UK jihadists recruit 800 prisoners

A security think tank is the first to put a number on the problem of extremist cells reaching out to Muslim inmates.

LONDON // Hundreds of Muslims are being turned into potential terrorists after being radicalised in Britain's prisons, a report warned yesterday. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a leading security think-tank based in London, estimated that 800 radicals - poorly trained but willing to become bombers or assassins - could be released from the UK's jails during the next five years.

Published in the journal of the RUSI, the report said that Britain has more to fear than any other western country from home-grown terrorists. It is far from the first time that concerns have been expressed over the threat posed by the radicalisation of Muslim prisoners. Earlier this summer, the government's own chief inspector of prisons warned of the dangers. Two years ago, jail staff reported that extremist cells were actively recruiting from their cells.

But the RUSI report, compiled by Michael Clarke, the institute's director, and research fellow Valentina Soria, is the first to estimate the size of the problem. The authors said that about 8,000 Muslim prisoners were in English and Welsh jails and that an estimated one in 10 of those were being "successfully targeted" by radical jihadists. "Perhaps some 800 potentially violent radicals, not previously guilty of terrorism charges, will be back in society over the coming five to 10 years," said the report.

"The natural reaction to improved counter-terrorist operations is for jihadist attacks to evolve towards more individual efforts. "If lone bombers and assassins are being sent out to try their luck ... the key variable will be the effect these lone or spontaneous attempts have on the motivation of others to join the jihad. "Lone killers will always exist and some of them will succeed. The key question is whether their acts remain that of individuals or become part of a structural phenomenon."

Coupled with a foreign policy that "serves to focus alienation and resentment", the phenomenon of home-grown terrorism in the UK is growing, the authors said. Under a new generation of leaders, such as Anwar al Awlaki - a US citizen of Yemeni descent, described as "the bin Laden of the internet" - "it appears that high motivation is followed by fairly rudimentary training", the report said. While the chances of success for a lone, poorly trained individual may be considerably lower, "eventually, it is reasoned, one of them will be lucky enough to succeed in a major way against high-profile targets in western countries".

The report continued: "The possibility of attacks now hangs over all major sporting events from the Commonwealth Games in India and the 2012 Olympic Games in London, to all future signature events such as football World Cup tournaments." Although the ministry of justice disputed some of the figures in the report, Lord Alex Carlile, the government's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, told television programme GMTV yesterday: "I do not think this is an issue about Islam and Muslims. This is an issue about crime.

"We should not be surprised that when we send very young men to prison, particularly for short prison sentences, they become targets for greater crime. "Young men are often vulnerable in prison. What we must do is ensure that prisons are not filled up unnecessarily with young males on short sentences. "It is very important that prisons should be used where prison is required, that is mainly to protect the public."

Isabella Sankey, the director of policy for the civil rights group Liberty, said: "Think-tank debate on evolving security threats is important, if understandably speculative. "What is crucial is society's response. Terrorism feeds on fear, division and disenchantment. Our response needs to be intelligent, measured and united around the rule of law which terrorism seeks to undermine." A spokesman for the ministry of justice said: "The holding of extremist views and the process of radicalisation are not uniquely present in prison environments - both are found in wider society.

"The presumption that holding radical or extreme views necessarily leads to violent extremist behaviour and criminality should be challenged." However, in a report on Muslim prisoners in June, Dame Anne Owers, the government's chief inspector of prisons, warned that there was a real risk that the prison service itself risked turning inmates towards extremism. She said that the service tended to treat all Muslim prisoners as "potential terrorists" and, by doing so, was pushing young men to "embrace extremism".