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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
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Experts Warn ISIL May|Recruit U.S. Prisoners

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Islamic State's vast propaganda machine could increase radicalization within U.S. prisons as a new wave of homegrown terrorists with links to the group are convicted, experts told a House committee on Wednesday.

The House Homeland Security Committee heard testimony about threats posed by the radicalization of Muslim prisoners convicted of terrorism, and possible ways to deal with that threat.

"I would encourage the committee to remember that limiting this committee's oversight of radicalization to one religion ignores threats posed by violent extremists of all religious and ethnic backgrounds," ranking member Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said in opening remarks.

The testimony came as the committee grapples with how to monitor more than 100 prisoners convicted on terrorism charges that will be released within the next five years.

Since 9/11, perpetrators of domestic Islamic terrorism have mostly radicalized outside of prison, said Rep. Brian Higgins, R-New York.

Only one of 120 conspiracies involving domestic violent jihadist activity since then had participants who were radicalized in prison, said witness Jerome P. Bjelopera, a specialist in organized crime and terrorism.

But that was before the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which employs a sophisticated recruitment campaign using the Internet and social media to spread its propaganda. According to witness Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Internet propaganda is the primary driving force of radicalization today.

The FBI currently has 900 active investigations - spanning all 50 states - of individuals suspected of having links to extremist groups including ISIL, said House Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee chairman Rep. Peter King, R-New York.

"What is going to happen when these people come into prison in greater numbers?" Levin asked. "We just don't know."

Levin told the committee that although most perpetrators of domestic Islamic terrorism have not been radicalized in prison so far, he fears "this may very well change within a very short time" because of ISIL's unprecedented Internet propaganda efforts.

"In the past, when prisoners converted to Islam it actually had a positive impact with regard to rehabilitation," because it provided structure for inmates and caused them to become more introspective, he said.

Still, U.S. prisons should not be ruled out as "potential radicalization arenas," Bjelopera said, adding that no estimates currently exist on the extent of jihadist influence in prisons.

"Non-jihadist extremist movements such as white supremacy have taken root behind bars, suggesting that it may be possible for violent jihadists to propagate their messages in the same settings," he said in written testimony.

At the same time, Levin also urged the committee not to zero in on Muslims specifically. Adherents of the Christian Identity movement, a racist religious sect that commits hate crimes and has engaged in terrorism, are upset over major societal shifts taking place today, he said.

"We have basically a chaotic, very fluid situation with regard to extremism that's coming from different places," Levin said.

Since 9/11, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and antigovernment radicals have killed 48 Americans - including the nine people killed by the Charleston shooter in June - while jihadist terrorists have killed 26 Americans according to data from Washington research center New America.

Levin also urged the committee to consider some of the factors that lead to radicalization across the spectrum of potential terrorists, and not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating terror threats from prisoners.

"We have to look at an individualized and particularized threat matrix that's prisoner- or released person-specific," he said.

Levin said he's interviewed a variety of terrorists - Middle Eastern, Arian Brotherhood, animal liberation and Jewish extremists - and they all have similar characteristics.

"When they get to a certain point, they're a threat irrespective of what ideology they're looking at," he said.

Levin also noted that converts to extremist ideologies like the Christian Identity movement and violent jihadists "had unique personal issues that prompted them to anti-social behavior."

"We have to look at that as well in the context of the ideology," he said. "If you look at ideology alone without the individualized drivers that took people into this, then we're missing it."

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