“Yes, radical Islam is rampant in prison. No one is ignoring it, but the situation continues even though, slowly but surely, [the situation] is rotting.”
--Guillame Jeanson, Parisian lawyer and spokesman for the Institute for Justice (#16).
Leave it to radical Islam to disfigure the beautiful French language with the ugly term "gangster-jihadiste." Its murderous connotations concern former Muslims convicts who have committed terrorist attacks after being radicalized in French prisons.
And Cherif Chekatt is the latest former, French Muslim prisoner to earn this lovely title. Chekatt, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a video, carried out a terrorist attack on the Christmas market in the eastern French city of Strasbourg last December 11, leaving five people dead.
“[H]e was the subject of a search the morning of his terrorist attack for an attempted homicide in the course of an armed robbery that went bad,” stated the newspaper Figaro.
Before his murderous rampage, Chekatt already had 27 convictions in three different countries – France, Germany and Switzerland – for crimes including armed robbery. But while in prison in France in 2015, French intelligence believes he was radicalized.
“During a stay in prison, he was noticed as much for his violence as for his religious proselytism,” noted one report. As a result, he was carded "Fiche S" by French intelligence concerning potential dangerousness.
But after the December terrorist attack, France’s future concerning "gangster-jihadistes" continues to appear bleak.
Over the next year, several dozen known radicalized convicts like Cherif Chekatt will be released from French prisons. They pose, according to France’s leading counter-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molin, “a major risk.”
"[T]he terrorism threat is likely only to increase over the coming years,” said Molin. “There is a risk of seeing people who are not at all repentant at the end of their sentences come out of prison, who could be even more radical given their stay in prison.”
The heart of the problem is that French prisons have been turned into hotbeds of radical Islam by Salafists who turn ordinary delinquents into murderous jihadists in a merging of the criminal and jihadist cultures. When released, some, like Chekatt, then wreak havoc on French society. Perhaps even worse, French prison authorities appear almost powerless to stop this trend.
There are close to 70,000 prisoners in French penitentiaries. Of these about 40,000 are Muslim, of whom 20,000 are believed to practice their religion, such as respecting Ramadan. One observer believes this could be a low number.
But most importantly, of these 20,000, about 1,500 may have been radicalized. At least a further 211 are on the path to radical Islam, 80 per cent of whom are of North African origin. Altogether, a substantial pool of potential terrorists. Of these, 147 prisoners “devote themselves to proselytizing activities,” the “hard core” which “is always stirring up the flame of jihad” among prisoners.
But what makes Islamic extremism, even terrorism, so attractive to young Muslims who enter prison as ordinary delinquents? Even ethnic French Islamic terrorists are found, for the most part, to have been converted in prison.
First, the “sowers of hate” have the human material to work with. Young convicts are very “favorable” to radicalization. They are mostly socially marginalized, coming primarily from the ghettos with the majority having no employment when imprisoned. Salafists even proselytize among sexual delinquents, usually a despised prison population.
“These young men have “broken fates” and are “in quest, in search of recognition, nihilists ‘en rupture’ with society towards which they feel an aversion…,” according to one Figaro story.
Researcher Francois-Bernard Huyghe states: “In their mind, they’re offering them the chance to fight bad guys, as well as apartments and material wealth.” He adds France can “only offer them the chance to get a normal job and vote in an election every four years.”
The religious extremists are also attempting to Islamize the prisons by making them as sharia-compliant as possible, instilling “a hatred of Western democratic values,” while portraying Islam as “the religion of the oppressed.” The radicals also display “a disturbing behavior.”
“Christmas trees are now despoiled, bibles destroyed by some prisoners; an Islam hostile to the west, to the French in general and Jews in particular is spreading in the penitentiaries,” according to a 2005 intelligence report.
Signs of radicalization are often visible, such as religious clothing, growing beards, refusal to obey female guards, showering fully clothed, refusing to share a cell with a non-Muslim, ceasing to watch television, among other things. But signs are often hidden, authorities say, in the name of "taquiya."
And while prison administrations do sometimes strike back at these challenges by, for example, seizing non-regulation religious clothing, they appear to be fighting a losing battle, often accommodating Muslim religious sensitivities.
“When one goes looking for a certain prisoners to accompany them to an activity or a court date, and they are praying in their cell, one waits at the door. To hurry them up is to risk a major incident,” states one guard,
One of the problems facing French authorities in combating radical Islam in prisons is the lack of Muslim clerics to counter the Salafists. There are only 167 for 40,000 Muslims “to thwart, stymie the influence of Salafist detainees,” states prison expert Farhad Khosovkhovar, adding “three times more are needed.”
Besides, many imams do not want to work with prisoners because they have disrespected their religion with their crimes, so they do not “merit their attention.” As well, the pay is reportedly low. Some imams also have problems relating to the prisoners.
“Too many imams have an out-of-date vision of Islam and don’t understand the real true life of these young men coming from the ghetto, prey to an identity crisis,” states Khosovkhovar.
The lack of imams is not the only problem facing prison authorities. They also suffer from a lack of means. A prison intelligence unit to track radicals, for example, set up in 2003 to track prison radicals, was staffed by only a dozen people. In face of such large numbers, however, their mission was termed “almost quixotic.”
French prison authorities have tried three experiments in the last four years alone to arrest Islamic radicalization. All of them were failures, including one that would have radicals voluntarily report to a center for deradicalization (it folded in less than a year). The latest attempt involves isolating the radicals.
Considering the level of the terrorist threat, almost 300 people killed in France the last four years, perhaps a new Devils Island for the incorrigible is the only solution. All the more since deradicalization is a difficult, if not impossible, process.
“I have never met this magic person who has been deradicalized and turned into a good citizen,” said Huyghe.