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How Decriminalizing Drugs Could Reduce Islamic Terrorism in France and Belgium

Contrary to popular opinion, radicalization does not primarily happen in European mosques and Muslim centers but instead in prisons overcrowded with young Muslim men.

This piece was published in partnership with The Influence.

Tuesday's horrific attacks in Brussels, which killed at least 31 people and left well over 200 injured, have brought shock and soul-searching. At publication time two brothers, Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, were named as the suicide bombers who struck at a metro station and airport respectively, while a third suspect, Najim Laachraoui, was still being sought in a major manhunt. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

The attacks have already provoked Islamophobic rhetoric and desperate refugees are likely to be scapegoated (step forward Donald Trump, who vowed to keep "these people" out of America and re-embraced waterboarding). Still, the dozens of Islamist terrorists who have carried out recent attacks in Europe havenotbeen refugees. What many of themdohave in common, however, is that they have been to prison.

And the facts about prison and radicalization in Western Europe point to one logical response to terrorism (among all the other things that should be done) that might not seem so obvious: Decriminalize drugs.


The El-Bakroui brothers, who were known to Belgian police and reportedly already being sought due to suspected links with the November 2015 Paris attacks, both had criminal records and had spent time in prison. Belgian TV network RTBF reported that Khalid was imprisoned in 2011 for carjacking, and that Brahim had been imprisoned in 2010 for shooting at police.

What's more, several of the participants in the November 2015 Paris attacks had spent time in some stage of the criminal justice system, as had at least one of the participants in the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack—Cherif Kouachi. Additionally, both Amedy Coulibaly and Mohammed Merah, who murdered French Jews on separate occasions, are believed to have become radicalized in French prisons. A previously exposed network of Belgium jihadis recruiting for ISIS apparently had many ex-prisoners and drug dealers in its ranks.

Additionally, the black market for drugs has helped to create shadows that Jihadis can move around in. The only attacker to survive the Paris assault, Salah Abdeslam, who was captured in Brussels days before the latest attacks—which many believe were retaliation for his arrest—was able to hide out for weeks in the same area of the city where he grew up. "Abdeslam relied on a large network of friends and relatives that already existed for drug dealing and petty crime to keep him in hiding," said Frederic Van Leeuw, Belgium's federal prosecutor.

None of this should come as a surprise.

Contrary to popular opinion, radicalization does not primarily happen in the mosques and community centers of Europe's Muslim communities. Comfortably the most fertile ground for radicalization—above all in Belgium's neighbor, France—is the prison system, which is overcrowded with young Muslim men.

According to the book Euro Jihad by Angel Rabasa, a chief political scientist at the RAND Corporation, fewer than 1 percent of Europe's Muslim population are deemed to be a risk for Islamic extremism. But low socioeconomic status and alienation are among the main drivers for those who do embrace radical ideology. Add mass incarceration to that mix, and it becomes even more poisonous. This is something of which the French government is well aware—their Ministry of Justice website has a page devoted to the risks of prison radicalization.

For the past few years, French authorities have tried to tackle this by segregating radical prisoners from the general prison population, an experiment that has already witnessed monumental public failures. Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered French Jews in a Paris supermarket, said he became radicalized in prison. In 2010, he boasted to police that he was able to talk to Djamel Beghal, an al Qaeda sympathizer who was held in an "isolation cell" above Coulibily. Coulibily also claimed that Beghal was able to amass a small circle of followers in prison. At Fleury prison, Coulibily also met Cherif Kouachi, who would later attack the offices of Charlie Hebdo with his brother, Said. And the attacker who killed four people at the Brussels Jewish museum in 2014 had spent time in the same prison.

One symptom of France's problems with racism and alienation is that Muslim youths are arrested at far higher rates than the general population for all crimes. An estimated 5-12 percent of the population of France is Muslim, while a staggering 50-70 percent of France's prison population is estimated to be Muslim. In Belgium, about 5 percent of the population is Muslim; prison figures are unreliable, but unconfirmed claims that Muslims are disproportionately represented in Belgian prisons would be in line with other European countries. (By way of comparison, in the UK, where the overall Muslim population is about 4-5 percent, the prison population is closer to 14 percent Muslim.)

So France, in particular, has an enormous pool of incarcerated potential candidates for radicalization.

As numerous European countries move towards decriminalization and compassionate policing, France has gone in the opposite direction—with police seizures increasing since 2013. Even back in 2011, about 15,000 people in France received custodial or suspended prison sentences for drug offenses; according to World Prison Brief, France's total prison population stands at roughly 67,000.

Far too many of France's most marginalized people are jailed for low-level drug offenses. France has Europe's highest rates of marijuana consumption by some estimates, yet it also some of the most regressive marijuana laws on the continent. Smoking a joint can land you in jail for a year. Every year, tens of thousands of French people are arrested on cannabis-related charges—representing 90 percent of drug offenses in France.

How many of these arrests and imprisonments involve Muslims? Because it's illegal in France to collect statistics on race and religion, it's impossible to say precisely. But given the high rates of drug arrests in France, the disproportionate impact of arrests generally on Muslims, and the very high rates of incarcerated Muslims, it is safe to say that a very significant number of young Muslims are incarcerated for drug-related reasons—and that a loosening of the country's drug laws would keep a significant number of them out of prison. There is, in the absence of data, plenty of anecdotal evidence that French and Belgian youth, including Muslims, use drugs—including those who become radicalized. (Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who blew himself up in November, were big pot smokers, according to interviews with acquaintances and neighbors.)

Once young Muslims are incarcerated, the conditions in French prisons might as well bedesignedto make them disaffected. Prisons still refuse to standardize halal food, for example, forcing prisoners to skip meals. Prison officials discriminate based on religion in a variety of other ways, large and petty. For example, inmates are allowed packages on Christmas, under the pretext that they're "end of the year" gifts," while gifts related to Muslim holy days are blocked.

Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar wrote in an article about Muslim radicalization in French prisons for the New York Times:

One young French inmate of Algerian origin told me in 2013, "If you are a Muslim and ask to participate in the Friday prayers, they take your name down and hand it over to the Renseignements Généraux.' (The Renseignements Généraux is the French equivalent of the FBI.) He added: 'If I try to take my prayer carpet to the courtyard, they prohibit it. If I grow a beard, the guards call me Bin Laden, smiling and mocking me. They hate Islam. But Islam can take revenge!"

Muslim chaplains committed to de-radicalization have complained that these policies and attitudes make their work much harder and create unnecessary tension, alienating moderate Muslim prisoners.

So French and other European prisons are overcrowded. Muslims are grotesquely overrepresented and discriminated against. The prisons are hotbeds of radicalization. And drug laws are a huge driver of prison populations. The EU counter-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove, a Belgian national, has said, "We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalization."And Belgium has been so alarmed by radicals cycling through its prisons that it has implemented an isolation strategy similar to France's.

Is all of this really necessary?

The futility of France's laws—as well as Belgium's, which vaguely define drug trafficking in such a way that users can conveniently be treated as dealers by law—stands in contrast with successful examples of more sensible approaches elsewhere on the continent. Portugal has famously experienced more than a decade of progress since switching to a public health approach by decriminalizing drug possession entirely. The country has seen a reduction in HIV rates as well as a drop in crime and drug use. The Czech Republic has also seen success in its decriminalization of drugs for personal use. The Netherlands and Scandinavia host harm reduction programs and enlightened incarceration policies that are the envy of the world.

The French state is very willing to consider authoritarian measures, including extreme curtailments of civil liberties, to address the threat of radical Islam, and Belgian politicians may now do the same. In contrast, theliberalizationof laws in response to terror doesn't seem to fly: The French government is well aware that the available evidence shows that prison increases radicalization, and that drug prohibition swells the prison population.

Instead of contenting themselves with knee-jerk debates about closing borders, where to dump the bodies of terrorists, or what to do with their passports, France and Belgium should consider another course of action that might actually work.

The causes of Islamic radicalization are complex, and no one is suggesting that drug decriminalization alone would come anywhere near to solving the problem. But amid their professed determination and defiance, why will the leaders of nations under attack not do everything in their power to take steps that would, it can reasonably be assumed, be helpful?

Patrick Hilsman is an associate editor of The Influence and a French citizen. You can follow him on Twitter.

A version of this article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

This story has been updated.