Terror in Europe

How Jihad Recruitment Spreads In French Prisons

Islamist radicals have long known that inmates offer prime soldiers to help wage their war on the outside. Now the state must react.

How Jihad Recruitment Spreads In French Prisons
Denis Demonpion

PARIS — At the Fresnes detention center in the southern outskirts of Paris, Islamist prisoners disrupted the national moment of silence observed in honor of the victims of the massacre the previous day at the Charlie Hebdo offices. The staff was gathered in the main prison courtyard when inmates pushed the volume of their television to the maximum. Others blared music. Through the bars of several cells, radicals shouted, "Allahu Akbar. Those dirty infidels, they deserved it." Visiting hours had just finished. Families heading to the exit joined in with the "disruption chorus," a prison official says.

About 50 of the prison's 2,000 inmates were among those disrupting the national day of mourning. The Fresnes prison is the second largest in Europe after the Fleury-Mérogis prison, also in the southern outskirts of Paris, which counts 4,000 inmates.

The latest incident wasn't a riot, just a conspicuous sign that Islamist proselytism is still persistent in French prisons. "There's not a single institution that, every single day, is not confronted by an act of proselytism that plagues the penitentiary life," says Emmanuel Gauthrin, secretary-general of "FO pénitentiaire," a national penitentiary union.

For a long time, the issue was confined to other French central institutions in the towns of Lannemezan, Saint-Maur, Clairvaux, Arles, Yzeure, Condé-sur-Sarthe and a few others. They are prisoners designed for long sentences, particularly for the Islamist terrorists of the 1980s and 1990s, including those of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an Algerian organization that perpetrated attacks in France in 1995 and 1996.

Fouad Ali Saleh, also known as "Ali the Tunisian," was sentenced to life in April 1992 for plotting some 15 bombings, including the September 1986 one at rue de Rennes in Paris that killed seven and wounded 54.

He has often been placed in solitary confinement because he threatened to cut the throat of his fellow North African inmates, saying they were too "weak" in their practice of religion. The guards who follow him closely say he is far from reformed. "In 20 years inside, he hasn't changed."

Lionel Dumont, founder of the "Gang de Roubaix," in his hometown, which is made up of several converts to Islam, is among the most influential inmates. Considered by the guards as "one of the most vindictive," he is serving a 30-year sentence for a series of robberies meant to finance the Islamist cause. "The converted are the most dangerous because they have the most to prove," says the FO pénitentiaire's James Vergnaud.

An epidemic

Over the past dozen years, radical Islam has spread like an epidemic in detention centers that receive people awaiting a final judgment or who are sentenced to short prison terms. Fleury-Mérogis and Fresnes were no exceptions. That's where Chérif Kouachi was kept in custody from November 2005 to October 2006. It was there that he met a figure of French radical Islam, Djamel Beghal. It was the same for the penitentiary institutions that, in their time, received Mohammed Merah, the French-Algerian Islamist terrorist responsible for the March 2012 killings in Toulouse and Montauban, who was killed in the raid launched against him. And it was the same story line for Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman accused of murdering four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014.

According to an October 2014 report published by Guillaume Larrivé, a parliament member from the center-right party Union for a Popular Movement, 40,000 inmates can be considered "of Muslim culture and religion." Jewish inmates, meanwhile, are few in number and are systematically isolated in order to guarantee their safety. In Moulins-Yzeure, the prison's two Jewish suspects (among 135 prisoners) were counseled not to use the soccer field. Meanwhile, the gym room is opened just for them at certain hours.

The information concerning the identity and lifestyle of inmates, which are noted when they enter the detention system, allows authorities to judge who has a dangerous profile. The surveillance staff are then on the front line, especially since the penitentiary administration has an internal intelligence service that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira reinforced in 2013. Its 80 or so members work closely with the intelligence services of the Ministers of the Interior and of Defense, and receive training to detect "deviant behaviors." This is a term that includes radical Islamists, potential jail breakers and mafia-related profiles.

"We should know exactly how many there are, but if you ask, people think you're a foul racist," one prison warden says.

Containing the spread

In an attempt to contain the epidemic, the Fresnes prison director tried an experiment in early December to put the most radical inmates — around 50 Islamists — on the same floor. Other prisons could follow the strategy if it proves to stem growth of Islamist proselytism.

Radicalization used to reveal itself through a series of external signs, such as the refusal by Islamist inmates to speak to the female staff. "Being a woman, in addition to being Muslim, isn't easy," explains Fadila, a dynamic 40-year-old warden who has worked for more than 15 years in sections that receive men and minors.

"When I worked in Poissy in the northwestern outskirts of Paris, a fundamentalist Muslim refused to speak to me because I was a woman of North African descent," she recalls.

Among other visible signs of radicalism are attempts to establish group prayers — which are forbidden — during exercise time, or calls to follow the rite through cell windows. In Lannemezan, for instance, an al-Qaeda militant, who'd just preached in the courtyard, summoned his fellow inmates to tell them not to go back up in the corridors after the daily walk.

Looking to "clash" with the prison wardens, whom radicals call "infidels," or "harkis" when they are of North African origin, is also part of the classic behavior of potentially troublesome Islamist inmates.

Recruiting grounds

Over the past few years, successive Ministers of Justice have supported the nomination of official imams to channel any excesses (there are now 169 in the prisons, compared to 655 for Catholicism). In practice, the newcomers have serious trouble establishing themselves against self-proclaimed preachers, some of whom behave like mob bosses.

In the Ensisheim prison, in eastern France, a warden heard an inmate say to another, "If you join our family, you'll never be alone. If your family is ever in need, we'll be there." Says the warden who witnessed the conversation, "When you're Muslim, you need to be strong not to give in to the ultras."

According to Jean-Michel Dejenne, secretary-general of the national union for penitentiary directors, the biggest problem used to be violent clashes among inmates. "Now, they've become recruiting grounds." Clashes may be less frequent, "but proselytism isn't decreasing. It’s just not as aggressive anymore," he adds.

The strategy to spread jihad now includes blending in. A few weeks ago, a 43-year-old Frenchman with Tunisian origins who'd just served out his sentence was noted for his good behavior. The only time he'd gotten into trouble was when he was caught praying away from everyone else. It was "not to bother anyone," he explained apologetically.

The wardens didn't make much of it. Upon his release, he was supposed to return to his home in Brittany. Instead, he went to Syria.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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