by Alex Wilner

Something is missing from the debate over prison reform: What is Canada to do about the influx of incarcerated Islamist terrorists?

Since March, 2009, seven suspected Canadian terrorists, including Momin Khawaja, Said Namouh and five members of the Toronto 18, have been prosecuted. Another half-dozen trials are ongoing.

Canadians should commend the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, local police and various branches of the judiciary for successfully tracking, foiling and indicting these individuals. But imprisoning terrorists poses a challenge.

The associated risk is prison radicalization, wherein members of the general prison population are introduced to and convert to militant interpretations of radical Islam. Already, Crown prosecutors have revealed that one Toronto 18 member, Ali Dirie, “took an active role in recruiting other inmates to adopt extreme jihadi beliefs” while under remand.

Prisons are filled with young and often dangerous individuals with a predisposition for anti-social behaviour. Some consider themselves victims of society and may be especially susceptible to ideologies that espouse retribution.

International trends suggest that prison radicalization and recruitment are common. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, and Muktar Said Ibrahim, involved with the second and failed London attacks in 2005, were radicalized while serving time for petty crimes in Britain. Jamal Ahmidan, a leader of the 2004 Madrid bombings, was radicalized while serving time for theft. Mohamed Achraf, while serving time for credit-card fraud in Spain, established the Martyrs for Morocco, recruiting nearly 20 inmates for attacks on Spain’s National Court. Safe Bourada created the Partisans of Victory while serving time in France and recruited convicts for attacks in Paris. Jose Padilla, currently serving a 17-year terrorism conviction, and Michael Finton, arrested last month while allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb in Illinois, were both introduced to radical Islam while serving time on non-terrorism-related charges. And Kevin James founded the Assembly of Authentic Islam behind bars in California, recruiting two fellow inmates for attacks in Los Angeles.

Preventing similar outcomes in Canada will take five steps.

First, we need to better understand how extremist ideologies spread within prison. Lessons are to be found from existing research on prison gangs and the radicalization of white supremacists. We can also follow the lead of other countries and establish a national counter-radicalization task force. By bringing together academics, policy-makers and community experts, trends can be monitored and countered.

Second, extremists need to be segregated from the general prison population. We should ensure that there are enough qualified imams for Canadian prisons to eliminate the risk that radical inmates will use a dearth of leadership to captivate a susceptible audience, spread violent views and recruit. Lectures and courses could be offered to ensure that newly observant inmates receive a full, rather than selective, reading of their new faith and practice. Also, ensuring that Muslim inmates have what they need to practise their faith, from halal food to prayer halls, might help to avert grievances.

Third, prison officials need to be trained to recognize and impede radicalization. We should imitate the French and publish a prison guide that traces the indicators of radicalization. Intelligence on radicals should be collected and properly shared between prisons. Ensuring the Correctional Service of Canada has the means to co-ordinate with other agencies might also require establishing new partnerships. For instance, California’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center puts local prison officials in constant contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Los Angeles Police Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Fourth, specific inmates should be tracked and monitored as they move through the correctional system. If required, they should be contained. The British dispersal strategy, which spreads convicted terrorists around the country, and France’s use of displacement, which impedes criminal bonding by moving radicals around, are two suggestions.

Finally, Canada should follow through after prisoner release. Helping inmates reintegrate into society will impede radical groups outside prison from preying on former convicts. Some inmates should be required, upon release, to enroll in de-radicalization programs, such as the Specialized De-Radicalization Intervention program in Toronto. And those who have renounced violence should be encouraged to help turn others away from terrorism.

With terrorists heading to Canadian jails, this is the time to take action – before they have time to recruit.

Alex Wilner is a fellow in defence and security with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax and a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.