When Benjamin Herman, a 36-year-old Belgian, walked out of prison in Liege with a two-day pass on May 28, he was a man on a mission. That evening he killed a drug dealer he had met behind bars by beating him with a hammer. The next morning he attacked two policewomen from behind and repeatedly slashed them with a box cutter while screaming "Allahu akbar!" He took a service pistol from one of them and shot them both dead. He continued down the street and killed a man in a parked car before taking a woman hostage in a school. She was a Muslim and appealed to him to not hurt the children. His murderous mission, and life, ended soon after as he attempted to flee from the school. He exchanged gunfire with police, wounding four officers, and was shot dead.
Herman's deadly rampage is a reminder of the threat posed by radicalized prisoners who are released into society. While he was a European Belgian by birth, the career criminal converted to Islam in prison and reportedly came into the orbit of radical jihadists there. Prisons have long been fertile recruiting grounds, and Herman was just the latest criminal to find — or rediscover — Islam there before being drawn into the extremist vortex. This threat will persist because hundreds of jihadists are set to be released from prison in the West in the next few years.
Along with returning foreign fighters and newly recruited grassroots operatives, jihadists released from prison will become another source of potential threats for security services to assess and monitor. They are also another reason why the jihadist threat in the West will continue at a relatively low — though potentially deadly — level.
The Path From Crime to Jihad
The transformation from petty criminal to jihadist terrorist has a long history and numerous high-profile examples. Some, such as failed shoe bomber Richard Reid and would-be dirty bomber Jose Padilla, were converts to Islam and jihadism. Others, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — founder of the terrorist group that became the Islamic State — were lapsed Muslims who returned to their faith in prison. Quite often these prisoners are recruited by jihadists who are in jail for terrorist plots or for preaching their radical brand of Islam. For example, al-Zarqawi spent four years in prison in Jordan with the prominent jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
In France, Charlie Hebdo attacker Cherif Kouachi and his friend Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered a police officer and attacked a kosher supermarket, were petty criminals who came under the influence of Djamel Beghal in prison. Beghal is expected to be released from prison by Aug. 5, 2018 after he was convicted for his role in a disrupted plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001 and was sentenced to 10 years. He has also been stripped of his French citizenship, and the government will probably deport him to Algeria upon his release.
In Iraq, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spent time imprisoned at Camp Bucca. Many excellent books on the rise of the Islamic State, including ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, have chronicled how that time was instrumental in deepening his radicalism. These books, especially Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad, also note the critical role that Syrian President Bashar al Assad played when he decided to release hundreds of jihadists from prison in 2011, helping lead to the group's explosive growth.
But radicalization in prison is not just a European or Middle Eastern problem. In Indonesia, extremists were part of a recent prison riot, indicating how the problem extends to the Asia-Pacific, including Australia. And the United States has seen several cases as well. In July 2005, ex-convicts Levar Haney Washington and Gregory Vernon Patterson were caught robbing banks in California as they tried to fund a jihadist plot to attack multiple targets. It seems that no country with criminals and prisons is immune from this potential for radicalization.
Getting a Terrorist Education in Prison
The skills that a criminal develops in planning and executing offenses — criminal tradecraft — are not that different from those needed by a terrorist. And that expertise is often far more useful for terrorist attacks in a hostile environment than the type of basic guerrilla warfare skills most jihadists are taught in training camps. In the past, I've noted the the similarities between the criminal and terrorist attack cycles.
Jihadists have promoted the leaderless model in their calls for resistance, but this method has one notable flaw: It shortchanges grassroots extremists when it comes to learning terrorist tradecraft. This deficiency often leads to attackers struggling to make successful strikes. Or it can lead to their reaching out for help with bombs or other weapons and ending up being snared in government sting operations. This is where prisons come into play.
Even an unskilled grassroots jihadist can get an incredible education while behind bars.
Inmates often share tips and techniques, and it is not unusual for them to get instruction from other inmates in the martial arts or on the use of shanks and other simple weapons. They are also taught how to disarm law enforcement officers — this is why officers are trained on weapons retention. Indeed, such prison tutoring may have helped Herman prepare for his attack on the police officers in Liege.
And the lessons learned and contacts established in prison can continue after criminals get out. Those illicit connections can help with attacks. In France, Coulibaly used his criminal acquaintances to get the weapons the Kouachi brothers used in the Charlie Hebdo attack and he used in his own attack. Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah, another petty criminal, got his weapons in a similar way. He even purchased them with money he got through various crimes. And for al-Baghdadi, prison in Iraq enabled him to make contact with other extremists who would play critical roles in his successful plan to revitalize the damaged Islamic State.
The Persistent Threat
Prisons have been called criminal universities, and the skills radicalized inmates possess or grassroots jihadists gain while incarcerated make them a serious threat upon release. France's terrorism prosecutor, Francois Molins, told BFM TV on May 28 that there are about 40 convicted terrorists slated to be released from its prisons in 2018 and 2019 — and that number is for just one country. Most of the terrorists who have conducted successful attacks were sentenced to long prison sentences. However, many others were arrested on lesser charges that carry shorter sentences, including document fraud, weapons possession and material support for terrorism. The ability of governments to detain and control these individuals is ending. The result will be a jump in the number of potential threats that must be watched, and governments around the world are already unable to monitor 24/7 all the threats they are aware of now. This will simply add to their problems as they scramble to identify, assess and surveil grassroots actors and returning foreign fighters.
Of course, the threat is not limited to jihadists. Others are also drawn into radical belief systems, such as white supremacy and black separatism, or even join violent criminal gangs while in prison. Many inmates emerge from prison far more dangerous than when they entered. With rehabilitation and deradicalization programs having little success, released jihadists will pose a serious threat for the foreseeable future.