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The current situation of the prisons as a space of radicalization

In February 2016, the magazine "Enfoque" in its first issue , published an article in which it raised the current status of prisons as a space of radicalization and recruitment. At that time the attacks of Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo executed by the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi and the attack on the Parisian supermarket perpetrated by Amedy Coulibaly were very recent.

Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Koulibaly (“Ahmed” as the spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called him) coincided in the prison of Fleury-Mérogis. However, Kouachy and Coulibaly had moved around the same circles for 10 years, having been part of the same cell of Buttes Chaumont. Until their putting into prison, both were still members of a cell operating at a level that the police described as amateur or unsophisticated. However, the stay in Fleury-Mérogis made it possible to accelerate the process of radicalization and create the conditions for the young Muslims who had approached the basic levels of jihadism to move to a higher level of radicalization and formation. Here they meet Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian who would become their mentor. In prison Cherif would reach a higher level of militant jihadism education. Beghal’s ability to attract adepts was demonstrated and he also had contacts with prominent figures such as Abu Qatada and his second Abu Walid. Beghal also traveled to Afghanistan to be very close to the central core of Al Qaeda.

Rise of the Daesh

Despite having been the background of the 2012 attacks perpetrated by Mohamed Merah (another radical ex-convict in prison), the 2014 one committed by Mehdi Mennouche (also radicalized in prison), the prisons had ceased to be a spot of information attention, at least for the media, in regard to the problem of radicalization and jihadist recruitment. However, the perspective changed since the moment of the Paris attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine, as well as the Bataclán attack in November 2015, the Copenhagen attacks perpetrated by Omar El Hussein (whose prison term also meant a turn in his life), as well as the attacks at the airport and the metro of Brussels in March 2016. As we said until then the focus was on the dazzling rise of the DAESH and its brilliant communication and recruitment strategy.

The rise of the DAESH after the self-proclamation of the Caliphate in 2014 was a real revolution. On June 29, Al Adnani, spokesman for the Daesh, announced the restoration of the caliphate on the person of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, and on July 4 DAESH did its appearance in the great mosque of Mosul proclaiming that under its guidance the Islamic world would regain its “dignity, power and rights”. From that moment and until the attacks committed in Europe in 2015, the debate in the West and mainly in Europe, had been focused on the problem of the radicalization of thousands of young Muslims in the West to go and fight abroad and the concern about the importance of Internet and social networks as means of capturing and disseminating the jihadist message. Indeed, jihadists had found among tools like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or other various instant messaging systems, powerful weapons for their purposes. They had become experts in the use of social networks and took advantage of the encryption of messaging systems such as WhatsApp in order to carry out their communications. The encryption of these applications makes the investigations of the police and the intelligence services very difficult and extremely complicated. Services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Telegram use encrypted messages. On their part, Youtube, Facebook or Twitter proved to be very powerful means of transmitting the message of terrorists, either through videos increasingly better prepared (the Islamic State has shown in this a great ability) which manage to attract many young people to the jihadist cause and impact a good part of the world’s population, or through Facebook profiles or Twitter profiles that relate the achievements of the mujahideen in hot scenes such as Syria, Iraq or Libya. For some analysts the traditional spaces of radicalization, such as mosques, juvenile centres, and of course, prisons had been replaced by social networks. Such statements were based on data as strong as the 46,000 accounts with more than 1000 followers of social media that the DAESH kept active, the recruitment of more than 30 audiovisual producers and the work of tremendously effective community managers who addressed an audience with an average age of 25 years and educated in the aesthetics of video games. The strategy had certainly been successful since EUROPOL maintained, as of July 2016, more than 3000 foreign terrorist fighters confirmed in its database, according to the report “Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017”[1] of EUROPOL. Nevertheless some estimates consider that the official figures seem inferior to the real ones and that Turkey possesses a list of 7670 individuals who would not have managed to travel to the Caliphate.

 The connection between crime, prisons and terrorism in Europe 

After a period of time in which the problem of radicalization in prisons and other spaces had been into the background in favour of the debate on online radicalization and its consequences in front of the reality of recruitment in social networks and the internet, an analysis of the attacks produced in European territory revealed, however, that in large part of the cases, prison had been one of the key scenarios where the radicalization and the initial “jihadization” of the terrorists had taken place or had constituted a point to make contacts for the execution of attacks. And what was worse, the most lethal and best executed attacks had been committed by people radicalized in prisons or who had a police or criminal background.

The fear of Foreign Terrorist Fighters coming back as a threat to security in Europe, while still being plausible, gave way to the fact that the Paris and Brussels attacks had been committed by homegrown terrorists. Thus, the truth is that the attacks committed by foreign terrorist fighters returned from Syria and Iraq is lower, despite the fact that the perception of risk is much higher than the available data. However, the attacks carried out or attempted by homegrown terrorists inspired or connected to DAESH or other terrorist groups in the Middle East are very relevant, but they are not part of the Foreign Terrorist Fighters phenomenon.

As Neumann (2006)[2] points out, online radicalization, which deserves so much attention, despite its importance in the transmission of the jihadist message, does not imply that anyone is capable of going through the full circle of radicalization, from the pre- radicalization to the execution of a real terrorist act, just by using the Internet, that is something unlikely to happen. Likewise, someone who just uses to visit radical home pages, does not have to end up being a terrorist. Examples of self-radicalization of isolated people who have downloaded instructions of how to make bombs on the Internet and carried out planning and/or attacks, certainly exist. However, the truth is that there is a strong correspondence between the sophistication of a terrorist attack and the degree to which its perpetrators were able to capitalize on the finances, weapons, training and skills provided through the existing structures. On the other hand, as Reinares (2017) points out[3], radicalization is a phenomenon that occurs collectively in a sample of 178 individuals in 86.9% of cases. Regarding the influence of the Internet in the processes of radicalization, only 35.3% of individuals had been radicalized exclusively online.

At this point we can appreciate the idea of ​​the current prisons and crime networks situation, as spaces of jihadist radicalization. Thus, in the case of Spain, the percentage of radicalized individuals in prison is 6.7%, but the fact that 44.6% had a prison record is very remarkable. Another data that supports, according to the data provided by Reinares’ study, the idea of ​​delinquency as a catalyst of jihadist radicalization processes, is that these processes can be found in four geographical zones: in this order, the province of Barcelona (23, 2%), the autonomous city of Ceuta (22.2%), Madrid with its metropolitan area (19.2%) and, finally, the other Spanish enclave city surrounded by Moroccan territory, Melilla (12.1%). The cases of Ceuta and Melilla are very interesting since the crime rate in Ceuta is 23.2 per 1,000 inhabitants and in Melilla that rate is 19.2 per thousand inhabitants. Crime rates well above the Spanish average of 9.6 condemned per thousand inhabitants according to data provided by the Spanish Statistical Office.[4]

The reality is similar regarding the European level. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) published a report in October 2016[5] on the renewal of links between crime and terrorism. It was not a new phenomenon but it was certainly a phenomenon that had accelerated in Europe and whose latest attacks in Europe were evident. This study indicated that, within a sample of 79 individuals, the 57% had been imprisoned and 31% of those who spent time in prison were radicalized in there. It is also important that figures provided by EUROPOL, indicate that of a total of 816 persons suspected of terrorism, 67% had links with organized crime networks, usually at the low levels of the organizations. The criminal activities they preferentially used to be related with, were trafficking of migrants, drug and arms trafficking and crimes against private property. It is also common for their relationship with terrorism to be subsequent to their connection with common crime. Analysts are alarmed by a the trend in which both phenomena share acting spaces. And at this point we come back to the problem of prisons, that seem to have become a magnificent space for networking and exchange of skills, contacts and resources.

The Radicalisation in Prisons: A problem not yet solved

This brief reminder of the last jihadist attacks that Europe has suffered in recent years and the statistics linking criminality and terrorism, should be enough to make us realize that the prison is a front that, in spite of not being the main space for radicalization and recruitment of jihadists, it must be the subject of permanent surveillance. It is not a question of extracting simplistic conclusions, but the actors, except from a single case, were not people who came back from Syria or Libya, but common criminals radicalized in prison, which had never been abroad.

In all these years, since we became aware of the problem of radicalization in prisons, numerous works on the subject have been written trying to develop prevention manuals and find patterns of behaviour in order to adopt preventive policies. The reality is that today we can speak forcefully of the impossibility of establishing guidelines or general protocols. There have been attempts to systematize the external signs of radicalization, to prohibit the circulation of radical material, there have been manuals drawn up, but the truth is that, even though all of them are necessary tools, it is still impossible to establish categorically the way in which these processes are being produced in prisons. Contrary to what might seem, the radicalization and recruitment processes do not require great means. It is easy to find manuals for recruiters on the internet. The best example of all is called “A Course in the Art of Recruiting”[6] by Abu Amr Al Qaidi, which can be described as a gradual and practical recruiting program by means of an individual dawa. It is therefore a preaching activity that is gradually and preferably carried out towards an individual or a very small group of people in order to assure the results which facilitate their development without attracting attention.

On the other hand, the recruitment processes in these years have been adapted to a situation of greater control and vigilance on the part of the prison authorities, which demonstrates the ability of radical jihadism to adapt to the existing conditions of any given time and to apply biased concepts and cultural and ideological references that are exploited by radical jihadism in order to create a conscience that favors the propagation of extremist ideology, at an individual and a collective level as well. A clear example could be the good behaviour maintained by the jihadists in Paris in prison that may well correspond to the concept of invisibility or Al Taqiya. The pressure and the greater vigilance of the Penitentiary Authorities have made the radical inmates try to go unnoticed in order not to attract attention. In the classic terminology of Islam, the taqiya, supposes a concealment of the true faith, to safeguard one’s own life, honour or belongings. However, this concept also has a radical interpretation that allows its use to achieve objectives such as extending the Caliphate, defeating enemies or establishing sharia. It is the same way, of a concept perfectly applicable to the penitentiary environment in which the observation of the inmates is permanent and the radical behaviors exaggerated easily detectable. However, this behaviour is based on the idea of ​​the niya or the will of the believer to act with rectitude in the background and the type of the activities he performs. The radicalization process does not have to be visible. The dynamics of recruitment are very different from that of past times back when the phenomenon was novel, and it is being carried out in a discreet way in order to avoid drawing the attention of the prison authorities.

The systems which have been guiding us in the fight against this phenomenon have become obsolete. References to external signs of radicalization, to radical changes in behaviour or to the existence of stable structures in prisons, begin to prove ineffective. Moreover, these types of criteria that are contained within all the prevention manuals used by the European prison authorities are generating problems of victimization of the Muslim prisoners. Likewise, the classification of the population at risk in groups according to their supposed degree of radicalization, is generating problems of excesses in the elevation of radicalization reports with negative consequences for the affected inmates. Recently a report from 2017 of the Danish Institute of Human Rights[7] warned of this problem that had also been detected in England and Wales.


The phenomenon of jihadist radicalization in Spanish prisons has evolved following the rate of global jihadism. Despite of this, we can intuit that the phenomenon of radicalization in prisons will adopt a low profile and will be silently developed. If we do not search for new prevention and control tools and keep betting for the introduction of a real criminal intelligence system in European prisons, we will lose the possibility of controlling a space that is nowadays serving both crime and terror and where synergies that require working methods and multi-agency teams, at the local and central level that do not exist today are being generated. If we desire to win this battle we must take a new step forward.


Salvador Berdún Carrión. Prison Officer. University Expert in Analysis of Violence and Jihadist Terrorism at the University of Granada. University Expert in Internal Security at the National University of Distance Education.



[2] Neumann, Peter R. (2006) “Europe’s Jihadist Dilemma”, Survival, vol. 48, no.2, pp. 71-84.

[3] Reinares, F. García-calvo, C. Vicente, A (2017)  “Dos factores que explican la radicalización yihadista en España” ARI 62/2017 – 8/8/2017

[4] Instituto Nacional de Estadística (2017). Estadística de Condenados Adultos/Estadísticas de Condenados menores. Año 2016. [Online] Notas de Prensa INE, pp. 4-5. Available from: [Accessed 31 January 2018]

[5] Basra, R, Brunner, C and  Neumann P. (2016) Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and  the New Crime-Terror Nexus.

[6] Abu Amr Al Qa`idi’s manual, “A Course in the Art of Recruiting” responds to the model we refer to. A text of 44 pages that establishes the profile of the ideal candidates for being recruited and the ones who should be discarded. The phases of the process are also defined: knowledge, approach, and introduction of religious concepts, indoctrination and finally the creation of a cell. The recruitment manuals usually recommend a series of very specific readings and also involve the support of specific audiovisual material of certain radical clerics. All this is material that can hardly be accessed (at least in theory) from a prison.

[7] The Danish Institute for Human Rights (2017).  Report Summary: Prevention of violent extremism and radicalization in prisons.ængsler%20ENG%20SUMMARY.pdf