Stopping Radical Islam in its Tracks: A Counter-terrorist Response to Prison Conversions

Amidst all of the shocking details in the 2009 plot to bomb Bronx synagogues and fire missiles at American military aircraft, one component of the case should come as no surprise- three of the culprits had converted to radical Islam while previously imprisoned.

Jose Padilla (a.k.a. Abdulla al-Muhajir / Muhajir Abdullah)

Radical Islamists have, for consecutive generations, targeted prison populations for recruitment. That’s where Jose Padilla (who also goes by the names Abdullah al-Muhajir and Muhajir Abdullah) suspected of plotting to detonate a dirty bomb, convicted of conspiracy to murder people overseas, and of providing material support to terrorists, converted and was radicalized.

Kevin James, Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh founder

That’s where a California man, Kevin James, created his own cell, called the Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS), and recruited other inmates to plot attacks against military and Jewish targets in and around Los Angeles.

Warith Deen Umar, 9/11 Terrorist Supporter

In New York, the man who was the head Muslim chaplain for state prisons considered the 9/11 hijackers to be martyrs. Warith Deen Umar spent 20 years working with New York prisons, overseeing the hiring of Muslim chaplains and leading prayer services.

A New York City based research organization, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, obtained an audio tape of a speech Umar gave in 2004. In it, he told his audience that victory for Islam would not come without loss:

“Brothers, be prepared to fight, be prepared to die, be prepared to kill. It’s a part of the deen, and this ain’t your brother just saying this, this is history, this is Quran, nobody can deny it. and we need to let the enemies know.”


“Rise up and fight. And fight them until turmoil is no more and strike terror into their hearts. You think there is no terror in Quran? It’s called [word unclear] read it in the 56th surah of the Quran. There’s no lack of translation, there’s no mistranslation There’s not one Sheikh says one thing, no, it’s very clear. “When you fight, you strike terror into the heart of the disbeliever.'”

Listen to the first clip here and the second clip here.

According to a 2003 column in the Wall Street Journal, a protégé of Umar’s was a man named Salahuddin M. Muhammad, hired by Umar to serve as chaplain at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. Today, Muhammad is an imam at the Masjid Al-Ikhlas in Newburg, NY, where the first conversation between defendant James Cromitie and an FBI informant, planning how to attack American civilians, took place (Muhammad is not named in the criminal complaint).

Islamic radicalism in prisons is a problem that has been festering for years. The Department of Justice’s Inspector General issued a report in 2004 with a host of recommendations for tamping it down, but there’s little sign, if any, that the recommended actions have been taken.

That President Obama still wants to transfer hundreds of hardened jihadists from Guantanamo Bay into American prisons is nothing short of a guarantee that they will serve as emissaries and proselytizers of jihad to the thousands of prisoners to whom they are exposed. In virtually no time, it is all but certain – based on previously investigated patterns of radical Islamic growth in jails – that we will witness the number of radical Islamic inmates multiply by thousands, possibly more.

The Guantanamo prisoners will be looked up to as jihadi rock stars, and each “star” could potentially produce a hundred new ticking time bombs.  Each of those time bombs, by a process of regular parole, will, ultimately, be walking the streets of America, unfettered and largely unonitored.  The President tried to reassure the American people by saying that no inmate has ever escaped from a super maximum security prison; that fails to address the newly indoctrinated jihadists amongst the existing inmates, the majority of whom will be certainly released at the completion of their prison terms, if not earlier.  

The specifics of the Bronx terror plot reveal the potential for massive damage and death inflicted upon innocent American civiliams.  The majority of the planning and execution responsibilities for that action were in the hands of only four men, each of whom had converted to Islam in prison.  If an operation of such grand scope can be envisioned and initiated by only four newly converted Islamists of little experience, one can only imagine what an entirely new generation of hardened jihadists, under the guidance of their senior imprisoned mentors, could do.  Such a group would constitute an entire cadre of persons whose sole agenda is the murder and destruction of metropolitan civilian populations.  The potential for death and carnage on a massive scale, one which even exceeds what we all witnessed on 9/11, is well within their grasp.  Does closing Guantanamo and transferring those very people to the American prison system still make sense?

Part of the problem is that each individual state is responsible for its own penitentary system as well as any religious programs therein.  There is no single agency which has the power to revamp the nation’s collective prison systems.  Thus, Imams recruited by the likes of Umar continue to work as prison chaplains, and prison library shelves continue to be stocked with the words of radical ideologues like Syyed Qutb and Sayyid Mawlana Abul Ala Maududi.  Some prison libraries include the Nobel Quran, an extreme interpretation of Islam’s holy book that includes an enthusiastic call for jihad.  These books are not reviewed by prison officials, perhaps due to language differences or because they are perceived simply as religious texts.  Wahhabist literature, Muslim Brotherhood tracts calling for Jihad, Saudi produced Qurans that exude hatred for Jews and Christians – all of these continue to flow into federal and local prisons, unhampered.  The Department Of Justice, which has oversight over the Burea Of Prisons, has not, publicly or privately, acknowledged these facts as problems.

Meanwhile, federal records, all of which are publicly available on the internet, show a number of Muslim Brotherhood-tied organizations receiving government contracts, including contracts with the Bureau of Prisons, to lead chaplain services and Islamic studies programs in prisons.  Some, like the Muslim American Society, have dedicated prison projects in which they specifically collect money to send religious dogma to prisoners and underwrite volunteer chaplains. This effort is aimed not only at existing Muslims convicts but is part of an initiative to convert non-Muslim inmates to Islam.

In light of the 2004 Inspector General’s report, these contractual relationships with radical Islamic groups stand as clear evidence that there is still very little oversight on religious programs and materials within U.S. prisons.  If anything, the Bronx terror plot showed us what happens when prison converts to radical Islam are released back into society at large.  Convinced that America is at war with Islam, they mobilize to act.  It’s time someone paid attention.

What to do?

First and foremost, the Bureau of Prisons must be wholly accountable to the American people.  If the main purpose of incarceration is reform of the criminal mentality, the BOP should establish a matrix to demonstrate a “rehabilitated” inmate’s lack of threat to the society into which he is being released. 

Secondly, the Department of Justice, in its role as overseer of the BOP, needs to immediately set national vetting standards for all religious clergy – not just Muslim Imams but Rabbis and Priests too – and all religious texts and propaganda being allowed into federal prisons.

Third, Congress should work in conjunction with the DOJ to impose rules which force the BOP to mandate and operate strict investigations of those who preach religious radicalization- especially Islamic radicalism- within the prisons. 

Fourth, the DOJ should also perform ongoing investigations into the materials and literature which drives the in-prison recruitment process forward.

Some may argue that this set of standards is in danger of violating the free practice of religion or speech; that is pure nonsense.  All government officials are subject to background checks which may deny them a certain level of security clearance.  Likewise, Islamic chaplains who do not pass specified clearance standards can be denied the right to enter prisons. That does not stop them from practicing their religion; it only stops them from spreading their ideology within government institutions.  And, the Bureau of Prisons should not be allowed to set the criteria.  Why?  Because, recent research revealed that, as of 2004, the way the BOP determined whether an Imam was a radical was to simply ask the Imam, “Do you support terrorism?”.  If the Imam said no – and of course they all all did – they were granted admission to the prison and its population.

Fifth, and finally, an ancillary problem needs to be addressed.  Data on gang or affiliation-oriented prison violence shows, conclusively, that Islamist converts serving time generally avoid violence for fear of upsetting the prison authorities.  There is little, if any, incentive, then, for wardens or prison officials to keep tabs on the activities of the Islamist prisoners, what they are being taught, or what type of literature is being stocked in prison libraries.  Prison authorities must begin collecting intelligence on members of radical Islamist groups within prison.  How much more is that needed in light of evidence which exists to support those persons making claims of carrying out terrorist acts upon their release. 

The five recommendations above are cost-effective, help to streamline and standardize the analysis and use of data and, most importantly, go a long way in supporting law enforcement’s counter-terrorism efforts amongst the civilian population at large.  Without such support, law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies are often faced with a blank slate; they become critically dependent- overly dependent- upon confidential informants to help them thwart terrorist attacks.  For fear of breaching trust and confidentiality, and thus losing the informant’s cooperation, this makes them all too remiss in sharing information. 

Post 9/11 analysis has shown that lack of open communication amongst the counter-terrorism agencies/intelligence communities is the major contributing factor which allowed 9/11 to occur.  Failure to establish standards and protocols which allow for each inidividual organization’s integrity, while facilitating the most open form of shared intelligence available, will only guarantee that another terrorist attack on American soil- perhaps even more spectacular than 9/11- is imminent. 

Do we want to take that risk?


About Sundar JM Brown

A University of Pennsylvania-trained South Asianist, Seminary-educated Theologian, and Intelligence Community Professional, Sundar J.M. Brown specializes in analysis of Theoterrorism, Counterterrorism and HUMINT Operations. His regional focuses include terror groups/acts in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Middle East and Africa. His primary expertise is Theoterrorism, the intersection of Terrorism and Theology. His present research focuses on apocalyptic themes in terrorist ideologies and on the theological components informing the radicalization and deradicalization of Violent Religious Extremists and Militants. He is the Founder and Director of the IntelliGen Conference on Religion & Violence. *Sundar's Twiter: @SundarJMBrown *Sundar's YouTube Channel: *Sundar's Blog:
This entry was posted in Analysis, Terrorism Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s