Terrorism in Foreign Prisons: Countering Recruitment and Rehabilitating Offenders

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A group photo including Malian police officers in police uniforms and trainers in civilian clothing, some are standing, some are kneeling in front.
Mali Prison Staff and representatives from the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) attended a training workshop in Bamako, Mali, December 2016.

Terrorism in Foreign Prisons: Countering Recruitment and Rehabilitating Offenders

Countering terrorist recruitment in foreign prisons is an essential element of the fight against terrorism. The management of terrorist inmates is critically important because of concerns that these individuals are attracting new recruits while incarcerated or planning attacks upon their release. Those involved in high profile terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Brussels, London, Nice, and Jakarta, were initially imprisoned for non-terrorist offenses and are believed to have been radicalized to violence while in jail. Many countries throughout the world are grappling with reported cases of individuals being drawn to terrorist ideology while incarcerated, and government officials have sought assistance in addressing this issue. 

The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) and Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) are working to address this critical issue by developing good practices that can be shared with partner governments and, where feasible, helping them implement good prison management and rehabilitation policies as well as select pilot programs to minimize radicalization to violence within prisons.  

Beginning in 2016, in an effort to help prison officials and policy makers detect and respond to prison radicalization, the CT Bureau launched a global initiative that included a series of workshops. As part of this initiative, the CT Bureau partnered with the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) to develop and implement four workshops that included officials from countries in the Balkans; Central, East and North Africa; the Middle East; and Southeast Asia. These workshops were geared for prison officials to highlight the use of specialized risk assessment tools for terrorist offenders; discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches for housing terrorists; and to reiterate the importance of monitoring prisoners’ communications and behavior.

Detecting and countering prison radicalization is best achieved when prison officials develop and implement solid management and rehabilitation policies and programs. It is crucial for prison officials to assess and classify inmates properly when they first enter a facility, and to regularly re-assess and classify them. This helps early detection of susceptibility to violent radicalization and also helps prison staff detect changes in prisoners’ behavior and patterns. The housing of terrorists is significant because where and with whom inmates are placed can contribute to or mitigate their ability to recruit and influence other inmates. This can be a significant challenge as prison systems in underdeveloped nations often lack basic needs such as access to water, a functioning waste water treatment system, and larger facilities to accommodate outsized prison populations. Assessing the sophistication of the prison system is critical in determining whether a specialized prison program is the right approach.     

In addition to this initiative to combat prison radicalization, the CT Bureau funded pilot bilateral programs to reiterate a number of these good management practices. In Mali, CT funded a rehabilitation program that included interviews with inmates charged with terrorism-related offenses to understand what drove them to engage in violent extremism. This information was essential in helping Malian prison officials develop appropriate assessment tools used in the prisons and assisted in the development of targeted rehabilitation programs. As part of this program, CT also funded training for religious leaders on radicalization to violence to help them detect and intervene with those possibly on that path as well as provide counseling to those already radicalized to violence.

Another good example of CT Bureau’s work is in Kosovo, where pilot activities to improve prison officials’ capacity to manage and rehabilitate returned foreign terrorist fighters and other terrorist offenders are underway. Some of the specific activities include developing standard operating procedures for managing terrorist inmates, improving the ability to classify and house terrorist inmates by their security risk, and enhancing correctional officer capability to monitor the communications and activities of terrorist inmates. 

This project also aims to strengthen cooperation among government entities involved in incarcerating and monitoring returned foreign terrorist fighters. Communication among law enforcement, prosecutors, and correctional officials is vital since information gained from a prisoner may be valuable to law enforcement officers conducting terrorism prosecutions and vice-versa. Monitoring the communications and actions of high-risk terrorist inmates can help detect and prevent possible terrorist operations. Work has also begun on a whole-of-government approach for the post-incarceration transition of terrorist offenders back into their communities. As these activities represent a new area in foreign assistance programming, careful monitoring and evaluation practices will be applied to inform planners on the successes or shortcomings of the pilot programs. 

Participants from Senegal, Niger, and Mali at an INL regional security response training in Dakar, Senegal co-hosted by the Government of Senegal.

The CT Bureau’s efforts to assist in the management and rehabilitation of terrorist offenders are often complemented by prison reform efforts undertaken by the INL Bureau. In Niger, INL and CT, in partnership with a Department of Justice Resident Legal Advisor, are supporting major institutional changes within the prison system. These efforts helped usher in new legislation that created – for the first time – a civilian prison staff to manage the country’s prisons. This will allow us to partner with Niger to train new civilian prison officials on management and rehabilitation issues. The introduction of crucial management policies and procedures within Nigerien prisons is expected to help prevent radicalization to violence within their facilities.

In Morocco, INL has supported efforts to counter violent extremism though its corrections reform program, which included the development of a prisoner classification system in the Moroccan Prison Administration (DGAPR). INL trained more than 300 prison officials on this tool and assisted in its rollout to prisons nationwide. This classification tool allows DGAPR staff to identify dangerous individuals in a systemic, transparent, and fair manner and determine the most appropriate way to incarcerate them.  

INL supported theater presentations in thirteen Moroccan prisons where inmates were engaged in interactive dialogues on the dangers of terrorist ideologies, how to avoid radicalizing influences, and the negative impact of radicalism on inmates and their communities. Based on positive participant feedback, DGAPR has requested to expand the program nation-wide.   

Since country contexts vary widely, all programs are custom designed. The State Department looks forward to continuing its work with partner nations on sound prison management and rehabilitation policies and programs, when feasible, that can help minimize opportunities for terrorist recruitment within prisons. We are also encouraging other donors to assume a leading role in the rehabilitation and reintegration space given their experience in this area. In this way, we are coordinating our programmatic efforts and resources at a strategic level, while ensuring that partners with relevant experience share the financial burden for addressing this widespread problem.

About the Author: Shawna Wilson is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor in Department of State's Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.