The Bureau of Prisons: Allowing a Terrorist to Radicalize Others
Fool me once, shame on you — but fool me twice, shame on me. That saying may best describe the Federal Bureau of Prisons administrators who operate the New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).
How foolish were they? Well, they gave the inmates there the blueprints to make a bomb. And if that wasn’t stupid enough, they also gave them radical Islamic literature by noted terrorists Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. And these were no ordinary inmates. One was an ISIS sympathizer, one was an al-Shabaab member, and another was convicted of attacking US military personnel in Afghanistan.
How did this fiasco occur you ask — as if this story couldn’t get any worse? The materials were distributed by convicted terrorist Ahmad Khan Rahimi, better known as the Chelsea Bomber. Rahimi was in the MCC awaiting sentencing in January, after he was convicted of setting off two improvised explosive devices in 2016 — one in New York and one in New Jersey. A third device set by Rahimi failed to detonate. The bomb that exploded in the Chelsea neighborhood in New York City injured more than a dozen people. Luckily, no one was killed.
This egregious breach in prison security protocol was outlined in a letter from Acting US Attorney Joon H. Kim, Southern District of New York, to US District Judge Richard Berman. Among the security breaches that Kim informed the court of was that Rahimi was “attempting to radicalize fellow inmates” other inmates. Investigators found the radical literature on Rahimi’s electronic devices.
It is no surprise to learn that terrorists radicalize other inmates.
Numerous reports during the last decade have identified cases of people who were radicalized in prison, both in the United States and abroad. Several government reports have also identified specific factors that contribute to radicalization in prison. Among them were convicted terrorists who have gained notoriety for their crimes, and exerted influence on other inmates. Another factor in the radicalization process was inmate access to extremist literature by radical Islamists.
Several years ago, the Investigative Project on Terrorism discovered that tapes of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons were available in the Bureau of Prisons’ inmate library. In 2011, I testified before the House Committee for Homeland Security on the subject of Islamic radicalization in the US prison system. In my testimony, told the committee that I would not be surprised if a copy of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine was found in prison. And, in fact, several copies of Inspire were among the jihadist literature found in the Metropolitan Correctional Center inmates’ cells, Kim’s letter said.
So what caused this breakdown in security procedure?
It’s not that the MCC has never had to deal with incarcerated terrorists before. Over the past 25 years, it has held numerous high-profile terrorists within its cavernous walls in lower Manhattan — including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
Nor is it the first time that terrorists have been able to obtain contraband items at the facility. In November 2000, Al Qaeda members Mamdouh Salim and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed were held in the MCC for the bombing of the United States embassy in Tanzania. They attempted to escape by stabbing prison guard Louis Pepe with a sharpened comb that they had hidden in their cell. In the ensuing struggle, Pepe was stabbed in the eye and suffered a traumatic, career-ending disability.
Prisons are dangerous places — and the people who work in them realize the risks every time they go to work. But housing terrorists in the same prisons as ordinary criminals exponentially increases the security threat both outside the prison and within. Authorities shouldn’t heighten the risk by becoming lax in security measures. Consistent vigilance is a prerequisite to operating a secure prison.
Someone in the MCC should have reviewed the material prior to giving it to Rahimi. Yes, inmates are allowed access to legal papers (Rahimi got the papers during the legal discovery process). But if those papers contain material that would jeopardize the security of the facility (bomb-making instructions) they are held in a secure location outside of the general population.
Defendants in child pornography cases cannot bring such images into their cells.
In terrorism prosecutions, like Rahimi’s, a failure to examine his belongings allowed him to distribute the material to the other inmates in the jail mosque during Jummah services. Where was the Muslim chaplain while this was happening — or the security personnel assigned to cover the services? Bringing a Quran into the prison mosque is acceptable. Bringing a copy of Inspire magazine, or writings by Anwar al-Alwlaki, is not.
Someone has to be held accountable. If not, the likelihood of being fooled again just went up.
IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is a former deputy inspector general for the 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.