How Belgian Prisons Became a Breeding Ground for Islamic Extremism

Steven Mufson, Washington Post, March 27, 2016

Stephane Medot knows a thing or two about Belgian prisons. He spent 10 years in them. Arrested for carrying out more than a dozen armed bank robberies, the stocky, bald-headed Medot moved from prison to prison, from one cell of his own to another, until he served out his time.

Along the way, he got a front-row seat in a prison system that has become a breeding ground for violent Muslim extremists. Many of those involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks first did short stints behind bars for relatively petty crimes. And there these wayward young people met proselytizers and appear to have acquired a new, lethal sense of purpose.

A Belgian prison is where Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who helped plan the Paris attacks and who was killed in a police raid in November, met Salah Abdeslam, an alleged Paris attacker who was captured in Brussels this month. Salah’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up in Paris, also served time.

Two of the suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks last week, brothers Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, had spent time in Belgian prisons for violent offenses that included armed robbery and carjacking.

Medot, now 37, said that from prison to prison, the routine he witnessed was similar. Proselytizing prisoners used exercise hours and small windows in their cells to swap news, copies of the Koran and small favors such as illicit cellphones. Gradually, they won over impressionable youths and taught them to stop drinking and start thinking about perceived injustices such as the invasion of Iraq, the plight of Palestinians or the treatment of their own immigrant families.

The prison guards, who could not understand Arabic, had a “laissez-faire attitude,” he said, and did nothing to stop the pulsating music or political discussions.

“If you’re not a Muslim, you feel the need to adapt to the rules,” said Medot, who is not Muslim. When the hour for prayer arrived, everyone was asked to turn off televisions so as not to disturb the faithful.

For the past year, Belgium’s Ministry of Justice has been planning to change a prison system widely seen as a school for radicals. It is creating two isolated areas, each with room for 20 people, at Hasselt and Ittre prisons for the most radical inmates. At the moment, said ministry spokeswoman Sieghild Lacoere, only five inmates clearly qualify. The segregation is set to begin April 11.

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The ministry also said it would improve living conditions in the overcrowded prisons. Belgium has about 11,000 prisoners, ­Lacoere said, of whom 20 to 30 percent are Muslims, even though Muslims make up only about 6 percent of the population.

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But Medot said that the government’s plan to isolate radicals won’t work. Who will decide which prisoners are too radical to stay with other detainees? Won’t they become even more radical in isolation? And what will happen to them when their sentences run out?

Lacoere said the Justice Ministry’s plan includes hiring more experts to “de-radicalize” inmates. She said guards will get special training. She said isolating the radicals isn’t the same as abandoning them; they will get more intensive attention, she said.

Still, she acknowledged, there will be difficult issues. “There is not a lot of knowledge in the academic world on this de-radicalization. It’s a very hard topic to talk about,” she said. “It’s about influencing people’s ideas, and there’s freedom of speech and thought in our country.”

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