Concern Grows over Prison Islam Converts

By Don Thompson

Sacramento, Calif. – Recent arrests have focused attention on a potential terrorism danger that federal officials have been warning about that inmates in state prison systems are particularly susceptible to radical Islamist ideology. But prison officials across the nation say they so far have seen more potential for recruitment than real threats.

Federal officials have arrested three men in Southern California since early July in a plot that allegedly targeted National Guard facilities, the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and several synagogues. Authorities said they believe the plan originated among a shadowy group known as Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh inside California State Prison, Sacramento.

Counterterrorism officials said the danger is not in the number of adherents to radical Islam but in the potential for small groups of dedicated believers to commit terrorist acts after they are released.They point to Jose Padilla, an American Muslim convert arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning a “dirty bomb” radiological attack after he left jail.”

Nothing I have suggests there is a widespread Al Qaida recruitment movement within the prison system, but all you need is three or four to conduct an attack,” said Gary Winuk, chief deputy director of the state Office of Homeland Security. Prison officials nationwide “are all sort of hearing the chatter” about efforts to recruit inmates to extremist ideologies, said Martin Horn, commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections. He would not elaborate.

However, prison officials in other states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Muslim inmates helped spark an 11-day fatal riot in 1993, said they have seen no signs of recruiting. And Muslim leaders dispute the idea that prisons are producing Islamic militants.In a report last year, the U.S.

Department of Justice‘s inspector general found that the federal Bureau of Prisons was doing inadequate background or ideology checks on its Muslim clerics. It found that inmates and religious volunteers had “ample opportunity .. to deliver inappropriate and extremist messages without supervision.”

Groups with domestic or foreign terrorism ties have been a prison phenomenon for decades, said Steven L. Pomerantz, a former FBI assistant director and counterterrorism chief. He said there was “no question … we have a problem with militant Islam and its spread into the American prison system.”

The Southern California case arose after 25-year-old Levar Haley Washington and another man were arrested July 5 on suspicion of robbing gas stations. Police found jihadist literature and evidence of a target list when they searched Washington’s Los Angeles apartment. Law enforcement officials suspect Washington was radicalized in prison before he was paroled Nov. 29.

In California, chaplains’ clerks or other inmates lead some religious ceremonies and sometimes preach an inflammatory version of Islam, said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. But he added, “I find most Muslim inmates to be very respectful, to be very easy to deal with.”The California prison system has 30 full- and part-time Muslim chaplains, civil service employees who undergo background checks and must adhere to mainstream Islam, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.Shakeel Syed, a contract chaplain for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, disagreed that prisons are turning out Islamic radicals. He joined representatives of Muslim groups Friday at a news conference in Los Angeles to say that chaplains can be part of the solution by steering inmates away from radical ideology.”

Those of us who are on the front lines battling extremism are not being utilized by law enforcement,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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