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As law enforcement authorities lock up more home-grown terrorists, experts are warning the success could turn sour if jailhouse jihadists are allowed to infect fellow inmates. Prisons have long been criticized for a culture that can make some inmates more dangerous than when they entered, but the possibility that typical felons could become lone wolf terrorists upon earning parole is a disturbing new wrinkle.
“If we continue to downplay the threat, we do so at our own peril,” said Patrick Dunleavy, author of “The Fertile Soil of Jihad: Terrorism’s Prison Connection.”
The aggressive recruitment of Americans by ISIS has resulted in a spike in domestic terror-related convictions. Some 71 people are imprisoned in the U.S. on ISIS-related charges, including 56 individuals arrested in 2015, the most terrorism arrests in a single year since September 2001, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
n addition, the FBI has said it is currently conducting more than 900 investigations into ISIS-linked radicalization, including cases in all 50 states.
There are hundreds more federal inmates serving time for terrorist activities related to other terror groups. An estimated 100 are scheduled for release in the next five years, according to the Congressional Research Service. Still more terror suspects could be transferred to U.S. prisons from Guantanamo Bay in the coming months.
“We have never been faced with such a large number of terror inmates before,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., during a recent Homeland Security Committee hearing on countering violent extremism in prison.
King and others say the federal Bureau of Prisons must do a better job of monitoring and, if necessary, isolating inmates who could radicalize others behind bars.
Dunleavy, a retired deputy inspector in the criminal intelligence unit of the New York Department of Correctional Services, said criminals have been radicalized in prisons for years, and predicted it will only get worse. He cited Chicago gang member Jose Padilla, who converted to radical Islam while doing time in prison in the 1980s, and was later accused of plotting to set off a radiological “dirty bomb” in the U.S. He is now serving a 21-year sentence for conspiring to commit acts of terror overseas.
More recently, ex-convict Alton Nolen was arrested in a September, 2014 attack at his former place of employment, a food processing plant in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Nolen, who is awaiting trial, allegedly beheaded a 54-year-old female worker while yelling Islamic slogans. Dunleavy believes Nolen converted to Islam while serving time in an Oklahoma prison after attacking a police officer in 2010.
In between Padilla and Nolen, Dunleavy says there were “scores of others” who became radicalized in state and federal prisons, either by listening to fellow inmates or hearing sermons on contraband devices smuggled into prisons and shared.
“Over the years, our Federal prisons have become a breeding ground for radicalization,” said Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., who introduced a measure that would compel the BOP to study prison radicalization and beef up background checks for clergy and other workers allowed access to inmates. “By allowing volunteers to enter the system without first having to undergo a comprehensive background check, some of the most vulnerable members of society have become susceptible to radicalization.”
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