Radicalisation in prison cells in France and Tunisia

Radicalisation in prison cells in France and Tunisia
8 min read
16 Apr, 2018
Comment: In overcrowded and dehumanising prison conditions, someone making a speech that is even the slightest bit comforting or inspiring can easily influence vulnerable minds, writes Jeremy Felkowski.
"Small-scale drug dealers, pickpockets and delinquents find themselves in direct contact with terrorists" [Getty]
This is the third article in the series 'France and Tunisia's war on terror'. Read the introduction here. 

The prisons of France and Tunisia are operating as recruitment and even training grounds for future terrorists.

Public authorities are battling to keep up, to re-visit inadequate policies, adapt legislative tools and methods, and address the urgent issue of prison over-crowding.

In a provocative statement in January 2018, the Parisian Public Prosecutor, Francois Molins, termed prisons "incubators" for jihadist terrorists. On the front line in the management of the most emotive cases, Molins has repeatedly criticised the limitations of the French prison system.

Recent figures indicate more than 500 detainees recorded as "Islamist" and 1,200 others who the authorities deem to be "radicalised". General Counsel Naima Rudloff has said that for these people "detention can provide the time and the opportunity to widen their ideological, religious and geopolitical knowledge base."

Rudloff, the lead prosecutor in the Abdelkader Merah case in October 2017, sees the radicalisation taking place inside French prisons not simply as a case of contagion, but of active training.

In October 2016, a study undertaken by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College, London, found that 57 percent of European jihadists engaged in combat with terrorist groups had passed through prison before their radicalisation. 

Intensive recruitment in over-crowded prisons

The judicial systems in both France and Tunisia routinely punish minor offences with imprisonment. Small-scale drug dealers, pickpockets and delinquents find themselves in direct contact with terrorists.

The authoritarian legal framework in the two countries has led to extreme over-crowding in prisons and a large pool of potential "candidates" for recruiters. Campaigners in both places are now demanding changes to sentencing regimes for small infractions. Unclogging the prisons could be a first step towards a wider solution to the problem.

The last 15 years has seen a new order in the world behind bars.

57 percent of European jihadists engaged in combat with terrorist groups had passed through prison before their radicalisation

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the introduction of special surveillance programmes forced recruiters to alter their methods and their proselytising discourse: They are now more wary and more discreet.

According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, sociologist and director of studies at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris, and director of the Observatory on Radicalisation at the Centre for Human Sciences, they work undercover, making direct contact with only one or two people and taking care not to arouse suspicion.

The word "suspicion" recurs in Khosrokhavar's observations on the perceptions of surveillance by detainees. In his two studies, as well in his book 'Radicalisation', he points out that practically all the Muslims he meets, who have no links with radical Islam, believe "the security services are collecting information about them and making this information generally available".

Khosrokhavar sees detention centres as synonymous with humiliation, frustration and discrimination of all sorts; highly charged environments in which it is easy for jihadist discourse to thrive.

Tunisia, for its part, is one of the largest providers of combatants to Islamic State group (IS), a situation the government is having difficulty addressing.

Unclogging the prisons could be a first step towards a wider solution to the problem

While it promises that no Tunisian national will be excluded from the territory, its problem, according to Beji Caid Essebsi, is that "Tunisia simply doesn't have enough prisons to house all the jihadists who come back from conflict zones".

Hard hit by terrorism, the country is scrabbling to prepare for an expected influx of former combatants pushed back to their home countries following the military losses of IS.

The future is uncertain. Youssef Chahed's government could attempt to limit the number of detainees by bringing back the controversial repentance law. This would alienate a large proportion of the population, who would see in it as an attempt by the Islamists to regain control.

A powder keg in the cells

Tunisia is at the heart of a tumultuous region and a unique geopolitical situation. Caught between the two worlds of Europe to the north and chaotic Libya to the east, its society has been sharply influenced by international movements and events.

But one element has been constant for years: The ubiquity of extremism in the country's prisons. 'I saw staggering things when I was in prison,' said Hicham F. Imprisoned for theft, the 28-year-old was detained at the Rabta prison in Tunis.

France's Fleury-Merogis prison operates at 178 percent capacity, with one guard for every 100 inmates [Getty]

Since the appointment of the psychologist Leila Jdidi as its head (after a much-praised stint as General Councillor for Prisons and Rehabilitation), the prison has been garnering attention. Hicham F thinks Jdidi's arrival will change nothing.

"The recruiters are everywhere; in the corridors, the walkways, the cells. They approached me dozens of times. They said if I wanted an easy time of it, it would be best for me to follow the path they were going to show me."

These days, Rabta appears to be a model establishment, spearheading a national experiment branded "the rehabilitation of minds". According to the government, this consists of deconstructing the jihadist mode of thinking to allow suspects to be progressively re-introduced into society.

Hicham F. says serious abuse was par for the course, something also reported by NGOs such as Amnesty International: "I witnessed extremely violent incidents. Privation and humiliation were part of our day to day existence. In an atmosphere like that, someone making a speech that was even the tiniest bit comforting or inspiring could influence the weaker ones."

On the other side of the Mediterranean, inmates tell similar stories.

Jordan P. is 29. He has more than 10 charges against him, and refers to himself as a "little idiot". He's spent short periods behind bars for drugs charges throughout his adulthood, including two spells at Fleury-Merogis in the Parisian suburbs.

The largest prison in Europe, with 4,320 inmates, Fleury-Merogis is a textbook case. It operates at 178 percent capacity, with one guard for every 100 inmates.

The judicial systems in both France and Tunisia routinely punish minor offences with imprisonment

Tensions run high, strengthening the power of the most dangerous discourses. When asked about Islamism, Jordan P. takes on a serious tone.

He describes the guards as completely powerless: "The screws have no weapons against it. It all happens discreetly, when no one's looking. The ideas circulate, via small groups of four or five blokes. They can't even put them in solitary because all they're doing is talking calmly."

Amedy Coulibaly, perpetrator of the Hypercasher supermarket massacre and the killing of a policewoman in November 2015, passed through Fleury-Merogis for robbery.

It was there that he "learned about the Muslim religion", though he said he was shocked to have been housed together with "terrorists" and warned that prison was "a school for crime".

While conversions to Islam do take place in prison, it is also worth noting the work of sociologists such as Marwan Mohammed, Laurent Mucchielli and Didier Fassin, who have pointed out the link between social and ethnic origin and sentencing: Muslims are over-represented in prison not because they are more likely to commit crimes, but because they are more likely to be investigated and charged.  

The urgency of reform

The governments in Tunis and Paris are beginning to act to take control of the situation.

In France, initiatives have been launched. On a visit to Fleury-Merogis in January, the Minister for Justice, Nicole Belloubet, visited an innovative new unit called a "radicalisation assessment centre". This is a staging post intended to house the 505 men and women imprisoned for terrorist offences and analyse their profiles.

Most of the inmates have returned from Syria, Iraq or Chechnya (still a hub for international terrorism). They will stay at the centre or four months, overseen by specially-trained wardens, then be directed towards the most appropriate prison services.

The minister said her team was "making a considerable effort to improve prison intelligence, and at the same time creating new jobs".

To counter the weight of the recruiters, the government hopes to encourage greater influence from Muslim chaplaincies by initiating a measure to guarantee "spiritual assistance" to inmates.

But the reforms promised by Edouard Philippe's government have already been undermined by events: Resistance from prison staff, violent incidents, the exposure of planned terrorist attacks of which the authorities were oblivious… the road towards an effective solution still looks long.

The Tunisian government is taking a different approach.

For Youssef Chahed's team, the most pressing challenge is to manage the extra influx of prisoners, with examination of the psychological aspects of the problem to follow later.

The Justice Minister, Ghazi Jeribi, announced at the beginning of February that the state would launch a massive prison construction programme to reduce over-crowding in existing establishments.

This is a significant move: Many of Tunisia's prisons were burned down in the revolution of 2011. The minster said "we want to give more space to each prisoner, to meet international standards, which stipulate four square metres per person."

The aim is to create 7,265 new places by 2020. Jeribi's predecessor had plans to "try to introduce cultivated competencies into the prison population, not just on religious questions… to speak to prisoners and to reform their thinking".

The appointment of a psychologist to head Rabta prison in 2016 suggests this approach: An attempt not just to contain people, but to look to the future by tackling the "rehabilitation of minds".

Jeremy Felkowsky is a 
Paris-based journalist and co-founder of Zephyr Mag.

Follow him on Twitter: @JFelkowski

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.