Patrick Dunleavy | Investigative Project on Terrorism
“O Allah, Free the Muslim Prisoners.”
The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to dealing effectively with the threat of Islamism especially in the case of terrorists who have been captured or incarcerated.
Radical Islamic organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS never forget their members. To them, going to prison is part of the pathway to paradise. Both groups’ leaders, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent considerable periods of time locked up. It did nothing to diminish their zeal, but rather, fueled their fervor. Often, as in their cases, what comes out of prison is worse than what went in.
This is further illustrated by the increased number of terrorists released from Guantanamo who rejoin the fight against U.S. military personnel. Almost one in three released prisoners return to the jihadists’ fold. This recidivism can be attributed in part to the admonitions terrorists receive to assist those who are captured or imprisoned. That support may include financial help for their families and for legal fees.
These instructions were found in a training manual discovered in 2000 by law enforcement officers in Manchester, England.
“I take this opportunity to address our prisoners. We have not forgotten you,” al-Zawahiri said in an interview with Al Shabab commemorating the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “We are still committed to the debt of your salvation . . . until we shatter your shackles.”
AQAP’s Inspire magazine went so far as to list the names of incarcerated members for all to remember.
They do this because jihadis firmly believe that sooner or later they’ll be reunited with those members.
If that isn’t ominous enough, consider the fact that as many as 100 people convicted of terror-related offenses in U.S. prisons will be set free in less than four years.
And yet, while Islamic terrorist organizations have rapidly changed in their recruitment and tactical methodologies overall, the U.S. has not adapted to countering the evolving threat.
In the United States, the number of terror-related incidents increased exponentially since 9-11. As they did, authorities adapted new ways to investigate. State of the art technologies help collect and analyze data. Fusion centers were created to get the information into the hands of investigators in real time. Counter terrorism, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies joined together to share.
Legislation has changed how the judicial system prosecutes terrorists. “Our criminal law was unprepared for international terrorism. We simply did not have statutes and penalties that fit what terrorists do,” said former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, who led the prosecution against the first World Trade Center bombers and blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.
A vigorous debate continues whether to treat terrorists as criminals or as enemy combatants. A reasonable consensus among the military and the judicial branches is building for the use of both designations.
Two significant changes, in policy and practice, toward radical Islamic terrorists remain to be addressed.
Terrorists go into prison much the same way as the burglar, the drug dealer, or the pedophile. They are housed and fed in existing correctional facilities with common criminals. No mandatory rehabilitation or de-radicalization programs exist for convicted Islamic terrorists. And when they are released, there is no specialized supervisory program applied to monitor their employment or whereabouts.
This situation has to change if we are to deal effectively with terrorism. We should establish a registration list for convicted terrorists. This would provide local authorities with the identity of those recently released to their communities. It has been successfully used with sex offenders. It can work if properly applied.
With as many as 500 terrorists now in custody and more to come, the custodial system must also evolve in how it handles jihadists. Security classification must not be downgraded simply because the terrorist has become “jail wise” (exhibited good behavior) like “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, who will be released from prison in two years.
Special administrative measures – conditions of confinement – which restrict visits, correspondence and other prison privileges assigned to terrorists must continue.
Uniform security standards for imprisoned terrorists should be established in the federal, state, and local correctional facilities. Jose Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomber” who first learned of a radical form of Islam while in a Florida county jail and was originally sentenced to life in prison, is scheduled to be released in eight years. Who will be the parole officers assigned to supervise him and will those officers be afforded any specialized training before that happens?
In some cases, specialized facilities like Guantanamo are necessary in dealing with enemy combatants and other committed jihadists. They are effective. No anecdotal evidence has been presented showing them to be a recruitment tool for ISIS or al Qaida. That is like saying that Alcatraz was responsible for the increase in violent crime.
The number of people arrested in the U.S. for terrorism-related crimes nearly tripled in 2015. That year, FBI Director James Comey testified that more than 200 people traveled overseas from the United States in an attempt to fight alongside ISIS or al-Qaida related groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2016, Comey said his agents still had 1,000 open cases related to ISIS. Within the next few years, he said, there may be a “terrorist diaspora” of ISIS fighters leaving the battlefield of Syria and returning to their home countries, committed to carrying out more terrorist attacks.
We can only hope that the vast majority will be apprehended before they can carry out attacks here in the United States. And when they are, we had better be prepared to effectively deal with them throughout their entire time in the system. Anything less is unacceptable to the citizens of this great country.
IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.