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The Prison Issue

The Myth of the Lone Wolf

Prison might be more influential than we'd like to admit in creating "lone wolf" terrorists.

by Jason Burke
Oct 26 2015, 1:55pm

Illustration by Tyler Boss

Question: What do the following Islamic militants, all recently active, have in common? Michael Adebowale, who stabbed soldier Lee Rigby to death on the streets of London in 2013; Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people when he took over a Jewish supermarket in Paris on January 9, 2015; Cherif Kouachi, who killed 11 when he attacked the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the French capital two days earlier; Mohammed Merah who killed seven in southern France in 2012; Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, who shot dead two in Copenhagen in February this year.

Answer one: They are all young Muslim men living in the West.

Answer two: They have all been described as "lone wolf" terrorists, actors who do not have connections with any major extremist group such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Answer three: They have all spent time in prison.

That prisons feature frequently on the CV of many militants is no surprise. Prisons are the perfect incubators for extremist violence of all types, as they are for other forms of criminal behavior. You get all the people who are involved in a particular illegal activity together and then lock them up with each other. This is clearly far from ideal. It is particularly problematic if you are dealing with a phenomenon like terrorist activity, including Islamic militancy, which is composed of a series of informal cells, networks, and groups.

If you think of militant groups as a type of gang, offering protection, solidarity, a sense of belonging, useful resources, even economic (and sexual) opportunity or advantage, then it will come as no surprise that they thrive behind bars. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the most savage figures of the last couple of decades, was turned from a street thug into an aspirant jihadi in a Jordanian jail. This transformation may have been less dramatic than it looks. Al-Zarqawi simply swapped one gang for another.

Read: America Incarcerated, VICE's series about mass incarceration

Over the last century different governments have made successive attempts to deal with the problem. One tactic has been to segregate extremists from other "vulnerable" prisoners. But that risks simply reconstituting the groups you are trying to break up behind bars and reinforcing their cohesion. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, built most of the contacts that would allow him to go on to create the organization he now leads while incarcerated in a US-run prison camp in Iraq in 2004. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, was held in an Egyptian prison for his membership of networks that had been behind the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. There is famous footage of him haranguing the court from a cage full of other like-minded militants. Many went on to play key roles in the various extremist campaigns that followed.

The other option for authorities is to disperse the extremists. There are usually not very many of them, so this is a tempting strategy. Over the last ten years, the number of Muslim prisoners in England and Wales has doubled, according to recent statistics, but only a hundred or so of these have been convicted of terrorist offenses.

Yet experience shows that the Islamic militant ideology is highly contagious, and dispersing such men—unless they are held incommunicado in solitary confinement—risks contaminating others with its virus. Merah, Kouachi, and Coulibaly all appear to have become interested in violent extremism while in prison. The latter two were influenced by a charismatic older militant detained before 9/11 on a charge of planning to blow up the US embassy in Paris. Al-Zarqawi had been influenced by well-known clerics.

Is there a solution? Only in part. What happens in prisons reflects what is happening in the rest of a society. In 20 years of reporting on Islamic militancy in the UK and elsewhere, I have noticed one clear trend: the spread of the ideology to ever more young men, and some women. It remains a minority, of course, but a minority that is much larger than before.

Read on VICE News: Here's How France Plans to Curtail Islamic Radicalization Within Its Prisons

The truth is that almost no one "self-radicalizes," any more than any teenager "self-interests" in narcotics, a particular music scene, or an extreme sport that involves significant physical risk. The psychological barriers to participation in acts of violence are higher than for most activities, but the basic mechanics of how people become involved in them are the same. Terrorism is a social activity, albeit an immoral and abhorrent one, and no one becomes a terrorist on their own. There is no access to radical websites in prison, but in almost all the above cited cases individuals ended a jail sentence more committed to violent ideologies than before. What's most important in the making of a terrorist is not some kind of character deficiency, nor psychopathic or sadistic tendencies, but something much more banal: who you spend time with and what they say and do. And if this is true in prisons, it is also true outside of them, too.

This is why it's important to realize that so-called lone wolves do not really exist. Of the five militants mentioned at the top of this article, only two acted alone, and one of these—the Frenchman Mohammed Merah—was connected to a militant faction in Pakistan. They were all part of networks, and were acting in the belief that they were part of a much broader community of militants. Trying to tackle extremism inside is necessary, but will only be possible if extremism outside is tackled, too.