier intervention for those most vulnerable. Those measures fall short of solving the problem, however, and would not address the threat posed by those already incarcerated for terrorist acts.
A recent collaborative work being done by Mitch Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, and convicted terrorist Jesse Morton may be a step in the right direction.
Before being assigned to the NYPD, Silber was a CIA intelligence analyst. Morton, formerly known as Younus Abdullah Muhammed, founded Revolution Muslim, a radical Islamic group that called for the deaths of South Park writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Morton spent nearly three years in a federal prison. He has renounced the radical Islamic ideology he once held.
They hope to tap their combined experiences to counter the radical Islamic ideology and develop a viable de-radicalization program to help other released extremists follow Morton's path.
But that's just two people working on their own. The time to address this glaring deficiency in our counter-terrorism program is now. Any further delay will only benefit the terrorists.
IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.