Rep. Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing last week on radical Islam in the U.S. prison system, called “prislam” by one witness. The hearing was met with predictable accusations of discrimination and bigotry, but the name-calling failed to impede the exposure of the nexus between convicts and radical Islam.
Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson confronted King for singling out extremists within Islam, saying his hearing could “be deemed as racist and as discriminatory.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations likewise stated, “Congressman King has been shown very clearly to have made anti-Muslim statements and a number of false allegations toward the American-Muslim community.”
Rep. King defended himself. “If we find out that Neo-Nazis are allied with a foreign power and they come into this country…we will address it. The fact is we are not going to spread ourselves out and investigate everything, which means addressing nothing,” he said.
The content of the hearing shows why Rep. King is right to focus on the phenomenon that Michael Downing of Los Angeles Police’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau called “prislam.” One witness, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Smith, discussed a plot by prison converts to attack Los Angeles International Airport and Jewish sites around Los Angeles. “From the prison [the cell leader] was able to set up and set out an operation cell of would be jihadists on the streets of Southern California” Smith said. In 2009, four Muslims who met in prison were arrested for planning to bomb synagogues in the New York area and conspiring to shoot down a military plane with a Stinger missile. Three of the four involved converted while imprisoned.
There are other cases that have not received as much publicity. For example, in January 2010, a Senate report warned that up to three dozen Americans that have served time in prison are in Yemen, claiming to be studying Arabic. They were described as “blond-haired, blue-eyed types,” and are suspected of joining Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In April 2010, a prison convert named James Larry killed his pregnant wife, two nieces (one of which was pregnant) and his seven-year old son named Jihad. His brother said that he had become more devout leading up to the attack, and was furious with his wife for not wearing a hijab. His defense is that he is mentally ill.
In October 2009, another prison convert in Ohio named Abdullah Mohammed Muslim who spent time on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan was arrested with a large stockpile of weapons. The authorities immediately said there was no evidence of a link to terrorism. In September 2009, a convert to “prislam” named Michael C. Finton was arrested in Illinois who was a fan of Anwar al-Awlaki. He told an undercover FBI agent that he sought to go to the Gaza Strip, but also wanted to carry out an attack in the U.S. He was apprehended after planning to attack the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield using inert explosives provided in the FBI sting.
“Prislam” is promoted by extremist clerics within the prison system. A classic example is that of Imam Warith Deen Umar, who oversaw New York’s Muslim chaplain program. He was fired after it was learned that he was praising the 9⁄11 hijackers, promoting attacks on U.S. soldiers, and preaching anti-Semitism to inmates. Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism writes that in 2003, the Justice Department temporarily stopped hiring Muslim chaplains because it was discovered that the Islamic Society of North America, a Muslim Brotherhood front tied to Hamas, was the group endorsing the chaplains. “In effect, this Wahhabi outfit had become the sole screening organization for Muslim prison chaplains,” Schwartz wrote.
The ideology also spreads because of the proliferation of extremist texts in prison libraries. The FBI has found that sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki are widely available, and a review of 105 prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons revealed that texts by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, Sayyid Qutb, and other extremists are in the majority of the libraries. Patrick Dunleavy, a former deputy inspector for the New York State prison system, said during his testimony, “I would not be surprised to find a copy of al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine in any prison.”
A moderate Muslim group in the United Kingdom called the Quilliam Foundation has warned of similar problems in its home country. It says that apologists for Al-Qaeda have successfully communicated with colleagues outside of the prison, and some extremists have even appeared on Islamic television programs while imprisoned. Radicals posing as moderates have been able to lead prayer services, Islamic study groups, and even act as liaisons between the prison authorities and Muslim inmates. The organization concluded that it takes five to seven years for prison converts to become violent.
Not all witnesses agreed that “prislam” poses a major threat. Bert Useem of Purdue University said, “Prisons have not served as a major source of Jihad radicalization.” He said that of the 178 Muslims prosecuted for terrorism since the 9⁄11 attacks, only a dozen converted while in prison. In September 2008, his study concluded that “Our central finding is that the rate of prisoner radicalization is not just low but falling.”
Patrick Dunleavy, author of an upcoming book on prison jihad recruitment who also participated in the hearing, disagrees with Useem’s conclusion. “His [Useem’s] information source is flawed,” Dunleavy told FrontPage, explaining that the study’s reliance on inmates and prison administrators made it inaccurate. Inmates themselves are not credible sources, he argued, and administrators tend to only be concerned with population management issues. But most Islamic inmates are not disruptive. “They know their main goal lies beyond the prison’s walls.” Dunleavy, former deputy inspector general for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, also said that many converted ex-offenders are arrested for non-terrorism related charges, such as for the possession of a weapon, in order to “stop the potential jihadhist before he became operational,” and that this was not taken into account by Useem.
The exposure of inmates to radical Islam is not a threat that can be ignored, even if there is disagreement regarding the extent of “prislam.” There are few environments more suited to incubate radical Islam than the prison system, where extremist views can grow among those with a demonstrated willingness to act violently and break laws.