Recent reports indicate that the United Kingdom has failed to stop the spread of an infectious disease which presents a serious threat to national security – prisoners being radicalized by known terrorists.
Of the 238 inmates incarcerated for terror-related offenses, it appears that only five are being held in isolation at the HMP Frankland facility in Durham, a report issued last July by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) found. The facility has a specialized deradicalization unit which consists of eight cells. That is not a comforting thought. As I reported recently, the UK has admitted that its current deradicalization program is an utter failure.
Two additional isolation units for terrorists, one in the Woodhill prison and the other in the Full Sutton facility have been closed. The unit in Woodhill prison was closed in late 2019 by the Ministry of Justice just two years after opening. Shortly thereafter the unit at Full Sutton was also closed.
Ian Acheson, a former UK prison administrator, blamed the closings on the difficulties involved in having terrorists transferred into the units from other prisons. He described the process as being fraught with "extraordinary bureaucracy."
The Ministry of Justice claimed the closures were only temporary.
In the meantime, the vast majority of convicted UK terrorists are free to roam about in the general population, commingling with ordinary criminals, some in for relatively minor offenses. This is allowed despite the fact that prison officials and counterterrorism experts know that placing terrorists with ordinary criminals can lead to radicalization.
"That's why we have normal criminals ending up being radicalised," said Hanif Qadir, author of Preventing & Countering Extremism & Terrorist Recruitment.
Both intelligence agencies, like the CIA, and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, had reported almost 20 years ago about the vulnerability of ordinary criminals to the influences of "'charismatic, religiously radical inmates'... and incarcerated terrorists who have achieved 'extra credibility' among inmates."
Imprisoned terrorists "automatically achieve a sort of status." Jonathan Hall, the UK's terrorism watchdog, said last week.
As recently as last July, the London-based ICSR found that "Most cases of jihadist prison radicalisation in recent years have involved some degree of socialisation between 'regular' criminals and extremists. There are very few cases where it appears an inmate radicalised alone..."
Despite these warnings, the UK's Ministry of Justice believes that most incarcerated prisoners are adequately managed in the general population.
They seem to ignore the quantitative danger of placing terrorists alongside ordinary criminals. For example, Michael Adebolajo, the radical Islamic terrorist responsible for the brutal killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2014, was able to mingle among the prison's general population and radicalize dozens of other inmates to his twisted ideology. Some even pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Adebolajo is currently in the Frankland isolation unit.
If the other approximately 200 incarcerated terrorists currently in the general population were able to radicalize only half the number of inmates that Adebolajo radicalized, there could be nearly 2,000 terrorists coming out of UK prisons in the near future. And while the UK has enacted legislation to place stringent post-release conditions on radicalized prisoners, the potential for a terror attack by a released prisoner, is exponentially increased and would require additional resources to effectively monitor all of them.
The United States is fortunate that the Bureau of Prisons has effectively used the FCI Florence SuperMax prison to isolate dangerous terrorists from the general prison population. Still, the system is not foolproof. Terrorists like John Walker Lindh have turned to the courts to modify their conditions of confinement, allowing them back in the general population, where they have exerted a radicalizing influence on other inmates.
Currently there is no effective vaccine to eradicate prison radicalization. We do know one of the ways it spreads, placing terrorists alongside ordinary criminals.
This infectious disease, prison radicalization, which the UK's Ministry of Justice accurately describes as "...extremists spreading their poisonous ideologies," continues to grow at an alarming rate. It has fueled an increase in assaults on correctional staff.
And while some have called for the prosecution of inmates who radicalize others, that alone will not remove the pathogen.
Social distancing convicted terrorists from ordinary inmates is an effective way to slow the spread and minimize the threat.
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 lectures a class on terrorism for the United States Air Force's Special Operations School.
Research Analyst Teri Blumenfeld contributed to this report.
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