The radicalisation of individuals involved in terrorist acts often happens in the prison cell itself. According to the French authorities' data, this is the case for 15 percent of the jihadists in the country - a significant percentage. In France, where institutions are founded on the principle of secularism, it is not legal to conduct censuses and surveys on an ethnic or religious basis. However, it is estimated that between 50 and 70 percent of the 65,000 detainees are Muslims.
From Merah to the terrorists of 13 November
For the French authorities, the event waking them up to this harsh reality was the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in January 2015. One of the terrorists, Amedy Coulibaly, had been in prison for theft and armed robbery. He left radicalized and planning to carry out an attack. Chérif Koauchi, one of the two brothers who committed the massacre in the office of the satirical weekly, forged ties, including with Coulibaly himself that led to the events in January in prison. Then there are Mohammed Merah and Mehdi Nemmouche. Merah opened fire outside a Jewish school in Toulouse killing four in 2012. Nemouche killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014. Both had records as petty criminals. Before entering prison, they were neither believers nor practising Muslims. Some of the perpetrators of the November 13 2015 attack, which killed 137 people in Paris, had similar pasts.
Before Islamic extremism threatened Europe and the European Union had to deal with the departures and returns of so-called foreign fighters to the Levant, prisons have always been – from the America of Hollywood to the reality of the Italian Mafia through the Middle East ¬ – places where prisoners can conspire and build relationships beyond their walls. With the rise of the Islamic State, the notorious American prison Camp Bucca was a fortress in the Iraqi desert near the city of Basra and was described as "the incubator of the Isis phenomenon: former Baathists, Salafists and semi-criminals put together in a situation of relative comfort," says Oasis’ Lorenzo Vidino, director of the programme on extremism at George Washington University . The first to admit mismanagement of Camp Bucca was the general in charge of the prison from 2007 to its closure in 2009, Douglas M. Stone. He introduced the first "de-radicalisation" programmes. They provided for "lessons by moderate imams" and the isolation of some inmates, writes Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan for the Daily Beast. More than a few prisoners got themselves arrested and asked to be put in the compound where they knew other al-Qaeda members were locked up. “If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it. We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat," Major General Stone told both authors. There, they built relationships; hierarchies were created. And that's where the "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gained the status of leader.
A rite of passage
"Everywhere prisons are places where there is receptivity from a psychological point of view - an ideal basin: just think of the phenomenon of American gangs," says Vidino. In France, for young men in the suburbs where the crime rate is very high, incarceration is almost a "rite of passage", during which the encounter with radical ideologies can occur.
Some prison de-radicalisation programmes are often cited as possible models. In the Netherlands, for example, radicalized individuals are isolated in a section of a maximum security prison near The Hague "like a cancer cell". The Fresnes prison, near Paris, started a similar experiment in October 2014, now replicated by other detention centres. The numbers concerned, however, in the Dutch case are very low compared to the French phenomenon: the costs are lower, and detractors speak all the same of programmes that lack the crucial phase of rehabilitation in society, present for example in countries such as Denmark, where once again, however, the numbers are limited.
"Where do you put the limit to civil rights?" - Vidino wonders concerning possible de-radicalisation programmes. "How can you control all the improvised imams' sermons in prison, all the books in Arabic coming into every single cell? How can a Western country decide what type of Islam and what degree of Islamist ideology are acceptable? What prison administration has these abilities and skills? Although France is creating a network of imams focused on work in prisons—by March the number of Muslim chaplains for 65,000 detainees should increase by 60 units, from the current 181, editor's note—the resources are still a problem". For many European countries for which the numbers involved represent a real problem, such as France and the United Kingdom, rehabilitation programs would be prohibitively expensive, explains Oasis’ Raffaello Pantucci, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, who also recalls how the Saudis' attempt to reintegrate former jihadists by giving them a job and a house does not always function: some of them are, in fact, active again.