Harriet Alexander, Telegraph, January 17, 2015
Chérif Kouachi was sent to Fleury-Merogis prison–Europe’s largest–in January 2005. While behind bars he met Djamel Beghal, nicknamed Abu Hamza, who was serving ten years for a plot to attack the US embassy in 2001.
Kouachi also met Amedy Coulibaly, who during the three-day coordinated attacks murdered a policewoman and killed four people inside a Jewish supermarket.
Both the Paris attackers fell under Beghal’s spell, hardening their attitudes against France, their home country, and convincing them of the need to wage war in the name of Islam.
It is a worryingly common phenomena across Europe, but especially in France, where at least four men now known to have been radicalised in prison have launched attacks on Europe in the past two years.
Mohamed Merah, the 2012 Toulouse attacker, moved from being a wild petty delinquent to a hardened jihadist while behind bars, and on his release travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train for jihad. He returned to France and murdered seven soldiers and Jewish civilians.
Mehdi Nemouche, author of the May murder of four people in Brussels, was also radicalised in prison–travelling to Syria when he was freed and then coming back to attack the Jewish museum.
Chérif Kouachi was already involved in jihadi circles when he went to prison, and found the experience a Petri dish for his extreme views. Coulibaly, like Merah and Nemouche, went in a simple delinquent from the banlieus, but came out a dangerous Islamist.
What is going on in France’s prisons?
Of the 67,500 people currently behind bars in France, it is estimated that 70 per cent are Muslim–when they comprise only eight per cent of the French public. It is illegal under France’s strict laicity laws to count the number of Muslim prisoners, but experts agree that the figure is an accurate average–with some prisons, like those near Paris and Marseille, seeing an even higher percentage. In England and Wales, Muslims account for 14 per cent of the prison population, according to Home Office statistics, and five per cent of the population nationwide.
French authorities state that 283 people are currently in prison for terrorism, of whom 152 are classed as dangerous Islamists. Sixty of them–almost all incarcerated in Paris–are deemed particularly dangerous.
France is the country in Europe which has the highest Muslim population, and has also seen the highest number of people–estimated by the Brookings Institute this month at over 900–travelling to Syria to join Islamic State.
Last week Manuel Valls, the combative French prime minister, said that segregating the hardened radical Islamists from other prisoners was key.
“We separate these inmates from the rest,” Mr Valls told French TV channel BFMTV on Monday.
“It must become a general measure (but) it must be done with discernment and intelligence.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president and now leader of the opposition UMP, echoed his sentiments.
In the prison at Fresnes, south of Paris, a trial programme of segregation has been running since November. Stéphane Scotto, director of the prison, told France Info radio that 20 people were living in segregation–one of whom, believed to be Flavien Moreau, the first jihadist convicted on his return from Syria, was in total isolation.
He said that the idea begun when he noted that in the summer last year there were a dozen radical Islamists in his prison–but by autumn that had increased to 20.
Mr Scotto added that the trial was showing positive results, serving to calm other Muslim prisoners who complained that they felt pressured to behave in a certain way–praying five times a day, taking down the images of naked women that adorned their cells, and wearing clothes in the showers.
But many believe that separating hardened jihadists from moderate Muslims in prison will not solve the problem.
Another prison official told the paper on Tuesday: “I’m going to hand over to the police 60kg of mobile phones that we have seized from prisoners. But they won’t have the time to go through them all.”
Prisons are so full of delinquency, combating radical Islam isn’t their priority, he added. “And the inmates know it.”
“I don’t understand that idea at all of putting all the radicals together and hoping they will change,” said Mr Mokhtari, who now, aged 36, runs an organisation dedicated to helping young men in prison avoid the temptation he nearly fell into.
“We don’t want a new Guantánamo in France.”
Haras Rafiq, who works for the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation and regularly visits prisoners in Britain, said there were two competing schools of thought: one suggested letting prisoners mix in general circulation so ideas are moderated, and the other advocated isolation.
“Neither model works on its own, however,” he told The Telegraph.
Instead Mr Rafiq–like many who visit prisons–advocated an increase in the number and professionalism of imams who provide spiritual guidance to inmates.
In Britain, an estimated 200 imams regularly see prisoners. In France, with over six times the number of Muslim inmates, there are only 182 imams currently visiting.
“There really is no deradicalisation programme in French prisons,” said Mr Rafiq. “In Britain we certainly have plenty of problems, but we do do it better.”
Yet even in the UK, Mr Rafiq said that it was hard to find suitably qualified imams–possessing, he said, the required intellectual, ideological, emotional and spiritual talents.
“Many imams just aren’t up to the task. Deradicalisation isn’t just a religious thing. It’s also political–you need to look at the disenfranchisement, and what they see as racism in society.
“And a lot of them are out of touch. They don’t understand Twitter or social media. The skills aren’t there.”