Recently the FBI arrested four members of a would-be terrorist cell in New York.
Allegedly angered by the deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan, the men had planned to bomb several synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down a military plane using a Stinger missile. Thankfully, the FBI, acting on a tip from another member of the men’s mosque, penetrated the cell and foiled the plot.
While the arrests eliminated this immediate threat, it highlighted a much bigger one: the spread of radical Islam in American prisons.
At least two of the terror suspects converted to Islam while in prison, while the other two were also the product of what some imams call “jailhouse Islam,” incorporating values of gang loyalty and violence.
In 2007 the New York Police Department issued a report titled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” which analyzed the process of cultivating Islamic-based terrorism. The report points out that “the prison’s isolated environment, its absence of day-to-day distractions, and its large population of disaffected young men, makes it an excellent breeding ground for radicalization.”
Angry young prisoners often look for someone to blame for their predicament, and radical proselytizers take advantage of this resentment. “Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization,” a 2006 special report by the George Washington University and the University of Virginia, stated: “From an ideological standpoint, radical religious groups allow the inmates to demonize their perceived enemies and view themselves as righteous.”
“Out of the Shadows” also stresses that inmates who lack a good understanding of Islam are vulnerable to recruiters who paint a violent picture of the religion. “Radical literature and extremist translations and interpretations of the Qur’an have been distributed to prisoners by groups suspected or known to support terrorism.” One example is a book called The Noble Qur’an, a version of the Qur’an distributed by a Wahhabi group.
Of particular concern is its appendix, “The Call to Jihad,” urging “war against non-Muslims who have not submitted to Islamic rule.” Other literature from the same group tells prisoners that non-Islamic government “must be sincerely hated and despised for the pleasure of God.”
While some prison systems have banned this type of literature, others have not. Its effect on angry and, in many cases, unstable men isn’t hard to imagine. As the events in New York remind us, we don’t have to just imagine it.
What’s the answer? For starters, prison officials should crack down on anyone or any group that recruits for violence in our prisons. Ultimately, however, the real answer lies in the work of groups like Prison Fellowship, which take the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ into prisons across America.
Prisoners are looking for solutions to their problems. And they will find one—whether it’s in drugs, gangs, the violence of jihadism, or utter despair.
It’s up to the Church to offer them a more excellent way—the love and the Good News of Jesus.
Mark Earleyis president of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
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