Two weeks after French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a raft of counterterrorism measures in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the country's justice minister has announced plans to fight radicalization in French jails, which have long been considered a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.
Speaking on Tuesday at a hearing organized by the Parliamentary Investigating Commission on the Monitoring of Jihadists, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said that the government would roll out a pilot prison program that was tested in Fresnes prison in the outskirts of Paris last fall. Under the program, suspected radical Islamists would be isolated in a separate living unit to prevent them from influencing other prisoners.
French corrections facilities have become a hotbed of Islamic radicalization. Investigations into the January terror attacks that left 17 dead in Paris revealed that Chérif Kouachi, one of the gunmen who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, met Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who attacked a kosher grocery in the days following the massacre at the satirical magazine's offices, during the 7 months they spent in the same wing in Fleury-Mérogis prison.
The two became close, sharing a common mentor — a French-Algerian Islamist named Ahmed Beghal, also known as Djamel, who had planned an attack on the US Embassy in Paris in 2001. Coulibaly met Beghal in 2005 while serving time for a bank raid. A known threat, Beghal had spent time in al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last week, French daily Libération reprinted an account Coulibaly gave in 2010 of his prison friendship with Beghal.
"When I was being detained with [Beghal], in 2005, I was in one wing, and he was being kept in isolation," Coulibaly said. "I would speak with those kept in isolation and, over time, we became friends."
There are currently 167 people imprisoned in France for offenses related to terrorism, 60 of whom Taubira describes as "highly radicalized or particularly problematic."
Speaking to the commission on Tuesday, Taubira explained that the creation of "dedicated living quarters will allow us to isolate [radicalized] inmates from those who are at risk of being brainwashed." The justice minister noted that the government had launched a program in January to identify "radicalized [inmates] or individuals on the path to radicalization."
But critics within the penal system have questioned the efficacy of isolating dangerous inmates. Christopher Dorangeville, secretary-general of the General Confederation of Labor, a trade union, shared his concern over the safety of such an arrangment with the French daily Le Figaro in mid-January.
"By grouping those with a similar background, you're paving the way for the creation of a bigger and stronger movement," he said, "and you are encouraging connection between [recruitment] cells."
According to Le Parisien, the French government is creating 483 prison jobs to boost prison security and improve prison intelligence services. As part of the ongoing monitoring of "problem" inmates, prisons will be equipped with cell phone jammers to prevent inmates from using smuggled devices to communicate with one another. The government is also recruiting IT specialists to monitor inmates' use of computers.
In November 2013, Flavien Moreau became the first person to be convicted in France after fighting alongside Islamic militants in Syria. Moreau traveled to Syria in 2012 to join an Islamist group and returned to France after 12 days because he "missed smoking." Authorities caught him as he attempted to return to Syria to resume fighting, and he was handed a maximum 7-year prison sentence. Inmates like Moreau are subject to a unique prison protocol that includes regular searches of their cell and frequent transfers to other prisons.
Taubira has attempted to reassure the French public that the government's crackdown on would-be terrorists will not compromise civil freedoms.
"It is my responsibility, as Keeper of the Seals [a title held by the Minister of Justice], to monitor the balance between the necessary protection of rights and freedoms, and public safety requirements," Taubira said recently.
Free speech advocates have criticized the recent upsurge in France of arrests that are based on what Amnesty International has described as "the vague charge of defending terrorism." In the two weeks after January's attacks in Paris, French authorities arrested 69 individuals for making pro-terrorist statements.
French police announced this morning that they had arrested eight men suspected of involvement in a network that recruited foreign fighters for the war in Syria. Last week, counterterrorism forces arrested five people suspected of recruiting militants in the small southern French town of Lunel.
Human rights defenders have pointed out the hypocrisy in evidence in the contrast between rallies across France affirming free speech and the state's recent crackdown, in which police have questioned children as young as 8 years of age.