French prisons: extremist training grounds
Muslim fundamentalists easily indoctrinate fellow inmates on holy war against the West
Paris — The grim 19th century hulk of the Sante penitentiary, set incongruously in one of the Left Bank’s most fashionable quarters, is where France has incarcerated most of the Islamic radicals implicated in terrorist acts here in the past decade.
Over the same period, according to inmates and officials, Sante and other French prisons have become prime training grounds in religious extremism, with thousands of inmates indoctrinated in the principles of a holy war against “the Western powers and the Jews who manipulate them,” in the words of one pamphlet circulating behind prison walls.
Over half of France’s 45,000 penitentiary inmates are Muslim, more than six times the proportion of Muslims in France’s overall population. The nation’s prisons “have become the cradle of the future jihad,” one inmate told the Paris-based daily Le Monde.
“The extremists have very quickly acquired a huge influence over other prisoners,” said David Schots, associate director of the Villefranche prison in the Rhone Valley, and one of the few officials willing to speak on the record.
The revelations come on the heels of recent arrests of French citizens and residents, including many convicts. They highlight the importance of France in the European recruitment operations of groups tied to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
According to sources in the prison guards’ union, extremist detainees have built what amounts to an extensive and highly organized “terrorist university” behind bars, using smuggled tapes, books and pamphlets that preach the fiercely anti-Western and anti-Semitic gospel of al Qaeda. Some inmates claim to have been offered instruction in the manufacture of homemade mines, bombs, detonators and fuses.
Instructors include members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has waged a war against the Algerian government that has taken more than 100,000 lives in Algeria since 1990. The GIA has been named by Washington as a major terrorist group, with close links to al Qaeda. Algerians were prominent among the thousands of “Arab Afghans” who, like bin Laden, joined the CIA-supported war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
French penal officials, while largely refusing to comment publicly on the problem, concede that its growth has led to frequent transfers of “trouble- makers” from one prison to another.
Accounts from inmates suggest that the policy’s unintended effect has been to spread extremist influence more broadly throughout the penitentiary system.
In 1992, one inmate told Le Monde he had encountered just a few prisoners vaguely interested in discussing Islam, “but no proselytizing in the true sense of the word.” One year later, he said, he found “extremists who spent their time trying to convert the maximum number of prisoners, proselytizing at a runaway pace.”
Last Sept. 28, a trial opened in Paris of 29 Algerians and French-Algerians charged with European-wide trafficking in arms, falsified papers and stolen cars. They are suspected of belonging to the Egyptian-founded Takfir wal- Hejira (“Anathema and Exile”) an extremist movement reportedly allied with al Qaeda.
Another French-Algerian, Djamel Beghal, 35, was arrested last July in Dubai on suspicion of terrorist activities, and has since provided information to French intelligence agents about a European network allegedly targeting U.S. interests abroad, among them the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
The French secret services, whose experience with violent Islamic movements dates back to a series of fatal bombings in the Paris streets and subways between 1986 and 1996, have assembled one of Europe’s most sophisticated databanks on fundamentalist militants, their cells and networks.
The government of President Jacques Chirac has made it clear that its intelligence agents are actively engaged in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. On Monday, Gen. Jean-Pierre Kelch, commander-in-chief of the French army, hinted that French special forces might also be involved in intelligence gathering on the ground in Afghanistan.
“The nature of the engagement, the size of the force and their activities must remain secret at this point,” Kelch said in a radio interview.
But France’s war against extremism behind bars is proving difficult to pursue. Apart from the transfers and efforts to prevent the smuggling of banned books and tapes, prison authorities are hamstrung by a law guaranteeing that “each detainee must be able to satisfy the demands of his religious, moral or spiritual life.”
One reason for the explosive growth of prison extremism, say mainstream Islamic leaders here, is that control over such religious practices is exercised almost entirely by the prisoners themselves — and increasingly by those with a history of militant violence.
For the approximately 25,000 Muslim penitentiary inmates in France, there are currently 44 government-appointed Islamic prison chaplains, only four of them working full time. For the remaining 20,000 prisoners, by contrast, there are 460 Catholic chaplains.