Monday, 22 August 2016

The Choudary Conundrum

It seems to be an unhappy coincidence, but recent news of the conviction of Anjem Choudary, the British Islamist radical leader, on charges of ‘inviting support for a proscribed organisation’ (namely so-called Islamic State) has come at around the same time as the Ministry of Justice announced its new plans to segregate extremist leaders in prisons in order to reduce the risk of other prisoners becoming radicalised and inspired to commit acts of terrorism. So what are the chances that this new strategy can deliver?

Anjem Choudary
I have blogged before on the impact of radicalisation in our dysfunctional prison system back in 2014 and 2015 (read posts here and here). In the intervening period little or nothing appears to have been done to address this issue, although the previous Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, did commission a report on the matter. This was prepared by former prison governor Ian Acheson and a summary of his findings – although not the whole report – was released on 22 August.

When compared with our bloated and overcrowded prison system, the actual numbers involved look relatively small. We currently have around 85,100 people in custody in prisons England and Wales. Of these, only 137 are Muslims convicted of terrorism-related offences. However, those who identify as Muslims within our jails number around 12,600 and the overwhelming majority are either serving time for a very wide variety of criminal offences other than terrorism or are being held on remand.

Sir Humphrey... a Civil Service master
It is this population – along with hundreds of young, impressionable or vulnerable non-Muslim inmates – that presents would-be radical recruiters with an audience that contains at least some individuals who are ripe for recruitment or conversion to the most extreme interpretations of current Islamist thought and practice. To date, as Mr Acheson’s report acknowledges, HM Prison Service has not been “effective” in tackling extremism within the prison estate. He is obviously a master of the traditional Civil Service gift for understatement. Sir Humphrey, the star of Yes Minister, would be so very proud.

During my own time inside between 2012 and 2014 I was very much aware of just how little most prison staff were aware of what was going on under their noses when it came to radicalisation (and this applied not just to Islamist extremists, but far right groups too). However, even when it was clear that some pretty severe bullying and aggressive proselytisation was going on across the wings, many staff members seemed at a loss what to do about it. I sensed an all-pervasive fear of getting involved with anything that might be interpreted as interference with, or obstruction of, religious practices or even racism.

Might be useful for staff
Having previously lived and worked in several Muslim countries, including Dubai and Iran, I was probably much more attuned to what was going on than most uniformed staff members. I served my single sentence in six prisons and during that time I am certain that I never met a single member of the frontline staff who was a Muslim or who spoke Arabic or any other relevant language such as Urdu, Pashto or Persian. Of course, it is possible that the prisons’ security departments were keeping tabs on those who were involved in ‘grooming’ younger, more vulnerable inmates, but if so I saw little or no evidence of anything being done on the wings.

I also met other prisoners who had fallen foul of radical gangs in different prisons and, rather than break up the tight cliques that effectively took control of spurs (small corridors) or even entire wings, governors and custodial managers appeared more willing to transfer the non-Muslim prisoner to another establishment rather than actually challenge dominant groups controlling large swathes of territory in the prisons under their charge. I certainly gained the impression that as long as radical gangs were not openly disrupting the daily regime or engaging in open violence, especially against staff, there was a tacit approach of leaving well alone.

Perhaps a major part of that was due to the current policies that deal with equality and non-discrimination in our prisons. As a peer mentor I worked closely with other inmates who were equality and diversity reps and it seemed that rank and file officers were often unwilling to challenge Muslim radicals (or some other very visible groups that had the advantage of numbers on the wings) because of a fear that they might face formal accusations or complaints of harassment or racial discrimination. Even if entirely unjustified, such allegations can be both stressful and time-consuming to contest via internal prison channels.

Distinctive Muslim dress in prison
A general lack of knowledge about Islam and its central tenets among prison staff certainly didn’t help matters. I lost count of the number of occasions officers who queried specific practices or activities were told by prisoners: “It’s my religion, guv!”

There is no doubt in my own mind that in quite a few cases inmates were manipulating and even intimidating wing staff who actually had no idea whether what they were being told was true. A few did refer issues to the part-time Muslim chaplain, but to be honest this involved yet more bureaucracy and paperwork, by which stage the original issue was often long forgotten. It was easier to give the benefit of the doubt when it came to unfamiliar religious issues or demands.

However, beyond these more practical questions, there was a wider concern over what these tightly-knit groups or gangs were discussing behind closed cell doors or in informal meetings outside of formal organised prayers led by Muslim chaplains. Where there was a critical mass of prisoners from specific countries or regions, language could be used as a badge of separation. I was in one Cat-B prison where perhaps 12 or 14 prisoners regularly communicated among themselves in various dialects of Arabic, completely unintelligible to those who didn’t speak the language, including other inmates and the entire wing staff.

Instrumental music is banned
In most group structures there was also evidence of dominant or influential leaders who set the tone for the behaviour of the other members of their circle. In some cases the level of influence or control was quite significant, encompassing issues such as listening to instrumental music (considered haram or forbidden as ‘un-Islamic’ by many radical Sunni Salafi sects), sharing prison cells with non-Muslims (‘kuffar’), issues of modesty in the communal showers and even associating on friendly terms with other prisoners. I saw various books and pamphlets being circulated within these groups, often in foreign languages that I was sure no member of the prison staff could possibly have read or checked.

In one prison, Muslim prisoners sought to take control of specific corridors (including the small wing kitchens and shower blocks) in order to bar entry to non-Muslims. This was justified by reference to the need to keep kitchen equipment ‘uncontaminated’ and suitable for the preparation of halal food. By excluding non-believers from the shower blocks, standards of Islamic ‘modesty’ could be imposed. This level of segregation was entirely self-imposed by members of the group.

Drugs found in prisons
Against this background, it is easy to understand the concerns that have been highlighted in Mr Acheson’s report. There can be no doubt that in some cases the gang culture also embraces a range of criminal activities such as drug trafficking and supply to other prisoners, especially non-Muslims. This is a specific area where particularly vulnerable prisoners, such as weak or addicted young men, can be groomed and brought into the orbit of the dominant group or gang.

There is also a very real risk of individual members of prison staff – uniformed and civilian – being threatened, intimidated or drawn into compromising situations by well-organised gangs of extremists. This is a specific security problem that is rarely mentioned or acknowledged, but given the recent number of prison staff convicted of misconduct (a total of 10 in the past 14 weeks, usually for smuggling contraband) it cannot be ignored. I attribute the easy availability of prohibited mobile phones and SIM cards in most of our prisons to porous security, too often aided and abetted by corrupt members of the prison staff, both uniformed and civilian, who supply smuggled items in return for cash payments outside the prison walls.

So will the latest proposals being brought forward by Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, address the threats posed by radical leaders – so-called ‘emirs’ – in our prisons? At one level, containment of the problem is probably the best that can be achieved. By introducing small, specialist units that isolate known or suspected radical leaders and recruiters their direct influence on wings may be reduced, if not entirely eliminated. By creating a number of such units in high security prisons, it may also allow governors to move such inmates around the estate regularly, thus disrupting groups of prisoners that they may create or lead.

Separation in special units
The wider issues will remain, however. A significant number of prisoners arrive in our prisons bringing radical, anti-establishment ideas in with them. Periods in custody do little or nothing to combat ideologies or religious fervour. In fact, it is usually quite the opposite. Bored and disgruntled, some inmates seek solace in regarding their incarceration as a form of ‘martyrdom’. Christians and adherents of most other major world faiths have gone down a similar path for millennia, so it is unlikely that Islamists will not do the same.

Imprisonment, particularly in harsh conditions, is very unlikely to persuade radicalised inmates to abandon their views and come to love the British state and its institutions. Our prisons have been dubbed ‘hate factories’ for a very good reason. Almost all of these individuals will eventually be released back into the community and many will emerge even more radicalised and filled with hatred for ‘the system’ than they were when they were sent down.

Claimed solutions – such as offending behaviour courses or even radical ‘deprogramming’ – are very unlikely to work with most extremists of whatever persuasion. In any case, these interventions are very costly and require levels of specialist staff that HM Prison Service simply doesn’t have. Given its past track record of failure, I think it is very unlikely that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will be able to resolve a crisis situation that it has allowed to develop and fester across our prison system for many years.

The MOJ: too little, too late?
Moreover, creating a new unit within the MOJ headed by an anti-extremism ‘tsar’ seems to smack of the usual ‘Something Must be Done-ism’ that all too often dominates political thinking when it comes to our prisons. It is likely to be a costly bureaucratic response to a problem that would be better served by recruiting more frontline prison staff, including qualified specialists capable of strengthening the intelligence and security departments of specific prisons where radicalisation has been identified as a serious threat. If such prisons don’t have staff members who can read and understand Arabic and other key languages, as well as understanding current Islamic faith and practice, the intelligence battle will be already half lost.

So how will Mr Choudary fare inside the slammer? Having already firmly established his persona as a leading ‘public enemy’ via the ever-helpful British media, the likelihood is that he has already settled into his new role as an Islamist ‘martyr’, oppressed by the infidel, godless UK state he claims to loathe so much. This is his golden opportunity to fight his own personal jihad from the relative comfort of a prison cell. Even in the comparative isolation of one of Ms Truss’s specialist segregation units he will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to take the leadership his tiny flock of like-minded individuals, spreading hated and mistrust as he goes round the prison system.

As a well-educated and articulate former solicitor he will almost certainly become one of the best prison cell lawyers and then run rings round the prison authorities, while causing the unfortunate governors and managers no end of time-consuming trouble and voluminous paperwork. I’d also be amazed if he doesn’t take the government to court sooner to later over the restrictive conditions in which he will be held. And, above all, he will no doubt find a way of smuggling out his sermons and fatwas as a rallying call to his remaining supporters outside the prison walls. If anyone thinks they have heard the last of Mr Choudary and his dangerous ideology, I fear they will be very much mistaken.


  1. As usual the government simply doesn't have a clue about how to deal with ANY problem in the prison system. As a result, their "solutions" will never work.

    One thing I would note is that in female prisons it is not muslim radicalisation that is an issue, more rabid fundamentalist Christianity amongst a lot of the foreign nationals who behave much as the radical muslims seem to in the male establishment in terms of bullying and recruiting the vulnerable prisoners. A lot of them refused to talk to me because I was a practising pagan and spread rumours about paganism because they simply did not understand what it is and never bothered to educate themselves either. I ended up being accused by staff as a result of complaints by some of these Christian fundamentalists that I had "mental health issues" (I don't) as a result of being a pagan which caused endless problems to resolve. Whilst freedom to practice one's religion or spiritual beliefs is a good thing allowing anyone in a closed contained environment to behave in the way any fundamentalist does is simply unacceptable. It's a fine line to draw but one that needs to be watched out for to prevent bullying and harm to vulnerable prisoners in any establishment

  2. This is actually an excellent blog post and is quite an accurate assessment of the potential risks such a strategy runs. In my view the answer is entirely simple and feasible if the government really wanted to address these issues. Creat a covert team of police officers and security service officers and infiltrate the prison system to root out not only radicalisation and extremeists, but also corruption and conspiracies to create havoc post release by these groups. A relatively simple task if done independently of the lower echelons of NOMS and local governors, but entirely possible and the practicalities relatively uncomplicated in creating false records etc for those operatives.

    1. Not a good idea to suggest creating a team of undercover police given the disaster that undercover policing has been to date in the UK as a solution. It may have worked in the case of the IRA but that was a very different era and a non religious issue.

  3. As I have come to expect, another informed and authoritative view from Alex.This is a big problem, the extremists are latching on to the fact that Muslim groups have now become the biggest 'firms' in the prison system.
    But I am not at all sure that isolating the hard core-and 'ghosting' them around the system- is the answer.Where are these 'seclusion units supposed to be? We already have segregation units and the Close Supervision Centres.And these are already locations where abuse takes place.The prisons within the prisons.Putting the hard core out of sight-and possibly subject to abuse, may make martyrs of them.Surely the aim should be to defeat their arguments?
    But, as I say, a big problem.