France’s prison population is estimated to be 70 per cent Muslim – and yet there are fewer imams visiting French prisons than British. Critics of the French state say it is no surprise that Islamist recruiters, like those who enticed Paris terrorists Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, are finding prison a fertile hunting ground
The words that drifted into Karim Mokhtari’s ear were balm for a battered soul.
Inside the prison, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for armed robbery, Mr Mokhtari had finally – after a childhood spent in special educational establishments, teenage years carrying out ever greater acts of delinquency on the orders of his violent stepfather, and time spent in 15 different prisons – found someone to help.
The elderly inmate who befriended Mr Mokhtari spoke of peace, calm and spiritual fulfilment.
“I was searching for hope,” Mr Mokhtari told The Telegraph. “When you arrive in prison you feel completely abandoned. You get there and you need to find some strength. When someone holds out a hand, you take it.”
After six months of spiritual guidance, Mr Mokhtari’s fellow inmate told him what he really needed to do, upon release, to seek salvation: travel to Iraq, and “kill the infidels”.
Three years after Mr Mokhtari was released, another inmate was following a very similar path. But, unlike Mr Mokhtari, this one would succumb to the brainwashing behind bars – and carry out, on January 7, the worst terrorist attack in France for over 50 years.
Chérif Kouachi was sent to Fleury-Merogis prison – Europe’s largest – in January 2005. While behind bars he met Djamel Beghal, nicknamed Abu Hamza, who was serving ten years for a plot to attack the US embassy in 2001.
Kouachi also met Amedy Coulibaly, who during the three-day coordinated attacks murdered a policewoman and killed four people inside a Jewish supermarket.
Both the Paris attackers fell under Beghal’s spell, hardening their attitudes against France, their home country, and convincing them of the need to wage war in the name of Islam.
It is a worryingly common phenomena across Europe, but especially in France, where at least four men now known to have been radicalised in prison have launched attacks on Europe in the past two years.
Mohamed Merah, the 2012 Toulouse attacker, moved from being a wild petty delinquent to a hardened jihadist while behind bars, and on his release travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train for jihad. He returned to France and murdered seven soldiers and Jewish civilians.
Mehdi Nemouche, author of the May murder of four people in Brussels, was also radicalised in prison – travelling to Syria when he was freed and then coming back to attack the Jewish museum.
Chérif Kouachi was already involved in jihadi circles when he went to prison, and found the experience a Petri dish for his extreme views. Coulibaly, like Merah and Nemouche, went in a simple delinquent from the banlieus, but came out a dangerous Islamist.
What is going on in France’s prisons?
Of the 67,500 people currently behind bars in France, it is estimated that 70 per cent are Muslim – when they comprise only eight per cent of the French public. It is illegal under France’s strict laicity laws to count the number of Muslim prisoners, but experts agree that the figure is an accurate average – with some prisons, like those near Paris and Marseille, seeing an even higher percentage. In England and Wales, Muslims account for 14 per cent of the prison population, according to Home Office statistics, and five per cent of the population nationwide.
French authorities state that 283 people are currently in prison for terrorism, of whom 152 are classed as dangerous Islamists. Sixty of them – almost all incarcerated in Paris – are deemed particularly dangerous.
France is the country in Europe which has the highest Muslim population, and has also seen the highest number of people – estimated by the Brookings Institute this month at over 900 – travelling to Syria to join Islamic State.
Last week Manuel Valls, the combative French prime minister, said that segregating the hardened radical Islamists from other prisoners was key.
“We separate these inmates from the rest,” Mr Valls told French TV channel BFMTV on Monday.
“It must become a general measure (but) it must be done with discernment and intelligence.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president and now leader of the opposition UMP, echoed his sentiments.
In the prison at Fresnes, south of Paris, a trial programme of segregation has been running since November. Stéphane Scotto, director of the prison, told France Info radio that 20 people were living in segregation – one of whom, believed to be Flavien Moreau, the first jihadist convicted on his return from Syria, was in total isolation.
He said that the idea begun when he noted that in the summer last year there were a dozen radical Islamists in his prison – but by autumn that had increased to 20.
Mr Scotto added that the trial was showing positive results, serving to calm other Muslim prisoners who complained that they felt pressured to behave in a certain way – praying five times a day, taking down the images of naked women that adorned their cells, and wearing clothes in the showers.
But many believe that separating hardened jihadists from moderate Muslims in prison will not solve the problem.
“The problem is that there is no one really dedicated to this task within prisons,” a source told Le Figaro. “Agents given other jobs to do provide information when they can. The prison is however a gold mine of information that we can’t exploit.”
Another prison official told the paper on Tuesday: “I’m going to hand over to the police 60kg of mobile phones that we have seized from prisoners. But they won’t have the time to go through them all.”
Prisons so full of delinquency, combating radical Islam isn’t their priority, he added. “And the inmates know it.”
“I don’t understand that idea at all of putting all the radicals together and hoping they will change,” said Mr Mokhtari, who now, aged 36, runs an organisation dedicated to helping young men in prison avoid the temptation he nearly fell into.
“We don’t want a new Guantánamo in France.”
Haras Rafiq, who works for the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation and regularly visits prisoners in Britain, said there were two competing schools of thought: one suggested letting prisoners mix in general circulation so ideas are moderated, and the other advocated isolation.
“Neither model works on its own, however,” he told The Telegraph.
Instead Mr Rafiq – like many who visit prisons – advocated an increase in the number and professionalism of imams who provide spiritual guidance to inmates.
In Britain, an estimated 200 imams regularly see prisoners. In France, with over six times the number of Muslim inmates, there are only 182 imams currently visiting.
“There really is no deradicalisation programme in French prisons,” said Mr Rafiq. “In Britain we certainly have plenty of problems, but we do do it better.”
Yet even in the UK, Mr Rafiq said that it was hard to find suitably qualified imams – possessing, he said, the required intellectual, ideological, emotional and spiritual talents.
“Many imams just aren’t up to the task. Deradicalisation isn’t just a religious thing. It’s also political – you need to look at the disenfranchisement, and what they see as racism in society.
“And a lot of them are out of touch. They don’t understand Twitter or social media. The skills aren’t there.”
Mr Mokhtari agrees.
“We need more imams, and need more people to listen to the prisoners. The philosophy is that it’s cheaper just to lock them up, and that’s nonsense because then they come out angry and dehumanised.
“In my six and a half years behind bars, it wasn’t until my fifth year that I met an imam.”
Six months ago Hassan el-Anoui Talibi, the chief imam of French prison, issued a press release calling for more financial support for imams who visit prisons – at the moment, they are only paid their expenses. He said more “carrots” like a pension and state support must be offered.
“In Valence prison, 80 per cent of the prisoners are Muslim. Yet there are three Catholic chaplains, two Protestants, and one Muslim,” he said.
In December, only two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, president of the centre-right political party Union of Democrats and Independents, spoke publicly about the Muslim chaplains’ warning about the consequences of the lack of resources in their profession.
“Last year, I believe we only added 20 chaplains in our prisons,” he told France Info, “which we know are breeding grounds for radicalisation. Twenty out of the thousands of inmates, it’s ridiculous.”
On the front line is Mohamed Boina M’Koubou, imam inside Fleury-Merogis – the prison where Kouachi and Coulibaly were both pushed towards extremist views.
“Catholics chaplains have always visited prisoners,” he said. “But Muslims are really behind in this.”
He said that when he arrived in 2004 at Fleury-Merogis – a vast concrete pentagon, 20 miles south of the centre of Paris – there was no dedicated space for Muslims to pray, which emphasised the feeling of discrimination that the prisoners felt.
“I said to myself that ending up in prison was the result of a lack of education, and a lack of religion,” he said.
“So I decided to take two approaches: one allowing them to acquire the education and religion that they lack, and another towards what I see on their paths ahead, and to show what could well end up happening if they don’t look after themselves.”
Mr Boina attends prison twice a week, for an hour or two. He teaches prisoners how to read the Koran or talks to them about Islam. He also shows them how to pray, and follow the pillars of Islam.
“We never talk about prison,” he said. Mainly he works with the young, aged 14 to 35.
“Some of them leave prison as grown men. They regret what they have done. Many have learnt religious practices and continue to practice. They know that only God can forgive them, and only God can provide happiness. They know that you need to cultivate happiness.”
But some, he added, do not find leaving prison easy.
“They can’t survive like that for long if society doesn’t help them,” he said. “If they find nothing out there for them, they will slip back into bad ways.”
One such prisoner was Coulibaly, who predicted his own return to a life of crime when he left behind Fleury-Merogis, having spent seven months in the same wing as Chérif Kouachi and hardened Islamist Beghal.
Behind bars for armed robbery – one of his many sejours at Fleury – he filmed life inside with a secret camera, footage from which was used in an April 2009 documentary. It showed the violence of life in Europe’s largest prison – but also the ingenuity; food was cooked on improvised stoves, marijuana was given to the guards to keep them on side, and messages were passed from cell to cell with “Yo Yos”, plastic bottles swung between bars on a ripped strip of a bed sheet.
“It’s a school of delinquency,” said one of the inmates.
Coulibaly, fanatic about his PlayStation and football games on the computer, was furious about having it confiscated by guards.
“They treat us worse than dogs here,” he raged, his face obscured by the cameras.
“And I know they say we’re prisoners and we deserve it. But as many of us who come in, one day we will go out.
“And then you can really understand why some guys don’t chose the right path.”
H/t reader kevin a.
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