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Al Qaeda in UK Prisons?

03/12/2009

ICSR hosted Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation for a talk today on their new report, Unlocking Al-Qaeda: Islamist Extremism in British Prisons (pdf).

Nawaz said that the UK’s National Offender Management Service (NOMS) faces a huge challenge now that more and more people who have been convicted of terrorist offences are populating the prison system.

In his view, the authorities have vastly underestimated the potential role of prisons in the process of radicalisation. Prisons have been the incubators of terrorism, yet – in many countries – they have also served as the principal engines of de-radicalisation.

Which one it will be in the UK’s case remains to be seen.

Right now,  he says, there are few signs that the challenge is being taken seriously. Extremist literature is widely available in prisons, and – on a number of occasions – imprisoned extremists have been allowed to become the representatives of prison wings.

The audience was particularly interested by Nawaz’ explanation of the latent, untapped power of a corpus of literature renouncing violence that was produced by al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Egyptian Islamist group responsible for waves of terrorist violence in Egypt during the 1990s.

Those of us studying terrorism have been aware of these books for a long time and, like Nawaz, we have wondered why they have not been translated into English.

His analysis is connected, of course, to his incredibly powerful personal story. As many readers of this blog are likely to know, Nawaz – a former member of Hizb-ut Tahrir – was imprisoned in Egypt shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. There, he became acquainted with the imprisoned luminaries of the Egyptian Islamist movement, including some of those behind the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

While in prison, Nawaz came to question his (then) radical beliefs, especially under the influence of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s new literature and after he was adopted by Amnesty International – an organisation he had previously vilified – as a prisoner of conscience.

Maajid Nawaz’ talk was recorded and can be listened to here.