Jihadists are radicalizing Muslims in prisons outside the U.S., in Europe and elsewhere, through aggressive indoctrination and recruitment. A new RAND Corporation report, "Radicalization or Rehabilitation: Understanding the Challenge of Extremist and Radicalized Prisoners," cites prisons as a key venue for Islamist recruitment. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a former inmate and mentor of the late al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, describes jihadist tactics in prisons in the radical periodical Nida ul-Islam to include:

  • Refusal to cooperate in the prison's administrative regime, intimidating prison staff, and attacking guards.
  • Using prison visits to communicate with followers in the outside world.

  • Holding alternative Friday prayers to draw other prisoners away from the official prison services.

  • Producing and distributing ideological literature within, and for dissemination beyond, the prison population.

The RAND report also notes that much of the literature on Islam in prison libraries is specifically Islamist. Fundamentalist authors like the 13th-century figure Ibn Taymiyya and the 20th-century writer Sayyid Qutb are prevalent and seem especially attractive to prison readers since these men spent time in jail themselves, making them sympathetic figures to these captive audiences in Europe's prisons.

Governments are trying to counter the spread of Islamism in prisons. The RAND report assesses three programs in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The religious rehabilitation group (RRG) in Singapore attempts to rehab arrested members of Jemaah Islamiya with counter-Islamist material produced by Islamic scholars and other experts. Moreover, relatives of inmates receive financial assistance and are counseled, while their children are provided with special education.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen also have programs for deradicalization of jihadist prisoners. Some of the problems these programs run into include the high risk that inmates will use their "successful" rehabilitation to obtain release and rejoin terrorist networks. The Yemeni program specifically has been challenged for weak results.

The questionable success of these programs is not an accident. RAND ignores analyzing elements inside and outside the Saudi establishment that finance radicalism while its government attempts to neutralize adherents of extremist doctrines. In such a situation, prison rehabilitation programs are being sabotaged by failures in their own governments, which use these programs for positive P.R. in the war against extremism without providing consistent results.

Another problem in the RAND report is that its review of Europe is too broad. By comparing the Islamist movement to the Basque ultranationalist Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), RAND associates the Islamist global totalitarian religious movement with the grievances of local nationalist extremists. By wanting to avoid offending European Muslim ideologues, RAND offers an incomplete analysis.

Fighting prison jihadism requires an alliance between secular governments and moderate Muslim leaders who demand not only an end to violence but the supremacist ideology behind it. Such moderates call for separation of religious and government authority and the equality of all religions under secular law.

Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) reports include the 2008 "Black America, Prisons, and Radical Islam."

"A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe 2007-2009" will be published by CIP on May 15, 2009.

Imaad Malik is the prison outreach director for the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C.