Radical Islam and the French Muslim Prison Population

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15

In the mid-1990s, after an unprecedented campaign of terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government dismantled several Algerian GIA-backed terrorist cells and sentenced both operatives and financiers of the attacks to lengthy prison terms. A new wave of convicts followed suit after the dismantling of another terrorist cell before the 1998 World Cup. Yet these anti-terrorism successes created a different set of problems as radical Islamists began proselytizing their views to fellow inmates and recruiting new followers in prisons. Pascal Maihlos, the director of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Renseignements Généraux (RG), put it plainly in an interview with Le Monde earlier this year: “It is there, in prison, that a minority of radical Islamist terrorists (about 100) hook up with petty criminals who find their way back to religion under its most radical form” (Top Chrétien, November 25, 2005).

Maihlos is referring to the new dangers posed by the proselytism of some radical Islamist activists inside French prisons. In its seminal 2005 study of proselytism in prisons, the RG counted 175 acts of proselytism in 68 prisons (out of 188 prisons across the country). The 68 prisons in question are generally larger prisons located in urban areas. According to Maihlos and the RG, the most severe acts of proselytism include spontaneous calls for collective prayers (30% of all incidents) and pressures on fellow prisoners to follow certain religious-oriented rules (20% of all recorded incidents) (Top Chrétien, January 14). Other acts of proselytism include special requests, such as requests for prayer carpets, halal meat (meat killed and processed according to religious principles) and suitable places for worship; there are also calls for allowing the traditional Islamic dress code (instead of prison garments) and a few incidents of degrading Christian symbols such as Bibles and Christmas trees. The progression of proselytism appears to be linked to the rise of Salafism, a brand of Islam that preaches a strict observance of 7th century rules and a strong rejection of Western values. Even though the Tablighi movement—which is hostile to violence—remains the dominant Islamic movement in French prisons, an unnamed RG official told Le Figaro on January 13 that “we observe a steady increase of Salafism, with two particularities: a strong rejection of Western values and the legitimacy of violence” to achieve their goals. As a result, the Salafism brand of Islam is now found in jails all across France except for four regions (out of 22), and its influence continues to grow. The four regions that are not experiencing this trend are located in rural areas (Top Chrétien, November 25, 2005).

In the short term, the threat is considered serious because a number of those imprisoned for acts of terrorism in the mid-1990s have been (or will soon be) released from prison [1]. The fear is that once out of prison, they will reconstitute new networks with the assistance of former inmates. According to Maihlos, “Of course, the release of such individuals is a top priority for all intelligence services [involved in counter-terrorism]” (Top Chrétien, November 25, 2005). Such fears are not just theoretical. In September 2005, the French counter-terrorism agency, Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), dismantled Safé Bourada’s terrorist cell in Trappes (near Paris). Safé Bourada, an Algerian, had been incarcerated for almost 10 years for his participation in the 1995 attacks on the Paris metro system. He stands accused of having reconstituted a terrorist network with delinquents he had met in prison. Bourada is now back behind bars.

Additionally, according to the RG, another network headed by a man named Cherifi was also created in prison and dismantled in 2005. A month later, in October 2005, the conservative daily Le Figaro announced that a prison guard in Bourges (Central France) was under investigation for radical proselytism. In 2003, both the RG and local prison officials realized that he “was involved in [radical Islamist] proselytism inside and outside the prison. Police sources indicated that he had encouraged youth to join the jihad in Iraq and elsewhere” (Le Figaro, November 30, 2005). Six other people were subsequently arrested and placed under investigation.

While the risk is certainly real, as attested by last year’s incidents, it also appears to be quantitatively limited for the time being. Out of the nearly 60,000 prisoners in French prisons, only 99 are being held on terrorism-related charges [2]. Of these, the RG estimates that 30 of the 90 are heavily engaged in radical Islamist proselytism. The RG considers them particularly dangerous because their previous “terrorist” experiences make them capable of leadership. The RG is also concerned with 20 isolated cases of new converts who are now actively engaged in proselytism; these 20 have been identified as being at risk of becoming overzealous in their actions in order to “prove” their sincerity to their newfound religion. Of these 175 acts of proselytism, the RG considers “that half-a-dozen, based on their past behaviors, could cross the red line into terrorism” (Le Figaro, January 13). This calculation validates prison officials who consider that “proselytism does not necessarily lead to terrorism” (Le Monde, February 4). A prison guard at Osny (a Paris suburb) declared to Le Monde on February 4: “These guys [proselytizing radicals] can exert great influence and have a courtship of 50 around them. Some arrive in prison with nothing, and within a week their cells are replete with gifts from fellow inmates. When the ring leaders are transferred to another prison, however, it all quickly disappears. Their influence is not that deep.”

In the long run, two factors may decisively impact the threat that seasoned terrorists recruit common criminals into new terrorist networks.

First, if Islam is the religion of a large majority of French inmates, the prison system has only very recently decided to accommodate the practice of a moderate brand of Islam. In the first ever sociological study of Islam in French prisons, Farhad Khosrokhavar (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales), estimated that between 50% and 80% of French inmates are Muslims [3]. That number must be contrasted with France’s overall Muslim population, which is 7-8%. Despite these numbers, the author found the almost “complete absence of institutional response” on the part of the authorities to accommodate Muslims (casafree.com, May 7). For example, Khosrokhavar notes that there are only 69 imams in French prisons (compared to 500 Christian ministers and 84 rabbis) to tend to the religious needs of tens of thousands of Muslim inmates. By comparison, at the time of the study, there were two imams tending to only 20 Shiite prisoners in the British prison system. Khosrokhavar also criticizes the strict security rules and a strict application of the principles of secularism that overly constrict the practice of Islam. For example, in many prisons, according to Khosrokhavar, collective prayers are forbidden; women cannot come to the prisoner visiting rooms veiled; hallal meat may only be available for an additional fee; and prisoners encounter difficulties in observing the Ramadan [4]. According to Khosrokhavar, “inmates view these rules as manifestations of disdain toward them” and therefore turn toward a practice of “wild Islam” (un islam ensauvagé). “Prison administration leaves inmates to their own devices and to the hands of self-proclaimed, semi-clandestine radical leaders,” he said. “As a result, the door is open for dangerous interpretations of Islam where rejections of others [non-Muslims], hatred of the West and jihad are the dominant elements” (casafree.com, May 7).

After the RG report of 2005 on the extent and dangers of radical proselytism in prisons, the French Ministry of Justice initiated a number of reforms to allow for a better practice of a moderate Islam. The cornerstone of the project is the recruitment of more imams to serve the Muslim prison population in conjunction with the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (a representative organization of French Muslims headed by Dalil Boubakeur). The project is only in its initial stages and only time will tell how successful it is.

The second dimension of the problem lies in the socio-economic profile of Muslim prisoners. Some of these prisoners—young, male, poor and brutally cut off from all familial support (after they land in jail)—may become easy prey for the radicals’ recruitment machine. The statistics gathered by Khosrokhavar are quite telling. In his book, he estimates that the overwhelming majority of Muslim convicts are males between 20 and 30 years-old and who belong to the underclass. At the time of their arrest, two-thirds of the prisoners were unemployed. Those who were employed were mostly laborers. Only 10% were professionals, making this group more capable of tapping into the large pool of disenfranchised and poor youth to proselytize a radical and violent version of Islam and recruit them for terrorist networks. The risk is that a violent, confrontational version of Islam finds resonance in a population alienated from mainstream values and progress. If the French government fails to take effective measures to promote the practice of a moderate form of Islam in prisons, it runs the risk of breeding a new generation of terrorists.


1. This was the case of some of the terrorists who had provided financial and logistical support to the 1995-1996 attacks in the Paris metro as well as some of those indicted in the terrorist (failed) plot against the World Cup organization in 1998.

2. This number accounts for both convicts and suspects awaiting trial.

3. The numbers are imprecise because the French government does not ask for the religious affiliation of convicts. This is part of the French concept of “neutrality” toward people’s origins. The figures are based on the author’s educated estimates.

4. Farhad Khosrokhavar, L’Islam dans les prisons, Paris, Balland, 2004.