When Benjamin Herman went to prison for assault and robbery in 2003, he was a Catholic teen from the town of Rochefort. By the time he was given a two-day home leave this May, he was an avowed Islamist. Within hours of his temporary release, he murdered two female police officers and used their stolen weapons to kill a passing motorist.
Herman's transformation is not an anomaly. Europe's prisons have become a hotbed of Islamic radicalization, particularly as 1,500 ISIS militants have returned from the Middle East and faced prosecution. “Never have so many people been arrested on charges related to terrorism, and never have we seen so many of these guys in prison together,” Thomas Renard, a Belgian terrorism expert and researcher at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, told my colleagues. “In bringing them together, we are facilitating their ability to recruit. And that is something that will stay with us for a long time.”
Two of my colleagues, Souad Mekhennet and Joby Warrick, spent months visiting prisons across Europe to understand how people become radicalized — and what countries on the continent are trying to do to stop this from happening. Their article includes looks inside prison cells in Belgium and Germany, two countries that have adopted sharply divergent strategies. Today's WorldView spoke with Warrick about his and Mekhennet's reporting.
Joby Warrick: Throughout the history of the modern Islamist movement, prisons have served as incubators for terrorist groups. Radicalized individuals, when cut off from family and other moderating influences and subjected to what they see as unjust punishment, often become more angry and more radical. Inside prisons, they find themselves surrounded by troubled young men who are looking for an identity and a cause. For extremists, prison becomes an opportunity to deepen their own ideological commitment while also helping to train and recruit the next generation.
Radicalization is nothing new, and rehabilitation efforts have been going on for years. What’s new or important about either subject in 2018?
JW: It’s partly a matter of scale. The current population of inmates in Europe includes hundreds who traveled to Syria to fight for the ISIS or al-Qaeda, or to be part of the "caliphate". Many who returned home were immediately imprisoned, and there’s a high risk that some of those will seek to recruit others, or try to carry out attacks after their release. In addition, the strain of extremist ideology embraced by some of these returnees is more extreme and more violent, compared with what we’ve seen in the past.
In your story, you focus on prisons in Belgium and Germany. What does the problem look like in other parts of Europe?
JW: We focused on Belgium and Germany because both countries saw large numbers of their citizens travel to Syria and Iraq. Belgium, for example, had the highest number of ISIS emigres per capita in Europe. But numerous other countries are grappling with the same problem and experimenting with different solutions. France, for example, has developed an intelligence service that works inside its prisons to try to penetrate and disrupt terrorist cells. Other countries are seeking to block would-be returnees from coming home at all. Each country is acutely aware of the potential political fallout if a former ISIS member leaves prison and then commits a terrorist act.
How have European officials tried to fight radicalization?
JW: What we discovered is that countries don’t have ready solutions, so they are inventing new approaches and methods for dealing with the problem in real time. Often, the solutions differ dramatically from one country or region to another.
For example, Belgium has developed a program known as DeRadex, which isolates the most radicalized inmates from the rest of the prison population and allows them only limited contact with one another. Belgium's approach doesn’t seek “deradicalization” per se — they argue that prisons aren’t really equipped to change an individual’s ideology and can only hope to discourage violence.
Germany, by contrast, rejects the idea of isolating inmates who embrace radical ideologies, opting instead for a program of intense monitoring and intervention to prevent radicalization from occurring. Officials in both countries say they don’t yet have enough data to know which approaches truly work.
Over the course of your reporting, you found that European officials had become much more aggressive about imprisoning people with links to terrorism. In the near future though, almost all of those men and women will be getting out of prison. If deradicalization tactics don't work, what are the biggest risks as those people are freed?
JW: That's what keeps European counterterrorism officials awake at night. Across Europe, there are about 1,500 returnees — women and children as well as men. Some are already back in their neighborhoods, and those who are in prison are serving sentences averaging between three and five years in cases where there is no hard evidence of violent behavior. Experts say there’s a high likelihood that at least a few of those inmates will remain just as committed to ISIS and its ideals at the time of their release.
What stance have European politicians taken?
JW: European countries were profoundly shaken by the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, and also by the refugee crisis. The political imperative to stop terrorism at all costs was behind many of the tough new laws passed by European parliaments over the last three years. They essentially ensure that anyone who joined the jihad in Iraq or Syria will be charged with a crime and placed in jail. Those laws are highly popular but do little to address the long-term challenge of radicalization that many of these countries face. The solution will involve years of investment in areas such as economic development and education — and so far no political consensus has emerged for those kinds of reforms.
The Washington Post