Is the Criminal Justice System Prepared for the Deluge of Terrorists in US Jails?
The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to dealing effectively with radical Islamists, especially in the case of terrorists who have been captured or incarcerated.
Terrorist groups Al Qaeda and ISIS never forget their members. Both groups’ leaders, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent considerable periods of time locked up. It did nothing to diminish their zeal; rather, it fueled their fervor.
This is further illustrated by the number of terrorists released from Guantanamo who rejoin the fight against US military personnel. Almost one in three released prisoners return to the jihadists’ fold. This recidivism rate can be attributed in part to the support that imprisoned terrorists receive, including financial aid to their families and legal fees.
“I take this opportunity to address our prisoners. We have not forgotten you,” al-Zawahiri said in an interview with Al Shabab commemorating the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “We are still committed to the debt of your salvation . . . until we shatter your shackles.
AQAP’s Inspire magazine went so far as to list the names of incarcerated members for all to remember.
They do this because jihadis firmly believe that sooner or later, they’ll be reunited with those members.
If that isn’t ominous enough, consider the fact that as many as 100 people convicted of terror-related offenses in the US will be set free in less than four years.
And the US is not ready to meet this challenge.
Terrorists are sent to prison and treated like all other criminals. They are housed and fed in existing correctional facilities, and receive no mandatory rehabilitation or de-radicalization counseling. When they are released, there is no specialized supervisory program applied to monitor their employment or behavior.
This situation has to change if we are to deal effectively with terrorism. We should establish a registration list for convicted terrorists. This has been successfully used with sex offenders. It can work with terrorists if properly applied.
With as many as 500 terrorists now in custody and more to come, the custodial system must also evolve in how it handles jihadists. Security standards must not be downgraded simply because the terrorist has exhibited good behavior like “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, who will be released from prison in two years.
Special administrative measures — conditions of confinement — that restrict visits, correspondence and other prison privileges assigned to terrorists must continue.
Uniform security standards for imprisoned terrorists should be established in federal, state and local correctional facilities. Jose Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomber” who first learned of radical Islam while in a Florida county jail and was originally sentenced to life in prison, is scheduled to be released in eight years. Who will be the parole officers assigned to supervise him, and will those officers be afforded any specialized training before that happens?
In some cases, specialized facilities like Guantanamo are necessary for dealing with enemy combatants and other committed jihadists. They are effective. And no anecdotal evidence has been presented showing them to be a recruitment tool for ISIS or Al Qaeda.
The number of people arrested in the US for terrorism-related crimes nearly tripled in 2015. That year, FBI Director James Comey testified that more than 200 people traveled overseas from the United States in an attempt to fight alongside ISIS or Al Qaeda related groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2016, Comey said that his agents still had 1,000 open cases related to ISIS. Within the next few years, Comey said that there may be a “terrorist diaspora” of ISIS fighters leaving the battlefield in Syria and returning to their home countries to carry out more terrorist attacks.
We can only hope that the vast majority will be apprehended before they can launch attacks in the United States. And when they are, we had better be prepared to effectively deal with them throughout their entire time in the criminal justice system. Anything less is unacceptable to the citizens of this great country.
IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.