May 04, 2006

Radical Networks in Middle East Prisons

By Chris Zambelis
Prisons have traditionally been breeding grounds for some of the world's most violent street gangs and organized criminal organizations. The hostile and dangerous environment of prison life inspired the creation of a diverse array of well-organized gangs and networks that thrived behind prison walls in everything from extortion, drug and weapons trafficking, smuggling, gambling and other illicit activities. In a testament to their organizational capacity and reach, many gangs spread to prisons outside of their place of origin and continue to flourish among seasoned members released into the general public.

Originally, U.S. prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia (MM), also known as La Eme, the Aryan Brotherhood, and its prison offshoot the Nazi Low Riders, and the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), to name a few, were formed in an effort to bolster ethnic and racial solidarity among jailed Hispanic, White, and African-American inmates who competed for power and influence inside the penal system. In varying degrees, penal systems in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia are struggling with their own breed of dangerous prison networks.

In many cases, these networks are comprised of effective leadership councils, chains of command, and strict codes of conduct for members that often include sworn oaths of allegiance and a complex system of communication based on secret codes and signs designed to circumvent prison authorities.

Members of prison gangs often include psychologically vulnerable inmates seeking the physical protection that gang membership appears to provide. Many are also forced to join a particular gang on the threat of violence by gangs determined to swell their ranks. For others facing long-term sentences, gang affiliations based on ethnic, racial, or regional allegiances provide aspiring members with what they perceive as a worthy cause or a sense of belonging, in addition to the protection of membership in a larger social network that claims to speak and act on their behalf.

Prisons in the Middle East

Given this background, it is worth considering the recent prison riots in Jordan and Afghanistan reportedly instigated by jailed radical Islamists, including alleged members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, respectively (al-Jazeera, March 2; Azadi Radio, March 6). The daring escape of 23 high-profile al-Qaeda inmates from a Yemeni penitentiary also raises interesting questions (Yemen Times, February 4).

Regional sources are convinced that organized radical networks operating within the confines of the prisons in question planned each of these incidents in concert with assistance from the outside and the support of new followers recruited from within. These cases may shed light on the nature and scope of radical networks and organizational structures in foreign prisons in countries of critical importance in the war on terrorism.

These incidents also have serious implications when we consider that the periodic release of incarcerated Islamists that run the gamut from moderate democratic reformers to others tied to violent extremist activities is a favorite political tactic employed by incumbent authoritarian regimes in the region. This strategy is generally aimed at easing internal tensions centered in the Islamist opposition over the lack of progress toward political reforms, increased repression and other grievances.

For example, Egypt recently released over 900 members of the radical Gama'a al-Islamiyya, some having spent over 20 years in prison (al-Jazeera, April 12). Tunisia recently freed over 1,600 members of its own Islamist opposition. Algeria also released over 2,000 imprisoned Islamist activists in a sign of good faith as part of its plan to promote its Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation initiative (al-Jazeera, March 4).

It is not in the interest of the governments in question to release inmates considered to pose a credible and immediate terrorist threat, given that the incumbent regimes would likely be targeted in due course as they were in the past. Moreover, the release of jailed extremists is generally accompanied by a negotiated pact with former radical leaders who in turn often praise the incumbent government's action as a sign of goodwill while renouncing the use of violence and terrorism.

In fact, it is precisely this process that contributes to the creation of extremist splinter groups headed by emerging radical leaders determined to carry on their war against the hated incumbent regimes or their benefactors in the West.

A number of prominent Islamist radicals, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, spent years in prison in Egypt and Jordan, respectively. By all accounts, both were subjected to harsh conditions that included systematic torture and often humiliating abuses against them and their fellow inmates. Many observers believe that these experiences contributed to their radicalization and that of many of their followers (see Montasser al-Zayat, The Road to al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Ladin's Right-Hand Man).

In March, Jordan's penal system was struck with a series of what appeared to be simultaneous and coordinated uprisings in three separate prisons. Rioting inmates in Jwaideh prison took hostage Colonel Saad al-Ajrami, director of the kingdom's prison system, along with a host of security guards. The Jwaideh inmates reportedly took up arms in a demonstration of solidarity with two prisoners incarcerated in Swaqa prison that Jordanian officials link to al-Qaeda, including one convicted for the 2002 assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Amman. They also demanded the immediate release of the would-be Iraqi female suicide bomber who participated in the November 2005 attacks in Amman and protested conditions inside the jail (al-Jazeera, March 2).

Jordanian officials claim that over 180 radical Islamists, including extremists linked to al-Qaeda, are currently being held at Jwaideh prison (as-Sharq al-Awsat, March 3). After a period of tense negotiations, the 14-hour siege ended peacefully with all of the hostages released unharmed.

According to Judge Ali al-Dhmour, Jordan's secretary general of the Justice Ministry, rioting inmates at the Jwaideh facility coordinated their planned takeover of the facility with their fellow inmates in other prisons through an elaborate system that included cell phone and internet communications and messages passed along to visiting relatives. Al-Dhmour also raised questions regarding the wisdom of having violent Islamist extremists serve their sentences alongside their known colleagues, essentially ensuring that already tight-knit networks remain cohesive and operational behind bars. He also questioned the logic of placing ordinary criminals together with hardened extremists in the same facilities due to fears that the latter may influence disaffected prisoners (al-Jazeera, March 2).

Ibrahim Zeid al-Kailani, Jordan's former religious affairs minister, echoes these sentiments. He believes that radical extremists, especially individuals tied to al-Qaeda, should be insulated from other inmates and separated from their known associates in an attempt to weaken networks. He also claims that because many prisoners suffer from depression and frustration, they are more likely to be attracted to radical and violent strains of Islamism (al-Jazeera, March 2).

In another incident in April, inmates in the Qafqafa prison rose up violently, taking two guards hostage before Jordanian security forces stormed the facility to end the crisis (as-Sharq al-Awsat, April 14).

Rioting inmates took security guards hostage in Afghanistan's notorious Pol-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul in February, the second uprising of its kind in a little over a year in Afghanistan. Apparently, grievances stemming from systematic abuses and poor living conditions boiled over when prison authorities tried to implement a new policy requiring all inmates to wear bright orange uniforms. According to Afghanistan's Deputy Justice Minister Muhammad Qasim Hashemzai, rioting inmates received instructions from outside of the prison via cell phones. It is still unclear how the inmates managed to acquire the cell phones. Afghan security officials claim that 350 out of the approximately 1,000 inmates estimated to have participated in the uprising are linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Azadi Radio, March 6).

In February, 23 members of al-Qaeda managed to escape from the maximum security Political Security Central Prison in Sanaa, Yemen. Among the escapees included 13 radicals tied to al-Qaeda cells believed to be responsible for the attack against the USS Cole in October 2000 and the strike against the French oil supertanker Limburg in October 2002. A similar escape orchestrated by ranking al-Qaeda members, this time from the Political Security Central Prison in Aden, occurred in 2003 (Yemen Times, February 4).

Initial reports from the scene claimed that the fugitives managed a daring escape by digging a 300-meter long tunnel from their cells to the women's prayer yard at the al-Awkaf Mosque located just outside the prison. Other reports, however, say that the prisoners left from the main entrance of the facility. Considering the high-profile stature of the inmates and the heightened level of security at the facility, it is inconceivable that the escapees could have succeeded without close coordination and assistance from prison staff and others from the outside (as-Sharq al-Awsat, March 10).

Conclusion

As the incidents in Jordan, Afghanistan, and Yemen demonstrate, the activities of convicted terrorists and other radical extremists inside prisons in countries of strategic importance in the war on terrorism should remain of vital concern. It is also worth considering the effect that systematic and indiscriminate torture in penal systems across the region has on creating potential recruits for al-Qaeda and other extremist

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