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France prepares to tackle jihadi recruitment in prisons

media Bourg-en-Bresse prison in central France Getty Images/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek

The Charlie Hebdo killings have drawn attention to the fact that many radical Islamists are recruited in prison. The French government has pledged to tackle the problem … but the task could be complicated, the experts say.

A month ago Chérif and Saïd Kouachi shot dead 12 people at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Two days later Amédy Coulibaly killed four Jewish people in a kosher supermarket in Paris.

We now know Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly met in prison and were most probably radicalised by an imam they met there.

Click for RFI reports of the Charlie Hebdo killings

Kouachi entered prison for armed robbery and came out a hardened jihadi.

“Prison is a violent place,” says sociologist Ouisa Kies, who is leading research for the penitentiary administration into identifying radical Islamists. “It’s a closed space which brings together dangerous, criminal and psychologically disturbed people.”

Fertile ground therefore for all forms of radicalisation.

The phenomenon is not new but it has taken on a new face.

“In 1995 for example, at the time of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, you could hear the call for prayer out in the yard,” says Claude Tournelle, deputy secretary general of the Ufap union of prison wardens, referring to Algeria’s bitter civil war between the fundamentalists and the government.

Nowadays, he says, it’s more one-to-one, with inmates “more likely to get recruited into radical Islam in the showers, for example, or when they’re out walking”.

This makes it a lot harder to identify inmates that may be trying to recruit others to the jihadist cause, Tournelle says.

And the problem is further complicated by the fact that the most radical inmates are careful not to draw attention to themselves. They’re unlikely to sport long beards or attend Friday prayers.

“Those who feel they’re being watched are far more discreet, they blend in,” says Kies.
One of the proposals now being considered by the French government is to separate extreme Islamists who are trying to radicalise others.

Claire de Galembert, a sociologist who’s done extensive fieldwork in prisons for the penitentiary administration, says there’s some logic to the idea of protecting the more vulnerable inmates, some of whom have little knowledge of Islam, from the radicalisers.

“They have charisma, they’re seen as sort of political criminals within the prison, a sort of aristocracy,” she says.

But she’s concerned about the impact of this kind of physical separation.

“What do you do with these men in the long term? You’re creating a kind of mini-Guantanamo within French prisons.”

Last October, Fresnes prison outside Paris began separating those thought to be most dangerous. Five other prisons in France are to follow suit.

Twenty men now live in a separate facility. But prison warden and union rep Emmanuel Febvre says it’s probably been implemented too quickly.

“For the moment they’re gathered in an area which is out of sight of the watchtowers. So we can’t see their cells,” he says.

And he regrets that the 17 wardens guarding these inmates don’t all understand Arabic, “essential if you’re to observe and pass on information about them”, he says.

Febvre would like to see more imams coming in “to try and change their way of thinking and bring them back to the true spirit of Islam”.

But Fresnes prison has only one imam for 2,700 inmates. Nationwide there are just 182.
There’s widespread agreement that this chronic shortage is giving more space for self-proclaimed imams who may be preaching jihad.

In mid-January French Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised to enlist 60 more Muslim chaplains.

Galembert welcomes the initiative in principle but guards against recruiting Muslim chaplains to help in the deradicalisation process.

“It’s stupid to say, as it is said at the moment, that Muslim chaplains should be recruited because you need them to deradicalise,” she says. “This is not their job.”

She fears prisoners will see them as intelligence officers rather than religious clerics who are there to help with questions of spirituality.

“The efficiency of the job of all chaplains, and that’s true for Christian and Jewish too, is the fact that they come from outside the institution. This is why inmates appreciate them.”

Another new government-backed initiative to help with deradicalisation involves bringing together terrorists with victims of terrorism.

Guillaume de Saint Marc, the head of AFVT (French association for victims of terrorism) says their aim is to dry up the support that jihadist ideology relies on.

“We want to show [the terrorists] that victims are not things, but thoughtful human beings, full of life and hope,” he explains. “That doesn’t fit with the idea that a radical could have. He generally considers he’s a victim of society and that this state of victimisation gives him the right to use violence to get his ideas across.”

The most radical may not be victims, says Ouisa Kies, but “those who get recruited to jihadism in prison are the most fragile inmates, many are mentally ill”.

In fact, drastic cuts in the number of places in mental hospitals has thrown large number of mentally ill patients into prison, she explains.

“We urgently need a more social response,” she says. “More cooperation between probation officers, people working in intelligence, schools, doctors and psychologists. Prison must become a place not just of punishment but of rehabilitation.”

Galembert agrees that, if France is to halt the flow of extremists coming out of its prisons, it must work not only on what happens within walls but what happens before.

“You can’t separate the struggle against radicalisation from the issue of prison reform, from prisons that really integrate and reinsert people,” she comments.

Both Kies and Galembert are hoping that the recent attacks will add impetus not only to this much-needed prison reform but also to social reform.

Because, while Mohammed Merah, who carried out the terrorist attacks in Toulouse, Mehdi Nemmouche, imprisoned for the Brussels bombings and Coulibaly all became radicalised in prison, they had other things in common.

“They all came from impoverished suburbs, they all failed at school, they’re all from broken families,” says Galembert.

And she adds that the fight against radicalisation cannot be confined to prison. Official figures show that among the 152 people convicted of terrorist attacks, just 22 had already served prison sentences.

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