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Jails are the Jihadist jack-in-the-box

A huge percentage of prison inmates at the state and local level will be coming out one day — and some of them could be seduced by radicalized Islamist militants


James Cromitie, center, is escorted by an NYPD officer and an FBI agent after being arrested for plotting to bomb New York synagogues and shoot down military aircraft. (AP Photo)

AP Photo

By Doug Wyllie
Corrections1 Staff

Jury selection has begun in the trial of James Cromitie (also known as Abdul Rahman), David Williams (aka Daoud), Onta Williams (aka Hamza), and Laguerre Payen (aka Amin). The four men were arrested in 2009 for their suspected roles an attempted terrorist attack. The plot targeted two synagogues — the Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx — and military aircraft at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y., some 70 miles north. Cromitie, the apparent ringleader of the terrorist cell, was raised as a Muslim — the other three men converted to Islam in prison. They reportedly met in a mosque and bonded over the fact that each man had spent time in prison.

James Cromitie is a career criminal with a record of 27 arrests for crimes in various places throughout New York State. He spent the most recent of his 12 years in prison because he was nabbed selling drugs behind a school. Cromitie told an FBI informant that his parents live in Afghanistan and that he was “angry about the U.S. military killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Laguerre Payen had served 15 months for assault for a day he spent riding around in an SUV, shouting profanities and shooting at people with a BB gun in predominantly Jewish town — he was previously arrested “in a crack house surrounded by bottles of his own urine” according to a report in the New York Times.

David Williams is a former chef who did time for dealing drugs. He allegedly told his cohorts that “he’d shoot anyone who tried to stop him” from carrying out the attack. His father, David Williams Sr., said shortly after the arrest of his son, “Those Jews in the media are turning this into something it is not.”

Onta Williams is a life-long drug user whose uncle has said was ‘brainwashed’ by converted Muslims during one of his stints in prison. During the planning phase, Onta Williams allegedly said that the U.S. is “killing Muslim brothers and sisters in Muslim countries, so if we kill them here with IEDs and ‘stingers’ it’s equal.”

Born Behind Bars
Where would a budding jihadist leader go to cultivate new recruits? Where would he find recent converts to Islam who could be radicalized with relative ease? Where are there large numbers of young men who have already demonstrated a proclivity for violence? Where might one come into contact with populations of disenfranchised individuals who are searching for a cause — searching for a reason for being?

Robert Hood — the former warden for the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (Supermax) in Florence, Colorado — told PoliceOne that the threat of jihadists being born behind bars is a real one.

“Is [prison] a breeding ground? Without question I think that it is — it always has been,” says Hood. “We have a lot of folks who will be coming out of prison — 95 percent will be coming out one day — and those that are coming out could be radicalized.”

The prisoners in his former institution are most certainly not going to see the outside of a correctional institution ever again. Among the inmates housed during his watch, Hood can list individuals like ‘Unibomber’ Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City plotter Terry Nichols, as well as co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Nidal Ayyad, Mohammed A. Salameh, and Clement Rodney Hampton-El.

Inmates such as Zacarias Moussaoui, José Padilla, Richard Reid, and “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh are reportedly among the 40+ convicted terrorists who now call Florence, Colo. “home.”

Watching the Weak
While they do pose a potential risk as inspirational leaders for would-be jihadists, the residents at Supermax are no longer operational planners or active recruiters. For those individuals, you need to look at the self-proclaimed (not institution-approved) prison Imams at the state and sometimes local level. More importantly, you have to look at the susceptibility of individual inmates to be seduced by nefarious, radicalized militants who distort the religion of Islam for their own violent objectives.

“When you’re sitting in prison dwelling on things, you end up looking for a cause,” Hood says. “Or you’re so weak that you need to join the gang or the peer group around you applying pressure.”

As a general rule, prison inmates in are interested in having security from gangs. They are trying to exist in an environment of sometimes extreme pressure from peer groups. In many, many cases, there is also the dynamic of severe personal crises or emotional tumult that they’re going through. Some are earnestly searching for a genuine religious experience. Some are searching simply because they’re lost.

Hood explains, “Using the prime example you would know — Richard Reed — I spoke to him every day. Did he become radical — a radical Islamist — while in a UK prison? In my opinion, yes. If you look at those characteristics of conversion, he had personal crisis, he couldn’t handle himself very well in the prison setting, and he was searching for identity. I could go on and on and make that into a sad story, but the bottom line is, if I was going to recruit someone, Richard Reed is the kind of guy you want to grab. There are some really susceptible people who want to find a cause, and they’re all over the place. I’m not suggesting that all of them are going to fit these characteristics, but if you took 2.3 million inmates in the country, a good percentage of them would be susceptible.”

On Fertile Ground
Soon after news of the Newburgh plot made headlines last year, Fred Burton — one of the world’s foremost authorities on security, terrorists, and terrorist organizations — told PoliceOne, “You have a couple of environments that are very conducive for the recruitment for jihadist criminal activity. Obviously, one is the prison system — more at the local and state level than the federal system because the federal system usually has folks that are put away for a good number of years due to federal sentencing guidelines. So, in essence, at the local and state levels where you see more of the recruitment of gang members as well as you get the converts to Islam, you get the captive audience that has to join the group for self-preservation phenomena.”

“As a member of the public,” asks Hood, “am I worried about the guys at the Supermax? To be honest with you, no, not at all. Those guys are never getting out — they’re not going anywhere... But you break that down to the local jail, you break it down to the state systems. We have folks in there that clearly have a great potential to be radical — that would endorse violence for the purpose of fear, disruption of the social order — the classic definition [of terrorism]. Because they [feel feel] have nothing to lose, even though they’re doing a ten-year sentence or a 15-year sentence, and they will come out one day...

“There’s such a large number who don’t have cause, don’t have a reason. They’re not working on their GED. They’re thinking, ‘Okay, it would be hard enough for me when I get out in five years. People can’t find jobs.’ They’re creating some of their own problems but the reality is, in their eyes, the world sucks. Now it’s a matter of, ‘what do I do with that?’ It wouldn’t take much to manipulate that person.”

That 00.01 Percent
According to some estimates, one in every five prisoners in the United States identifies themselves as Muslim. The vast majority — let’s say for argument’s sake it’s 99.99 percent of those individuals — have no interest in radical Islamist teachings or committing “jihad” against the United States. But law enforcement is not in the business of thinking happy thoughts and hoping the 00.01 percent just doesn’t exist or won’t prove effective in carrying out their plans.

While American citizens in large numbers appear to be perfectly willing to turn the crank on the toy and listen to the pretty music it produces, correctional professionals in the United States cannot afford to be “surprised” when that jack-in-the-box “springs up out of nowhere.”

The world is a bad place in which bad men do bad things. American cops, as has been reported in this space before, are truly on the front lines in domestic counterterrorism.

The team of editors and writers is committed to tracking down and reporting on the most important issues and interviews in the correctional field.

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