Islamist Extremism in British Prisons: Breaking the Cycle of ‘Us and Them’

11th October 2018

In August of last year, three men from the West Midlands – Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain and Mohibur Rahman – were sentenced to a combined total of a minimum of 60 years in prison. Their crime? Preparing a terror attack using pipe-bombs and a butcher’s cleaver with the word ‘kafir’ (the Arabic term for ‘non-believer’) etched into its blade. The plot was foiled before anyone was hurt, but most disturbingly, all three men were well known to UK law enforcement prior to their attempt.

The three men had met four years previously at Belmarsh Prison, where they were serving sentences for their involvement with Al-Qaeda. Ali and Hussain were two of the three men recruited by Ishaaq Hussain for a plot to bomb the UK, whilst Rahman was convicted in 2012 for possessing three editions of an Al-Qaeda magazine containing information on how to build a pipe-bomb.

Incredibly, these men who evidently had a vested interest in committing an act of terror and harming British citizens, were allowed to mix freely at Her Majesty’s Pleasure within the walls of one of the UK’s most high-security prison institutions. Furthermore, despite being under the watchful guard of prison staff, Ali, Hussain and Rahman were clearly allowed to share their views and develop their depraved understanding of Islam. It goes without saying that more needs to be done to tackle this problem.

A Ministry of Justice investigation, conducted by Ian Acheson and published in the Summer of 2016, investigated the causes and implications of Islamism within British prisons. The paper identifies those convicted under the Terrorism Act of 2000 (known as ‘TACT’s) as primary movers within penal radicalisation. The paper also sets out a breakdown of the methods utilised by Islamist Extremists within prison, in order to maintain their status and influence.

Many of these tactics employed by Islamist Extremist inmates have a clear similarity: the notion of cultivating an atmosphere of ‘us and them’. Whilst the notion of ‘otherisation’ itself may not pose immediate danger, by driving a wedge between prison staff (and by extension the state they represent) and inmates who share a common faith, would be radicalisers can create a space in which extremist ideas can take hold and grow. Naturally, this challenge requires the prison service to walk a narrow line. There needs to be a harsher ‘no-tolerance’ approach to inmates abusing religious mechanisms to protect their proceedings. However great care must be taken to avoid providing radicalisers with the ammunition they need to grow in strength. For example, if an Islamist Extremist prisoner is using private prayer to talk with other inmates, prison services must avoid a clumsy approach in disrupting potential recruitment activities, as it may only serve to catalyse the ‘us-and-them’ fantasy that many Islamist Extremist radicals are looking to propagate.

The notion of ‘Al-Wala’ Wal-Bara’’ provides a means of legitimisation for otherisation. This concept, translatable as ‘Loyalty and Abandonment’, involves holding dear what is pleasing to Allah, whilst opposing and disregarding that which isn’t. Scholars including Mohamed Bin Ali and Shiraz Maher, in their works, The Roots of Religious Extremism and Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea respectively, identify the concept as a key factor in Salafist Islamist extremism.

“O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then he is one of them.”

(Quran 5:51 – Al-Sahih International Translation)

Let not believers take disbelievers as allies rather than believers. And whoever [of you] does that has nothing with Allah, except when taking precaution against them in prudence

(Quran 3:28 – Al-Sahih International Translation)

These Quranic passages are two examples of how scripture can be manipulated to support otherisation, with charismatic Islamist Extremist inmates using such quotes to ‘prove’ to their listeners that there is a divine legitimacy to their agenda.

Radicalisation works on the premise that someone can become so disenfranchised with the system in which they live, that they can be compelled to do abhorrent things in order to change it, disrupt it, or destroy it. In prison, it is not difficult to see why an inmate may become disenfranchised. Islamist Extremist prisoners, acting as self-styled ‘emirs’, use such interpretations of religion and culture to widen the gap between the inmates and their captors, capitalising on their targets’ criminal status and potentially damaged future to fill the vacuum that their liberty has left behind. Prisoners who identified as religious prior to their incarceration, may find a new impetus towards belief within the confines of prison. Accordingly, it is here when the correct interpretations must reach them. The solution then, must come from the inside.

Muslim chaplains and prison Imams can hereby be employed to great effect, providing inmates with an alternative outlook and encouraging critical thinking and debate. Furthermore, it is imperative to tackle Islamism using the same tactics that are used to nurture it: Quranic evidence. Similarly, if a would-be Islamist Extremist radicaliser is utilising Quranic extracts such as the ones quoted above, then scholarly credibility is of utmost importance. A well-educated, highly qualified Islamic scholar is less likely to be denounced on issues of scripture by a self-styled prison emir in the eyes of other inmates.

When it comes to extremist views of any kind, prevention is naturally better than cure. A successful anti-radicalisation policy should focus on stamping out the causes and influencers of extremism long before they take root in British prisoners. That said, although the influence of Islamist Extremist radicalisers may never be entirely purged, if a religiously centred approach that uses credible Muslim scholars who can provide an interpretation of Islam that is not in conflict with British values is attempted, it may be possible to damp down the flames of Islamist Extremism within British prisons.

Prisons have the potential to be a powerful tool for stamping out Islamist Extremism and rehabilitating previous offenders. The focus needs to shift away from disrupting Islamist Extremist proceedings within prison, and move towards providing high profile, pluralistic interpretations of the beliefs that these people have in common, distributed by credible and knowledgeable sources. With the benefit of such a revised approach, British prisons can work towards dismantling the ‘us and them’ notion that propagates extremism. The Alis, Hussains and Rahmans of the future could be steered away from terrorism much sooner.