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Homegrown: Islam in Prison

Homegrown: Islam in Prison

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GREGORY B. SAATHOFF, M.D., Executive Director, Critical Incident Analysis Group, Associate Professor Of Research, School Of Medicine, University Of Virginia.

Our second witness, Dr. Gregory Saathoff, serves as the executive director of the Critical Incident Analysis Group and is an associate professor at the University of Virginia. He currently serves as the other chair, the co-chair, with Mr. Cilluffo of the Prisoner Radicalization Task Force. He is also on the Research Advisory Board for the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Over the past 15 years he has provided psychiatric consultations to inmates in more than 10 federal and state prisons in the United States.

DR. GREGORY B. SAATHOFF: Chairman Collins, Senator Carper, and staff members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, I'd like to thank you for inviting me to testify before you today on this subject of national importance. It's been a privilege to serve as co-chair with Mr. Cilluffo on the Prisoner Radicalization Task Force that has released its report today.

Throughout the last decade, I have assisted in the coordination of briefings between behavioral science experts in the FBI and an international group of religion scholars associated with the American Academy of Religions. During the last 15 years, as a member of the faculty of the University of Virginia's School of Medicine, I have provided consultation in more than ten state prisons, federal prisons and jails. Through this work, I've had an opportunity to witness the importance of the media, the power of social networks, the changing role of information technology and the often vital role that religion plays in rehabilitation, if not redemption.

In my brief remarks today I will speak to the issue of radicalization from a behavioral science perspective. While the federal prison system has made great strides in addressing the issues of religious radicalization and recruitment within prisons, our level of awareness and understanding is still quite limited, particularly at the level of the state prisons, community corrections and local jails. Research on the characteristics of terrorist recruits abroad has identified youth, unemployment, alienation, a need for a sense of self-importance, and a need to belong to a group as common factors, all of which are present among U.S. prison populations.

The landscape of prison life has also changed dramatically, in that the 24-hour news cycle available within prisons acts as a force multiplier. Now why is this important? Behavior is contagious, whether it occurs in exuberant fans crowding onto a sports field after victory, or angry inmates who riot within a facility. I learned this myself when I was called to see an inmate who had set his cell on fire. It was only after I treated him that I realized that the image of a raging fire on television had provoked him to torch his cell.

This can also occur on a macro level. Two days after the World Trade Center attack, I consulted to a prison that I thought I knew well. Anxious inmates informed me that the televised images of the 9/11 attack were cause for celebration among many of the inmates. In fact, they estimated that perhaps a third of the inmates praised the attacks, and their cheers could be heard in cellblock after cellblock. I'd like to emphasize that the cheering inmates shared not a single religion, but a vulnerability to radicalization.

Of course, access to radio and television can have a significant positive impact within prisons. However, one of the byproducts of our smaller, more information connected world is the globalization of grievance. Images of distant conflicts are burned into the memories and identities of impressionable inmates. Television transmissions of bombings and group violence have immense power, and their impact within the prison environment cannot be overstated.

When there has been little exposure to organized religion in the community the inmate's understanding of religion is dependent upon the religious leadership and materials at their facilities, and this is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of inmates are located not in the federal but in the state prisons and local jails. 1.7 million inmates in a diverse, dispersed system, or set of systems, actually.

Radical rhetoric may therefore exploit the inmate's vulnerabilities and lack of grounded religious knowledge by providing validation to the inmate's disillusionment with society and by creating an outlet for their violent impulses. Psychological factors that increase vulnerability include high level of distress, cultural disillusionment, lack of intrinsic religious beliefs or values, dysfunctional family systems, and dependent personality tendencies. Inmates may also be drawn to radical groups out of the need for protection or to gain status among other prisoners.

Occasionally I'm asked to describe the typical radicalized inmate. While it seems a reasonable question, I would suggest that focusing only on individual inmates is not an appropriate solution. In fact, terrorism is a team sport. Social bonding is not only the magnet but also the glue that holds these groups together, rather than concepts like brainwashing that are simple, attractive and wrong.

The most effective terrorists are team players, who play different positions on a radicalized field. Our overcrowded prisons provide an opportunity for a deep bench. Even more importantly, para- radicalization and recruitment occurs in prison. In this exploitative environment, inmates, visitors and even prison employees can be unwitting players who can be cajoled, bribed or coerced into transmitting messages and materials without being aware of their real purpose.

It is not enough to understand terrorism in prison by learning only about inmates. One must also have an understanding of those who visit and volunteer in prisons. Studies have suggested that terrorist recruitment methods are not always expected to yield a high number of recruits. Even if the radical message resonates with only a few inmates, they could then be targeted for more intense one on one instruction. The impact and destructive potential of a prison- directed terrorist cell is enormous.

There is a difference between a radicalized prisoner, who holds radical religious or political beliefs, and a prisoner who has been recruited by a terrorist group and who has chosen to commit violence. An important resource for combating terrorism might be to determine which factor or factors influence some radicalized prisoners to make that specific leap from radical beliefs to violence in the name of those beliefs.

Because radical religious violence can occur within prisons, we have an obligation to inmate populations certainly, but also to those who are charged with maintaining safe prisons.

Just as we seek to protect our soldiers by providing them with the most up-to-date intelligence, we are also obligated to use our enhanced knowledge to safeguard the lives of our correctional officers. A compelling case can be made for a review of our prison system, particularly at the state and local levels.

Chairman Collins, in order to defeat a networked opponent our prisons need to be "networked" through information technology systems that are truly integrated. When serious symptoms present, it's tempting to try to reach for a treatment before we have a diagnosis. History reveals that government works best when it first shines light rather than heat upon concerns that involve religious questions and conflict.

Government must be proactive. We must base our operations on real intelligence, rather than gut reactions. Unless we understand the nature and extent of the problem of religious radicalization in prison, we are likely to first neglect it, and then over-react in a way that unnecessarily antagonizes and polarizes our prison population. In addition to being an assault on civil liberties, an aggressive over-reaction by government in the absence of good intelligence would lose hearts and minds to radicalization and recruitment, playing into the very hands of those who would want to subvert our system.

Our briefings revealed that while the New Folsum plot in California was discovered in the community accidentally by virtue of a dropped cell phone, the response of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Los Angeles was superb. Expecting though that a Joint Terrorism Task Force should be a primary force for dealing with this complex problem is like expecting emergency rooms to provide all medical care. Proactive, integrated intelligence-sharing systems are critical to identify and connect the dots before they become plots.

In my role as a consulting psychiatrist to prisons I also teach the medical students who accompany me. Prison can be a humbling place, where teachers once again find themselves to be students. I will never forget one of the first religious challenges that faced me in prison. A suicidal inmate was to be placed in a stripped cell without any possessions. As he was led from my office, he begged me to allow him to keep just one possession, his Bible. At such a time it appeared obvious to me that this request could easily be granted, and without hesitation I instructed the officer to give him his Bible.

Before doing so though the officer flipped through the pages, reached into the book of Revelations, and pulled out a razor blade. "Doc," he said. "Do you want him to have this too?" The inmate smiled weakly and said "I guess I don't need my Bible after all." Unfortunately, we are living in more complex times. An officer who can easily identify and remove a razor blade from a Bible will most likely not be able to identify the razors of radicalization, such as jihadist material that advocates violent measures against innocent civilians, gangs who are willing to masquerade their violence as religion, and radicalized individuals who are willing to take the last step towards terrorism.

In closing, I would like to recognize the committee and their staff for their professionalism, and the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia and its resources within the Critical Incident Analysis Group. I would also especially like to thank Frank Cilluffo and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at the George Washington University for their dedication to this process, and of course the task force members.

I would like to extend to you an open offer to continue to work closely with them. Thank you and I would be pleased to try to answer any questions you may have.

SEN. COLLINS: Thank you, Doctor, we very much appreciate your testimony and your offer to continue to work with the committee as we pursue this issue.

Copyright 2006 The Federal News Service, Inc.
Federal News Service

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