Britain’s Prison Dilemma: Issues and Concerns in Islamic Radicalization

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 6

The increasingly rapid tempo of arrests and convictions of terrorist plotters by the British security services has had the concurrent effect of increasing the number of terrorist prisoners now incarcerated in the United Kingdom’s penal system. This influx of hardened terrorists into the system has started to alarm many in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office who are concerned about the “disruptive impact of terrorists on prison regimes” (Guardian, March 3). Fears are focused on two main concerns: clashes between groups of Muslim prisoners and others in the general prison population, and the potential for high-profile terrorist prisoners to radicalize susceptible imprisoned youths.

The Shoe Bomber and the Amir

These fears are not without some basis. It has been widely reported that “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was radicalized while serving a sentence for petty crime in Feltham Young Offenders Institution. The “amir” of the July 21 group—responsible for the attempted bombings of the London underground on July 21, 2005—Muktar Said Ibrahim, was similarly radicalized during a period of incarceration at either Huntercombe or Feltham Young Offenders Institution (BBC, July 29, 2005; Observer, July 15, 2007). Imams preaching extremism have been blamed for radicalizing impressionable young men—in 2002, imams at both Huntercombe and Feltham were suspended for such activities (Observer, July 15, 2007).

British authorities are also concerned by behavior seen in prisons across the Channel in continental Europe. The recent conviction in Spain of 20 individuals for “Islamic terrorist activity”—though not on the original charge of plotting to drive a truck bomb into the main anti-terrorist courthouse—spawned from a plot that was led by Abderrahmane Tahiri, also known as Mohamed Achraf, and was concocted behind bars (Reuters Espana, February 27). Similarly, in 2005, French police arrested Safe Bourada, an Algerian who had served time in prison for plotting the 1990s metro attacks in Paris. Bourada was charged with leading a terror cell he had recruited while serving his sentence (Times, October 3, 2006; Le Monde, September 27, 2005).

Fears in the United Kingdom, however, date back to the Irish troubles, when many remember the role played by detainees in HM Prison Maze during the 1970s-1990s (BBC, October 23, 2007). Initially intended as a place of incarceration, the penitentiary slowly developed into a political rallying point, even going so far as to attract a visit by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam as a part of the peace talks. Furthermore, violence between different dissident groups often spilled over beyond the prison walls, with some 29 prison officers killed during the troubles (Observer, July 15, 2007).

Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh

In particular, there are concerns about the prison population in HM Prison Belmarsh in Southeast London, where at least 151 of 916 prisoners attend Muslim religious services regularly [1]. One police official described the prison to Jamestown as Britain’s own “madrasah,” and there have been reports of guard intimidation: “When an officer confronts a Muslim prisoner…he or she finds themselves surrounded by five or six other inmates” (Observer, July 15, 2007). Even more alarming, in July 2007, prison officers confiscated a laptop computer from prisoner Tariq al-Dour, who was convicted alongside Younis Tsouli, also known as Irhabi 007 (see Terrorism Focus, March 4), for allegedly using a mobile phone to connect to the internet and building a terrorist-sympathetic website (Mirror, July 15, 2007). The scuffle surrounding the seizure of the computer led to a riot between prison officers and al-Qaeda sympathizers detained in the prison (Observer, July 15, 2007).

There are currently around 130 prisoners convicted or on remand for terrorist-related crimes in the British penal system, though this number is likely to increase as a number of high-profile cases reach conclusion (Guardian, March 3). This is in a prison population of around 80,000, about 11 percent of which identify themselves as Muslims (BBC, August 3, 2007). Given that not all of these prisoners are held apart from the general population, the result is that convicted terrorists can be incarcerated with criminals detained for more petty crimes, a potentially dangerous combination. As Steve Gough, vice-chairman of the Prison Officers Association, put it: “The majority of the prison population is comprised of angry young men, disenfranchised from society. It doesn’t matter if they are English, Afro-Caribbean, or whatever. These people are ripe for radicalization” (Observer, July 15, 2007).

Stories of radicals openly leading Muslim services have emerged. In 2006, the BBC learned that Khalid al Fawwaz, also known as Abu Omar, who is currently fighting extradition to the United States for charges pertaining to the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, led prayers amongst Muslim prisoners while being detained in 2003 at HM Prison Woodhill (BBC, May 4, 2006). In August 2007, the Prison Officers Association expressed concern that Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-Palestinian wanted on terrorism charges in eight countries, might have been preaching in HM Prison Long Lartin—officers were unable to understand exactly what Qatada was doing during “thrice daily communal prayers” (BBC, August 3, 2007). Reflecting prison officers’ heightened awareness of this problem, Dhiren Barot, also known as Essa al-Hindi—mastermind of a series of plots including against potentially high-profile financial targets in the United Kingdom and United States—has complained that “any time the prison [official] [sic.] feels that I may have found a ‘friend’ that I may be ‘overly’ socializing with, more often than not the individual/s concerned are promptly shipped out to other establishments. Why? For irrational fear of ‘sermonizing’ or ‘talent scouting’ of course because they believe I have an arresting personality! The same goes for physical training with other inmates” [2].

The Dispersal Strategy

One solution that has been attempted is dispersal, whereby prisoners detained on al-Qaeda-related charges are sent to prisons around the country to avoid their clustering and forming gangs in specific prisons. A particularly high-profile instance of this has been the decision to transfer prisoners Omar Khyam, the leader of a group of would-be terrorist bombers broken up by 2004’s “Operation Crevice,” Hussein Osman, one of the July 21 plotters and Dhiren Barot to HM Prison Frankland in Durham, England.

Clashes between the extremists and other prisoners in HM Prison Frankland have been frequent. In July 2007, Barot was assaulted by other prisoners with scalding water and boiling oil, leading to substantial burns and scarring (Observer, February 10;, November-December 2007). Then in October 2007, Omar Khyam, who according to his lawyer has faced death threats from other inmates [3], assaulted another prisoner in a similar manner resulting in charges being brought against him (BBC, January 31).

Many prisoners charged with terrorist offenses have been spread over a number of prisons nationally, but concerns remain surrounding the possibility of deeper long-term radicalization or clashes between gangs of extremists and other prisoners. As the national commissioning plan for security prisons highlighted: “There is an urgent need to understand the custodial behavior of this group of offenders and its potential impact on other prisoners” (Guardian, March 3).

Government Response

In a speech at King’s College on January 17, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that “with the Ministry of Justice and the Prisons Service we have set up an important program to understand and address radicalization in our prisons system” [4]. This announcement is something that the Prison Officers Association and others have long been calling for. Its delay was the product of a recent shake-up in the Home Office of the United Kingdom. Sparked by an immigration scandal, then-Home Secretary John Reid announced in the ensuing process that responsibility across the government for counter-terrorism would be moved to an Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism within the Home Office. Responsibility for prisons, formerly a Home Office role, would now be handed off onto the newly formed Ministry of Justice (BBC, March 29, 2007).

The Home Office has also introduced a four-strand counter-terrorism strategy known as “Contest,” involving phases known as “Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare.” It was determined, however, that the “Prevent” aspect—which deals with “tackling the radicalization of individuals”—of the government’s strategy would be led by the Department of Communities and Local Government. One can see how radicalization in prisons falls tidily between the cracks in these newly defined bureaucratic lines.


The potential risks from Britain’s prisons would seem to be real, though not completely understood. While more rigid vetting has hopefully prevented extremist imams from preaching to susceptible and captive populations of incarcerated young men, the system is not foolproof. The bigger problems remain of how to handle a growing long-term prison population of hardened terrorists from proselytizing to fellow prisoners and how to prevent a repetition of some of the problems faced during the Irish troubles. When one considers that Britain’s internal security service MI5 claims to have at least 2,000 terrorist plotters under surveillance, with possibly “double that number” that they do not know about [5], it seems inevitable that the problem of prison radicalization will be further magnified.


1. HM Prison Belmarsh, Annual Report of the Independent Monitoring Board, July 2006-June 2007.

2. “Eesa Barot’s Letter to the Ummah,”

3. “Abuse of Muslims in Frankland Prison,” Help the Prisoners campaign pack, December 27, 2007;

4. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, “Our Shared Values – A Shared Responsibility,” First International Conference on Radicalisation and Political Violence, January 17, 2007;

5. Jonathan Evans, “Address to the Society of Editors by the Director General of the Security Service,” November 5, 2007;