By BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – Now that the Islamic State’s territory in the Middle East has been abolished, Europe faces obvious threats from foreign fighters (FFs) returning from jihadist-oriented conflicts.
One of the big knock-on effects will be the impact on radicalisation in Europe’s prisons. With national capitals due to transpose by September 2018 a new EU directive that criminalises FF participation in wars and attempts to travel to them, the size of Europe’s radicalised prison population is bound to grow.
Despite buckets of EU money thrown at the problem during the last 10 years, however, Europe has done a poor job at staunching prison radicalisation, whether at national, regional or local level because no one has yet hit on an airtight counter-radicalisation formula. There are still too many unknowns for determining when someone has passed from an attraction to radicalisation to the intent to deploy violence.
It doesn’t help matters that there is lingering reluctance in some political circles to publicly call a spade a spade, namely that a direct link does, indeed, exist between violent jihadist terrorism and certain interpretations of Islam.
British, Dutch, Danish, French and Spanish officials increasingly acknowledge this link (not to mention the right-wing governments of Poland, Hungary and Austria). Even the EU’s own counter-terrorism coordinator has done so publicly in the last year. But ironically the one European country with proportionally the biggest jihadist problem seems unable to do the same, namely Belgium.
That reluctance was on full display during a debate on prison radicalisation organised here on 16 January by the European Policy Centre during remarks by panellist Luc Van Der Taelen.
Police commissioner with the Belgian Federal Police, and project manager of its community policing and counter-radicalisation programme, Van Der Taelen gushed against “linking jihadism and extremism to Islam. It has to be about respecting diversity and differences”.
That contrasted sharply with observations by fellow panelist Selim Cherkaoui, a Belgian Muslim of Moroccan origin, whose NGO works inside Belgium’s prisons in hopes of weaning their radicalised Muslims away from extremist ideologies. “There is a hierarchy of power and prestige among prisoners, with the terrorists at the top and the pedophiles at the bottom,” said Cherkaoui. “The problem is that many religious but non-radicalised Muslims in prison see the terrorists in a positive light, as soldiers of Allah.”
Another example of Van Der Taelen’s aversion to taking a public stand was his refusal to provide any indication of the size of Belgium’s Muslim prison population.
When SECURITY EUROPE posed this simple statistical question to him and the panel’s third speaker – Ian Acheson, former prison governor in the UK and head of the government’s 2016 review of Islamic extremism in prisons – the difference in their response was revealing.
Noting that the UK currently has a prison population of 85,000, Acheson said its Muslim component is around 12-to-13 percent of that total. “Muslims are over-represented in prisons because Muslims comprise only 6 percent of the general UK population. This clearly indicates something wrong is going on [regarding jihadism].”
But all that the senior Belgian police official could muster as a response was “I couldn’t say. I don’t work for the prison system.”
Van Der Taelen did note, however, that his government has a 41-point action plan focused on Brussels’ communes considered most vulnerable to jihadism (i.e., Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and Vilvoorde) where community policing “is very important. Our monitoring is much better than even a few years ago. And we get information from the prisons about who is visiting the prisoners.”
For his part, Cherkaoui pointed to a number of weaknesses in Belgium’s approach to counter-radicalisation in its prisons.
The first problem is the prison system itself. “It puts all radicalised prisoners on the same level as terrorists. This makes it very difficult to create a peaceful atmosphere for those whom we are trying to separate from the hard-liners,” said Cherkaoui. “We need a far more accurate way of defining a prisoner’s profile.”
Second, he said the whole effort “is seriously underfunded: barely any of us are paid fulltime to do this.”
Finally, he warned that potentially radicalised literature still finds its way into Belgian prison libraries. “I’ve seen a book financed and published by Saudi Arabia sitting on the ‘welcome table’ in a library reception whose text could easily be interpreted to promote the killing of Jews, Christians and other ‘kafirs’ [infidels]. That book had no business being there.”
Meanwhile, one has to wonder whether it is wise for the Belgian state to outsource prison counter-radicalisation work to an NGO whose financing seems alarmingly underfunded and dependent on a para-statal regional entity, namely Belgium’s French-speaking community. Belgium’s parastatal entities and the NGOs dependent on them have a history of being highly politicized and subject to the country’s Socialist-vs-Conservative tug-of-war that constantly threatens the stability of Belgium’s governments.
Counter-radicalisation workers should be employees of the state – not funded by one region or another – or, if they are outsourced, then properly funded to deal with the serious nature of counter-radicalisation work. Either way, rigorous levels of training and a familiarity with the Islamic mind-set would be the minimum requirements for all involved in a psychologically difficult line of work.