UK Muslim prison gangs dubbed the ‘brotherhood’ fuel radicalisation fears

Report reveals gangs use violence to force inmates to convert to Islam

A prison guard walks past a sign to the prison mosque inside Wandsworth prison. HMP Wandsworth in South West London was built in 1851 and is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
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Muslim criminal gangs calling themselves the “brotherhood” are operating in Britain’s top security prisons and use violence to force inmates to convert to Islam, a report has revealed.

The groups operate under the same name as the ideological Muslim Brotherhood movement but the UK government, which commissioned the survey, said the prison groups were separate from the organisation.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said it has been raising concerns about the Muslim “brotherhood” for a number of years.

“We have been warning for some time about the growth of a gang culture, whether it is the so-called Muslim brotherhood or others. It is alarming that this report shows that gang culture is now rife within the high-security prisons,” he said.

The prison groups have a hierarchy of leaders, recruiters, enforcers, followers and foot soldiers, the report said, with terrorists often holding the more senior roles.

One non-Muslim inmate said: “There is an underlying pressure for people to convert and join the gang.

“Their tactic is to befriend someone when they come in. If they don’t convert, they will then start spreading rumours about them, that the person is a snitch, so that they will be ostracised. Then the beatings follow.”

The findings are based on interviews with 83 male prisoners and 73 staff at three of the eight high-security prisons in England, which are not named.

Latest figures reveal there are 13,008 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales, accounting for 15 per cent of the total jail population, with 175 serving terror-related sentences.

Ian Acheson, who led a 2016 government review of Islamist extremism, said that extremists within powerful gangs can exploit the vulnerable in prison.

“Prisoners will embrace gang structures for pragmatic safety reasons, belonging, solidarity, excitement and to further criminal activity,” he said.

“The more disordered the prison environment the more prevalent the phenomenon will become and the risk is that extremists will exploit those desires and the way they interact.”

Dr Lorenzo Vidino – director of extremism programme at George Washington University – said that in past years the Muslim Brotherhood had targeted UK prisons and seen it as a fertile ground to “establish a foothold and attract people to their version of Islam”.

“What this report talks about is more informal gangs... spontaneous gangs that really don’t have this kind of national organised network like the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“The sense of brotherhood is very important in Islam. These gangs form and take advantage of the sense of anger and search for identity that prisoners might have and build on it to try to exploit them.”

Professor Noha Mellor, of the University of Bedfordshire, said it was dangerous to allow powerful gangs to take root. “The inevitable result of the rhetoric of “brothers” vs “non-brothers” is that Muslim members of such groups prefer to isolate themselves from non-members,” she said.

“The rhetoric of violent groups such as al-Qaeda or ISIS is based on the same concept of isolation, for example isolating “true Muslims/believers” from “infidels”, and here lies the danger in allowing such a rhetoric to take root.”

Dr Paul Stott, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society's Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, said the gangs does not believe the prison gangs are affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood but are uniting to create a "strong" platform for themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which began in Egypt in 1928, has been outlawed in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE and is shortly due to be added to the US’s list of banned organisations.

The secret organisation is not banned in the UK but a 2015 report for the British government made a series of damning assessments of its activities in the country.

“The prisoners are coalescing around a common Islamic identity,” said Dr Stott. “Muslim prison groupings seek to include and exclude – to unite a core group, and to exclude those who are not followers of the same faith. They then hope to develop a position of strength, from which to enforce codes of behaviour on fellow Muslims, and to extract privileges from the authorities.

“Uniting around a faith is a particularly clever thing to do, as complaints about treatment or status can be made in terms of discrimination against their faith group. The authorities will often seek to avoid conflict rather than be accused of racism or religious discrimination.”

A spokeswoman for HM Prison Service said staff were receiving training to help identify those in the gangs.