Prisons Failing To Tackle Terror Recruitment

The prison service has no strategy to tackle al-Qaida operatives radicalising and recruiting young African-Caribbean and other ethnic minority prisoners in British jails, according to prison officers. Britain now houses more suspected terrorist prisoners – the number is in the high hundreds – than any other European country, with many housed on normal wings alongside ordinary offenders.

The Prison Officers’ Association says some of these terrorist prisoners are targeting for radicalisation and recruitment other alienated ethnic minority groups, as well as the smaller number of younger Muslim prisoners, and they are providing “rich pickings”. Many of those held, whom they describe as “dangerous and highly capable”, are “high up” in groups using the al-Qaida name and their lives have been dedicated to radicalising younger and more vulnerable people.

But senior prison managers have admitted in official correspondence that despite being aware of the problem they are waiting for a recently formed extremist prisoner working group to report before they do anything about it.

The POA has warned the government that urgent steps need to be taken to prevent the more dangerous suspected terrorist prisoners engaging in criminal integration and collusion, as well as their adoption of new radicalising and recruitment techniques.

Terror suspects and convicted terrorists are concentrated in high-security prisons, including Belmarsh in London and Woodhill in Milton Keynes. Despite being given the highest security, category A rating, most are kept on normal prison wings as the resources do not exist to deal with them all in separate secure units.

Steve Gough, the POA’s vice-chairman, said he did not think there were “al-Qaida-controlled wings” yet in British prisons but said the stage had already been reached where they were recruiting prisoners sharing their cells or impressionable youngsters in the cell next door.

“Prison staff are very good at intelligence-led surveillance but it is difficult gathering intelligence listening to people who are having conversations in languages you don’t understand. There are now many high-profile terrorist prisoners locked up on normal location, on normal wings with any other prisoner instead of in special environments.”

The shoe bomber Richard Reid, the son of two non-Muslims, a white mother and a Jamaican father, has revealed how being radicalised while inside Feltham young offenders’ institution led to his conversion to violent jihadism.

Lord Carlile, the independent watchdog on the government’s anti-terror laws, this year identified the recruitment of radicalised youth in prisons as a problem and raised concerns about the activities of a small number of imams in prisons.

But more than a year after the bombings in London highlighted the need to tackle the radicalisation of Muslims the prison service has admitted that it has done little about it.

Peter Atherton, the deputy director-general of the prison service, has told the POA that “while there are some concerns that some people might be radicalised, there is little hard evidence that it is happening to date”.

In a letter to Mr Gough, he disclosed that the prison service has recently formed an extremist prisoner working group, but senior managers are waiting for it to report before drawing up a prison service strategy for combating terrorism.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan police special branch has set up an intelligence unit in the prison service headquarters and there is also a system for monitoring terrorists held in high security.

Mr Gough said this response was entirely inappropriate: “This isn’t a problem that will occur in the next few years. This is something the prison service should have been planning for since 9/11.”