A stickup boy from a bad neighborhood gets caught. A few weeks into his prison bid, he falls in with a crowd of Muslim extremists feeding on his anger toward the government. As he begins to identify with the plight of oppressed Muslims around the world, he decides to devote himself to jihad against the United States.
That's the kind of nightmare scenario House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King had in mind on Wednesday when he held a hearing on Islamic radicalization in U.S. prisons, or "Prislam" as lawmakers began referring to it. King says prisons have become "an assembly line for radicalization."
One could indeed imagine that bloated U.S. prisons -- warehouses for human misery that house more than two million people -- might turn into hotbeds for Islamic radicalization. But it hasn't turned out that way.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), only one terrorism plot since 9/11 has involved individuals who became radicalized Muslims in prison. In his testimony before the committee, Professor Bert Useem of Perdue University pointed out that terrorists tend to be middle class and educated, which is why they're preoccupied with politics and current events. Prisoners tend to be less educated and commit crimes for personal gain rather than ideology.
"Radicalization [in prison] is difficult," Useem said, "because these are people who are mainly guided by their self-interest."
That's not to say that there isn't anyone in prison with radical beliefs who might ultimately pose a risk, or that there's no need for vigilance; it's just that, for a number of reasons, Islamic radicalization in prison that leads to actual violence isn't much of a problem. Many prisoners might convert to Islam, and a few of those might develop radical beliefs, but few actually commit acts of violence once they're released.
"Within prisons, there are many people that have a rigid, as opposed to extremist interpretation of Islam," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Center for the Defense of Democracies. But close supervision while behind bars makes it difficult for prisoners to affiliate with like-minded individuals on the inside. In addition, lack of access to the Internet makes it difficult for terrorists around the world to inspire the kind of "lone wolf" plots they've come to rely on since U.S. anti-terrorism efforts have made more coordinated plans harder.
But even for the few who are taken in by radical Islam in prison, there's little evidence that they act on their beliefs -- or that they persist in their extremist views -- once they're out.
"There's this very interesting gap between radicalism, and radicalism actually manifesting itself in violence," Gartenstein-Ross says. "It's hard to sustain a hardline religious practice when you leave the prison environment."
A study Gartenstein-Ross did himself found only seven cases of Islamic terrorism in both the US and UK in that had any connection to prisons. "Many of the high-end estimates of the risk posed by the prison system seem not to be borne out by numbers," he says.
At the hearing yesterday, Republicans dismissed such numbers and chastised Democrats for calling for hearings that focused more broadly on prison radicalization -- not just radicalization among Muslims.
"I must say, the political correctness in this room is astounding," said Rep. Dan Lungdren of California.
"If we find out that Neo-Nazis are allied with a foreign power and they are coming to this country we are going to investigate that," said Rep. King. "[But] the fact is that we are not going to spread out and investigate everything."
Republicans argue that Islamic extremism poses a greater threat than other homegrown extremists. When it comes to the real dangers of radicalization in prison, however, Republicans have focused on Islamic radicalization at the expense of other threats, a focus the Obama administration has acquiesced to.
"I think we have a larger white supremacist prison gang radicalization problem than Muslim extremism problem," says Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who recently told the Washington Post that the department curtailed its analysis of rightwing extremism after conservatives complained they were being unfairly targeted by the Obama administration. "We could probably count the number of Muslim extremists in the hundreds, where the numbers that I'm talking about are in the tens of thousands."
It's not just that DHS has curtailed its analysis of right-wing extremists, which Johnson says deprives local law enforcement of vital intelligence. According to Karen Greenberg, Director of NYU's Center for Law and Security, anti-government terrorists who commit crimes that Islamic extremists aspire to face fewer charges and serve lighter sentences.
"The right-wing guys, for lack of a better term, get lower sentences. There are fewer stings in progress against them," Greenberg says. "If explosives are involved, they get charged for explosives instead of Weapons of Mass Destruction, as they might be in a jihadist terrorism case."
In an era of self-starting terrorists, having a connection to a "foreign power" doesn't seem to matter as much -- homegrown shooters like Nidal Malik Hasan and Carlos Bledsoe killed successfully without ever training in an al-Qaeda haven, while guys like Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad failed to kill anyone despite receiving direct instruction from terrorist groups.
Citing a list of violent incidents involving right-wing extremists dating back to 1995, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says conservatives' paranoia about Muslim radicalization has blinded lawmakers to the more real and widespread dangers posed by non-Muslim radicals.
"There is a very real problem with white supremacist religions like Christian identity and Odinism, and various other neo-pagan theologies, you almost never hear about a problem with radical Islam being taught in the prisons," Potok says. "I'm not suggesting there's no problem whatsoever, but Peter King has once again focused in on the people he doesn't like, and that means Muslims."
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