Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm and London were all hit by terrorism in the past 18 months alone. Attacks ranged from shooting rampages to knife-attacks and trucks ramming into crowds. Terrorism is becoming a common occurrence on European soil. What’s more, the profile of terrorists is almost impossible to pin down.
If, when you think “terrorist”, you think marginalized angry young men, then you are not getting the full picture. If you think long-time extremists, you’re partially wrong too. Terrorists now come in all shapes and forms and that is likely the most pressing challenge when it comes to stopping them in time.
Prison: a hotbed for radicalisation
There is, however, one thing that most intelligence experts agree on and that is that prison is fertile ground for would-be terrorists. In prison, inmates often get radicalized, embracing extreme and violent brands of Islam. Other inmates they are in contact with are also at risk of becoming radicalized especially when would-be terrorists are in and out of prison.
Deradicalisation through combat
Valerie Zabriskie traveled to London where she caught up with Usman Raja who, in his own words, believes debate is not enough, practical action is needed to tackle radicalization in and outside prison. And practical he certainly is.
Usman Raja is a cage fighting coach. Today he is training a potential light-weight champion. But he has taken on another fight as well.
Usman works with convicted terrorists both inside and outside of prison. He launched his Unity Initiative in 2009.
Since then he has succeeded in de-radicalising dozens of convicted terrorists and Islamist extremists. And some of that work was done inside the ring.
“This is fighting, when you are in the prison environment that these guys are coming from, you are validating yourself in that arena with violence.”
“We’re talking about environments where people are being stabbed in the throat at Friday prayers. Literally. When I’ve got these guys coming in here, I am able to take that aggression and that survival instinct that they have cultivated in there and really strip it away, but also challenge their idea of themselves from a very healthy perspective.”
But despite Usman’s success rate, the recent spate of terrorist attacks both in the UK and in Europe have put the spotlight back on radicalisation in prisons.
Most of the attackers had spent time inside.
Is radicalisation on the rise in prisons?
It is hard to know, because we do not have any clear statistics. And what happens to these prisoners once they come out and try to reintegrate into society?
It is estimated there are 130 convicted terrorists in British prisons. But a growing number of individuals convicted of Terrorism Act offences are back on the streets after having served their sentences. It has created a headache for British security agencies as more terrorist attacks could take place, such as the one at Westminster last March. Even since this report was produced, a second planned knife attack on Westminster was foiled by security services.
At a Mosque in east London, Usman works with community members on identifying and helping those they feel are vulnerable to extremist ideology.
He also works with patrol officers, imams and former prisoners he helped de-radicalise, like Jordan Horner.
Jordan was jailed twice for his role in a “Muslim Patrol” which tried to enforce Sharia law on Londoners by shaming them in YouTube videos.
He said the first time he went to prison, little was done to change his extremist view of Islam.
Jordan Horner-former radicalised inmate
“When you enter a prison system and you’re already notorious for certain actions and certain situations, there was not that sense that I was vulnerable and people were trying to radicalise me.”
“It was completely the opposite. It was the sense that they were worried that I was trying to radicalise other people.”
“Hence in my prison sentence I was transferred numerous times. Kept in segregation. Kept moving wings, moving to different parts of the United Kingdom, finally ending up in Belmarsh which is a high security prison. And to be honest it only cemented my ideology. It didn’t change it.”
Jordan converted to Islam when he was sixteen. But how to change an ideology that led him to join the Muslim Patrol and film these videos which led to two prison convictions for assault and violence?
When he was released the first time, his probation officers suggested he contact Usman.
Jordan says Usman helped him to deal with the anger that had led to this extremist ideology. He taught him to embrace a more open-minded and tolerant interpretation of Islam.
Usman also got him training in martial arts.
“When I first embraced Islam, the first sense that I got was a sense of brotherhood, you know? And certain individuals, they would exploit that.”
“So they would exploit politics. International politics and they would use a religious tone around that sense to sort of engrave inside you this hatred for others.”
“And it was once I had time to reflect and think and analyse what I had done and with Usman, he ran the narrative of put your family in those situations and as well from the religious tone as well, that does Islam justify that?”
“The people you see go and join ISIS or the people that fall into extremism are people that start with concerns for their fellow man but then when that concern is taken and put into a mould of hatred, that is where the problem comes in.”
“When it comes to hatred, this idea of, ‘if they’ve killed one of ours then we can kill one of theirs’. And when actually you explain from a traditional Islamic point of view, when you are dealing with humanity, if one part of it hurts, all of it hurts.”
The gender gap?
But when it comes to extremism, there is no gender barrier and no one knows this better than Usman’s wife, Angela. She works with convicted female terrorists both in and out of prison.
Angela prepares community members who will soon be working with released prisoners. She warns that deradicalisation takes time and patience, especially when some might get a “hero’s” welcome.
A medical doctor with four children, Angela says what happened to her after the November 2015 Paris attacks is one of the reasons she continues her work with extremists.
Dr Angela Misra – Community worker and medical doctor
“ I was walking through just a store with my two little girls at the time and the French attacks had just happened.”
“My daughter was three or four at the time and this man walked past and she said hello. And he said ‘don’t say hello to me you Muslim scum’. ‘Sorry, what did you just say?’ And he said, ‘I said don’t talk to me you Muslim scum!”
“I was completely in shock. He said ‘look at what your people have done in Paris’. That reaction, that Islamophobic reaction builds up the Jihadist rhetoric, it builds up the Muslim extremist argument that says ‘look, they are against you’”.
Although the overall number of Muslim extremists in the UK is small, the impact on Britain’s Muslim population has been widely felt.
How to stop the rise in Islamophobia but also to deradicalise and reintegrate extremists back into mainstream society is a priority not only for Usman and Angela but also for Ashfaq Siddique.
A community volunteer, but also a law enforcement officer for over 30 years, Ashfaq worked, among other things, on a report aimed at tackling prison corruption by police and prison services in the UK.
He warns that separation of prisoners is a growing danger.
Ashfaq Siddique – Community Volunteer
“You go into the prison system and you have gangs. You have the Muslim gangs, you have the Christian gangs. Unless we can fight that battle and win in the prisons, you are going to get more and more of this.”
“At the moment, all the Muslims end up in one area, including those who are there for certain radicalisation offenses or what have you.”
“And some of these people who radicalise people are very charismatic people. Very clever, very sophisticated, very charismatic. They know what to say and what buttons to press in individuals who are already in a vulnerable position who need some support , who need some protection and who have got nothing else in life.”
Winning the battle against extremism and radicalisation is a fight Usman Raja has vowed to continue, both inside and outside of the ring.
Radicalisation in French prisons
Euronews’ Sophie Claudet spoke to former intelligence official – Louis Caprioli, about how the problem could be tackled on a national and European level.
Euronews – Sophie Claudet
“Have you also found radicalization in prison and if so, what can be done about it?”
Louis Caprioli – former french intelligence official
“Unfortunately, radicalisation is a historical phenomenon which goes back to the arrests of Islamic terrorists in the ninties.
“This phenomenon was not taken into account at the time because we were mixing people arrested for acts of terrorism with the rest of the prison population”.
“And from the 1990s onwards, the problem has not stopped worsening. We have seen radicalization of common criminals by Islamists who had, I was going say, a certain “prestige”, an aura of having battled or of having committed terrorist attacks.
“To put an end to the phenomenon would require considerable financial resources in order to completely separate the “common criminals” from the terrorists and to give seperate cells to terrorists. So we need the financial means. We need well-trained personnel, but I do not believe that de-radicalization can start in prison because the people there are often sent for serious terrorist acts. So we have to think, not only on a French-scale, but on an international scale, or at least on a European one.”
Euronews – Sophie Claudet
“Let’s now talk about this new terrorist threat, at least the one that we have seen operating on European soil over the last few years. It is multifaceted, there is no typical profile either in terms of age or social background.”
“Concerning those individuals who have never appeared on the security services’ radar; it is a colossal challenge because anyone at one time can become radicalized by watching a video, going onto the internet and then taking action with their lorry; with their car, and that is unstoppable.”
“Afterwards, you have this colossal work that is carried out to control social networks and here we’re talking about meta-data management.
“As for France we should create what exists in Britain: a unique service dedicated to managing information processing, much like the American National Security Agency. In Great Britain it is the Governmental Communication Headquarters.”
“In France we already have two services that process this data, the DGSI and the DGSE. I think that everyone should work together, that there should be only one service.
“Perhaps it would be necessary at European level to have a “data processing” service, but this might be seen as an attack on the national sovereignty of States. And so I am afraid that we can’t have this type of organisation, at least for meta-data management, at a European level. That would be one of the answers, one, but not the only answer. “
Zero-risk doesn’t exist when it comes to terrorism. And according to observers, France is and continues to be particularly at risk… Its disenfranchised suburbs are at breaking point. It has the highest number of western jihadis enrolled with the so-called Islamic state.
And like other European countries, France is a democracy, meaning that it is neither acceptable nor possible to watch every citizen. With this in mind, there seems to be no choice but to live with the threat of terrorism. Valerie Gauriat found out how some are going about it.
A bootcamp of the willing
Students, office workers, liberal professionals, and entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 40 have decided to dedicate their spring holidays to a military training course at a gendarme camp, in the French city of Toulouse.
After 15 days of intensive training, most of the trainees will join the ranks of the operational reserve to support the security forces.
The number of volunteers has soared in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in France.
“Today, mentalities have evolved. We see it with the young and the not so young, who have decided to give their time to French society and in particular, to protecting the population”, explains Bernard Blondeau, a Lieutenant-Colonel at the Gendarmerie Operational Reserve.
The trainees are given practical workshops and theoretical courses. Those who go on to join the reserve forces can be mobilized to assist the gendarmes (or military police) from 30 to 150 days a year.
Trainee reservist- Philippe Delmas told euronews:
“If something were to happen, I think I would be one of those people who could help others to protect themselves, to intervene if rescuers are needed and that’s what we’re learning today for example.”
Why they joined up
After a 6 am start, the cadets will not stop until 11 pm. But everyone is more than motivated, whether they are reserves, volunteer firefighters or volunteers for associations, it is estimated that one in five young people in France have got involved in a similar cause since the 2015 attacks.
“People do not stop enough to help others anymore.” Adds reserve trainee Adrien Roulet. “We find that here.”
Another cadet, Chloé Chiron sees it as a means to develop a stronger society. She said:
“It is important to have young people who share the same values, French values. It’s very important, since it forges a society, and that’s why we’re here.”
Najib Belkaci told us about his motivations for joining the reserves:
“Those who carried out the attacks were of Maghreb origin. I have my origins and I felt even more targeted because of that, so I wanted to make it clear that we are not all alike, that we do not all think the same way. And if I can give my free-time and help the French, because I am French, then there’s no problem, I’ll give my free time. “
An instructor addressing the trainees announced:
“What happened at the Bataclan, what happened in other places, like in Germany, etc., could happen to you tomorrow. You must also tell yourself one thing and that is that you might not come home tonight, you have to be aware of that.”
At the camp they say that being aware of risks in one’s mind, is not about giving in to fear. Elodie Renaud-Lafage feels that, though unfortunate, it is crucial to learn self defense. She told our reporter:
“Now it’s getting almost psychotic, all this wondering if, around us, there will be more attacks. To think that it’s inside the country, and that it’s imbedded, that all we can do is wait. But unfortunately we have to be able to protect ourselves, and that’s what I want to try to learn today. “
A week after our meeting with the volunteers in Toulouse, another attack occurred on the Champs Elysées in Paris.
It was the latest episode in a series that has changed French people’s everyday lives. The specter of the attacks is ingrained into public life.
Drills in schools
Even in primary schools,so-called “intrusion exercises“are organised. Children are taught to hide and take cover in drills resembling those from the cold-war era.
A different type of battle to be led
Latifa Ibn Ziaten is leading a different sort of battle. Her son, a parachutist, was the first victim of Mohamed Merah. Merah murdered 7 people in 2012 because they were soldiers or Jewish. Among the victims were three children.
For the last 4 years, Latifa Ibn Ziaten has traveled the length and breadth of France to raise young people’s awareness of French values and of living together. She is President of the Association for Youth and Peace .
Ms Ibn Ziaten announced to a packed lecture hall of young people:
“You know when you’re fragile you’re an easy target for recruiters, and when someone gets a kid they can do whatever they want with them. You can not fall into Daech’s trap today.
Have confidence in yourselves dear students. Because if you have confidence in yourself, I assure you that you will succeed.”
One student asked Latifa:
“Do you think that France has become an Islamophobic country since the attacks?”
“People today are scared. They’re very scared.
We must talk to each other! We need to know one another! And it is up to you, the youth, because you are the future (…)
Because today, France, look, we see it here, this diversity, it is wealth.”
The road to radicalisation
Nehemie Dhabadou, a student in Chartres was particularly affected by Latifa’s message. He offered insight into what life for young people in his neighbourhood can be like, saying:
“I think the advice she gave is important. I always take the example of my own neighbourhood, where we see that there are many people who stop their studies early after four years of secondary school, because they think that, given their situation … in school it didn’t work out, so they prefer to stop now.”
Nehemie added: “They look for a job, they end up not finding one. They turn to drugs, which often leads them to prison. They can end up becoming terrorists like she said. And it touched me because I was almost in that situation, I nearly fell into that, but with the help of my parents, I escaped it.”
Another student at the same school, Julian Macé, told euronews:
“There is always hope within us, even if it doesn’t seem like it’s there, it is still hidden at the bottom of our hearts … And one day, or another it’ll reappear and we’ll be strong. Somehow we’ll all be together.”
“Who can give hope to France? It is society; And society can give its light. Because the state will not advance alone” Latifa Ibn Ziaten adds.
“There are a lot of people who are responsible, whether it’s the state, or the city council, whether it’s families or it’s schools, society, the media … Everyone has a responsibility to children today. Because a child does not become a delinquent like that all alone. They are not born delinquents, they were not born terrorists, no. Just like all children.”
Radicalisation in French prisons – Part II
“Mr Caprioli, we have seen other ways of preventing terrorism, for example, through education.
Louis Caprioli – former french intelligence official
“Yes, there is work throughout the whole education system, but again teachers need to be trained. Teachers are currently being asked to pay attention, to be whistleblowers , but they should still be trained for that.
“And it is obvious that from adolescence, one should pay attention to inappropriate behaviour from certain boys. It is true, I believe that interventions such as the mother of a paratrooper who was assassinated in 2012 are a model to be developed because we are getting to the heart of the problem.
“It is not a video being shown, it is a woman who lost her son and who explains the drama that she lived and the tragedy that radicalization causes.”
Euronews – Sophie Claudet
“Do you think it’s reasonable to say that we will have to learn to live with this terrorist threat in Europe for better or worse?”
“I believe that in Europe we will live with this terrorist threat, especially since this terrorist threat is not just endogenous, it is exogenous.
“We know that it is the situation in Iraq; the situation in Syria; the situation in the Sahel that are having repercussions on our territory. So long as these problems are not resolved, so long as these huge questions like the relationship between North and South; the problem of Palestine and Israel – are not settled, we will unfortunately have to live with this threat. “