Working to Combat Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in Prisons

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A person walks inside a prison in Libya, August 26, 2011.
A person walks inside a prison in Libya, August 26, 2011.

Working to Combat Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in Prisons

Concerns about terrorists attracting new recruits while incarcerated continue to grow within the international community.  These concerns stem from recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Copenhagen, London, and Nice – where individuals who were incarcerated for non-terrorist offenses went on to commit these attacks.  Many countries throughout the Balkans have reported cases of individuals being radicalized while incarcerated and government officials from the region have specifically requested assistance in countering recruitment and radicalization to violence.  To help prison officials and policy makers throughout the Balkans better detect and address the issue of prison radicalization, the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), with funding from the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT), hosted a symposium in Zagreb, Croatia on April 25-26, 2017.

This symposium, which is the second event under the CT Bureau’s initiative to combat recruitment and radicalization in prisons, brought together corrections experts from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Serbia, and the United States. The program also brought in experts from Penal Reform International, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, and the Global Center on Cooperative Security.  It followed the global launch event that was held in December 2016 at the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ) in Valletta, Malta.  

Detecting and countering prison radicalization is best achieved when prison officials develop and implement solid management and rehabilitation policies and programs.  This concept was reinforced by experts from the United States, Western Europe, and the Balkans throughout the two-day symposium.  These experts also emphasized the need to conduct proper assessment and classification of all inmates upon arrival at prison as well as the need to reassess and classify them regularly.  A proper assessment is the first step in determining if an individual might be at risk for becoming radicalized while in prison. 

The sessions that focused on the approaches to housing terrorist offenders and programs designed to monitor inmates’ communications and behavior garnered the greatest interest.  Experts noted that overseeing and managing inmates was a vitally important undertaking in the effort to counter prison radicalization.   Prison staff use different ways to collect information about what is happening with an individual, such as reviewing inmates’ mail and telephone calls, conducting random cell searches, and approving family members and friends’ visits.  The symposium included a specific discussion on regional standards and jurisprudence regarding the monitoring of prisons.  For example, the European Court of Human Rights has addressed cases concerning privacy rights of inmates that should be considered when countries design and implement programs and policies regarding searching individuals and their cells.  The European Prison Rules, which are non-binding standards developed by the Council of Europe, also have specific provisions regarding the screening of inmate communications and other aspects associated with the collection and analysis of information regarding prisoners.  

The symposium also focused on how to house terrorist offenders.  Experts from different countries highlighted the range of approaches they have used and the tradeoffs.  One benefit associated with “co-location or concentration” of  inmates is that it consolidates both human and financial resources.  It can help focus the efforts of highly trained staff who know how to manage a high-risk group of inmates.  However, some drawbacks are associated with concentration, such as inadvertently creating a hierarchical organization among terrorists that can help them to organize themselves.  An example of this phenomenon was seen in Northern Ireland when Irish Republican Army prisoners were housed together in a special unit that ended up preserving the group’s hierarchy and identity, in addition to facilitating the development of prison-run training camps.  This workshop discussion about the housing of terrorist offenders highlighted that a one–size-fits-all approach will not work and countries must consider their own resources and the particular nature of the terrorist threat they face. 

This worthwhile gathering of prison officials from the Balkans provided additional knowledge and tools to help detect and address prison radicalization, and allowed practitioners to share their experiences and learn from others’ successes and mistakes.  As practitioners exchanged ideas about changes they could institute within their own current systems, they also learned how changes to operating procedures could reduce opportunities for terrorists to recruit and plan while incarcerated and thus expanded another key aspect of our collective counterterrorism efforts.


About the Author: Shawna Wilson serves as the Senior Rule of Law Advisor in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State.

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