Europe’s prisons are turning criminals into jihadists, study finds
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Prisons in Europe have turned into breeding grounds for jihadist groups, according to a major study on criminal-terrorist networks by a British think tank published Tuesday.
“Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures,” reads a poster by a militant Islamist group featuring a rifle-toting fighter turning his back on the camera and facing an iridescent light that no doubt represents a glorious jihadist future.
The banner was posted on Facebook and appears in a study on jihadist groups published Tuesday by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), a British-based think tank. The 56-page study details how the Islamic State (IS) group turns to the criminal underclass in prisons to recruit individuals with a history of crime.
The poster of the balaclava-clad fighter with a shadowy past was put out by Rayat al-Tawheed, a network of British jihadists that joined the IS group in 2014. The network also stressed that, “jihad is a purification no matter who you are or what sins you have, no good deeds are needed to come before it".
Given the targeting of primarily young men with criminal records, prisons across Europe have turned into breeding grounds of radicalism, the study noted.
Angry young men ‘ripe’ for jihad
Prisons provide a ready supply of "angry young men" who are "ripe" for radicalisation, according to the study, titled "Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus".
According to ICSR director Peter Neumann, one of the report's authors, the lines between crime and jihadist groups were becoming "increasingly blurred".
"Prison is becoming important as a place where a lot of networking happens," Neumann told AFP.
"Given the recent surge in terrorism-related arrests and convictions... we are convinced that prisons will become more -- rather than less -- significant as breeding grounds for the jihadist movement."
Criminals seeking 'redemption'
Neumann said radicalisation was becoming faster because "a lot of these people have already been convicted of violent crime, so the jump to being a violent extremist is not so big."
Recruiting in prisons allows jihadist groups to tap "transferrable skills", the study found, including familiarity with weapons and self-financing through crime.
Researchers from the ICSR, based at King's College London, compiled profiles of 79 European jihadists with criminal pasts, from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
All had either travelled abroad to fight or been involved in terrorist plots in Europe.
57%: Number imprisoned before radicalisation
Over the past five years an estimated 5,000 Western Europeans have travelled to the Middle East to join jihadist organisations such as the IS group and the Syrian Fateh al-Sham Front, a former al Qaeda affiliate, the report said.
Of those studied, 57 percent had been incarcerated before being radicalised and at least 27 percent of those who spent time in prison were radicalised behind bars.
For some, jihadism offered a form of "redemption" for their crimes, researchers said.
Ali Almanasfi, a British-Syrian from London who fought in Syria after serving a jail term for violent assault, was cited in the report as saying: "I want to do something good for once. I want to do something pure."
According to Neumann, the findings point to a shift in the way the IS group operates.
"We think IS no longer aspires to be a very theological organisation. It embodies the brutality, strength and power that these young people, who were often members of gangs, are looking for," he said. "It basically tells them 'you can continue to do all the things you did before, but now you can get into heaven'."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)