Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It is a telling—and alarming—sign that following September 11, 2001 the two failed terror attacks involved people who were drawn to Islam while serving time in prisons.

Jose Padilla, now known as Abdullah al-Muhajir, the man accused of plotting to build a “dirty bomb,” had been in and out of America’s prison system, where he was influenced by Islamic inmates. Richard Reid, the failed “shoe bomber,” was converted to Islam in a British prison by a radical imam”one who was later suspended by British authorities for “inappropriate conduct.”

Both are chilling reminders of the on-going threat of terrorism. If not for the good work of our intelligence officers (and the alertness of the airline passengers who subdued Reid) we might now be adding hundreds more names to the list of American terror victims. Both cases are reminders, as well, of what fertile fields prisons are for cultivating terrorists.

That both Padilla and Reid were influenced in prison did not surprise me. I have visited over six hundred prisons the world over; in most I’ve encountered Muslims. The majority are peace-loving men who were drawn to the brotherhood and who cared only about following Islamic worship and dietary laws. But I’ve also seen thousands of angry inmates smoldering to “get even” with the society that put them behind bars. It’s these men radical Islam has in its conversion crosshairs—and it’s these men we need to worry about.

A visit I made to the Michigan City State Penitentiary in Indiana a few years ago illustrates why. Michigan City is an old, decaying institution. The stale, rancid odor so common in prisons is particularly pungent here; the concrete floors are pockmarked with depressions reflecting the wear from decades of shuffling feet; paint peels from the bars of the cells. Many inmates are locked into the maximum-security wing, where they’re allowed out just one hour a day; others await execution. As you stand looking up at the catwalks, the cellblocks appear endless.

Into this terrifying maze we herd hundreds of humans. They feel that the only way they can express their humanity is to rebel, snap back at a guard, or yell at one another—anything to break the dreadful, mindless tedium of marching in and out for meals and work assignments.

On the day of my visit, heat rose in waves from the dirty concrete floors. Most of the inmates had their shirts off; many were clad only in undershorts. I walked from cell to sweltering cell greeting the men. In most prisons, inmates approach the bars, shake hands, and talk to me. But on this day in this one wing, as many as one-third would not. They wore hard, angry expressions; their head apparel identified them as Muslims.

Later, visiting with men in the prison yard, I put my hand on someone’s shoulder—something I’ve done routinely in prison. This time, my hand was slapped away by an inmate seething with anger. Again, he was Muslim.

In a way, I could understand. I remember from my own time in prison the despair of being locked up, not knowing how long the incarceration would last. Add to the confinement the physical deprivation, the isolation, the separation from family, the anger over the flagrant disparity in sentencing (anger justified in the case of blacks who are sentenced more harshly for crack, their drug of choice, than are whites for the same amount or more of cocaine), the indignities visited upon the inmates—all these things feed a prisoner’s resentment, his sense of victimization.

I left Michigan City realizing that the rage was as deeply imbedded as the dirt and the stench—rage against me and against the society that, in the prisoners’ eyes, put them in that hole. I remember thinking that if you wanted to recruit terrorists—people who would like nothing better than to destroy American society—you couldn’t find better recruiting stations than prisons like these. Angry inmates are ripe for terrorist plucking—and radical Islamists know it.

According to published reports, radical Islamists—Muslims who follow a rigid interpretation of the Koran called Wahhabism—have put a high priority on reaching disaffected inmates around the world and recruiting them for their own deadly purposes. The Washington Times quotes an al-Qaeda training manual that identifies as “candidates” for recruitment those who are “disenchanted with their country’s policies,” including convicted criminals. The article quotes a U.S. corrections official who acknowledges that Americans behind bars are “literally a captive audience, and many inmates are anxious to hear how they can attack the institutions of America.”

In Spain, England, and France, while the authorities went after separatist and nationalist extremists, “the al-Qaeda network recruited members, often using local . . . prisons,” notes the New York Times. In Paris, “prison is a good indoctrination center for the Islamic radicals, much better than the outside,” a French Interior Ministry official told the Times last December. “There are about three hundred Islamic radicals in prisons in Paris, and they spend a lot of time converting the criminals to Islam.”

In England, several radical imams have been expelled from their prison “ministries.” Among them was the imam who instructed Richard Reid, removed after he was caught ranting anti-American rhetoric, cheering on the Trade Center hijackers and referring to America as “a big devil.”

In the U.S., just two weeks after the September 11 attacks, Muslim Chaplain Aminah Akbarin at New York’s Albion Correctional Facility was put on paid administrative leave after telling inmates that Osama bin Laden should be hailed as “a hero to all Muslims” and that the terror attacks were the fault of President Bush.

It’s no accident that radical Islam’s influence is growing behind bars here in America. The National Islamic Prison Foundation (NIPF) was specifically organized to convert American inmates to Wahhabism. The Washington-based Center for Security Policy (CSP) reports that the NIPF is one of more than two dozen interlocking groups that together form a huge, nationwide network of outreach programs, funded with hundreds of millions in Saudi Arabian money. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, many of these groups have been raided, closed, or had their assets seized. Thor Ronay, executive vice-president of CSP, says there are many complaints from prisoners that those who run the NIPF programs bully more moderate followers of Islam; their literature disappears from prison libraries and their adherents are intimidated.

Radical imams are not the only problem. I recently spoke with an Islamic leader who said he was not as concerned about the imams as he was about hotheaded inmates who convert to Islam. With no one to moderate them, he said, “they could become dangerous.”

This news should surprise no one. The teachings of Islam were, after all, written by Muhammad in the middle of a war. We can appreciate that most Muslims view jihad as simply an internal struggle, but we cannot fault those who read the Koran literally—especially if they convert behind bars.

Consider: You’re black, and you believe you’re being oppressed by the white power structure. Along comes a person of color who invites you to join the brotherhood—the most appealing aspect of Islam in prisons—and offers you a means of striking back at your oppressors. If, on top of that, prisoners are taught that the more aggressive they are, the more favor they gain with Allah, you have a dangerous mix.

How can we prevent the transformation of petty criminals into professional terrorists? Prison officials must be vigilant, but balanced. They need to be on the lookout for anyone preaching violence, and they ought to run out anyone, Christian or Islamist, who condones it. Court decisions give them sufficient legal authority to do this.

A generation ago, wardens were forced to deal with radical religious teaching involving both white supremacist and Black Muslim groups. In O’Malley v. Brierley (1973) prison officials were supported in preventing two priests from leading religious activities in a prison after they conducted what was described as an “Afro-American Mass” attended mostly by the prison’s Black Nationalists and Black Panthers. The prison officials charged that the Mass had been a political rally, not a religious service, and that the priests’ activities were likely to have incited violence. According to the Becket Fund, a nonprofit legal institute that litigates on behalf of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, “the court held that in determining whether the inmates’ rights had been violated, state authorities were to be held only to a reasonableness test and were not required to prove that presence of clergymen constituted a clear and present danger to the prison.”

Elsewhere, courts suggested that there is no violation of free exercise when restrictions stem from a reasonable concern about preventing violence and hatred. In an important 1969 case (Knuckles v. Prasse) the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that so long as services in prison were of a religious nature, Muslim prisoners could have visitations by Muslim ministers and worship services that prison authorities could monitor; but if Muslim gatherings in prison proceeded along nonreligious lines and defiance of authority became the message of such gatherings, prison authorities might cancel the communal worship and ministerial visitation privileges.

Of course, these cases were decided decades prior to the passage of the recent religious liberty statutes, which have yet to be fully tested in the courts. But those statutes are unlikely to change settled law. Prison Fellowship is deeply committed to the religious rights of all prisoners, which is why we lobbied hard for the passage of these laws; we must be watchful that prison officials not be arbitrary in their actions. But it is never a legitimate religious expression for clergy to preach violence, be they Christians advocating abortion clinic bombings or imams advocating suicide bombings.

What’s the answer? This gets to the heart of what Prison Fellowship is all about: bringing the gospel into the prisons and telling inmates that in Christ their sins are forgiven. I’ve seen the result firsthand: when the gospel is preached, and the men embrace Christ, they eschew violence. The prisons run by PF prove it. In Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota, these prisons are filled with once-angry, dangerous men who now love the Lord and live new lives. Their success is measured in dramatically reduced recidivism rates.

That’s the long-term answer; the short-term one is keeping the promoters of terror out of our prisons and away from the inmates they would exploit.

Charles Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship.

Image by Rawpixel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.