By Rajan Basra
Throughout the history of terrorism, few locations have impacted the evolution of terrorist campaigns as the jail cell. The prison walls have witnessed everything, from the birth of revolutionary, violent ideologies to the death of paramilitary leaders who were either assassinated in custody or died of old age. Prison has been a turning point for many: compelling some inmates to decide that violence is the only way to achieve their goals, while inspiring others to reassess the armed struggle and ultimately move away from terrorism.
The importance of prisons has been seen across various ideologies, contexts, and locations, from far-left revolutionaries in West Germany in the 1970s to Islamists waging violent jihad in Iraq in the mid-2000s. The prisons they have been held in are infamous: Long Kesh, Stammheim, Guantanamo Bay, Roumieh, and many more besides. This post will outline some critical dynamics at play, showing the differing ways in which prisons have mattered in the history of terrorism. By better understanding these dynamics, policymakers will be more aware of how to deal with terrorists in custody, and in turn, reduce violence.
Never leave a man (or woman) behind
For their part, terrorist groups simply cannot forget imprisoned members. Abandoning them to the jails of the State would be disastrous for members’ and supporters’ morale. It could discourage them from participating in future actions with a high probability of capture and imprisonment. There are also more personal pressures at play. It can be a burden knowing their comrades are sitting in a jail cell while they remain free. These emotions are only heightened when the State mistreats or tortures its inmates, as has often been the case in the history of counterterrorism. When prisoners are high-profile leaders, the issue becomes even more important.
Therefore, jailed members must be celebrated, and imprisonment must have a purpose. They can be heralded as “living martyrs”, who have effectively sacrificed their lives for the cause. Imprisoned members serve as a rallying cause and focal point for narratives of victimhood, oppression, and injustice. In the same way, showing resolve in the face of repression can send a powerful message of defiance to the State. Propaganda campaigns play a role here, as do recruitment drives. Prisoner support groups can also provide material help and generate political pressure.
Responding with violence
These dynamics can lead terrorist groups to take armed action. That can be indirect—say, in the form of a hostage-taking where the demands are prisoners’ release—or direct in nature. One such example was the 1867 “Clerkenwell Outrage”, carried out by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They were waging an armed campaign to end British rule in Ireland and hoped to free a comrade held in Clerkenwell Prison in London. The group exploded kegs of gunpowder in the street facing the prison grounds, blowing a hole in the perimeter wall. The explosion killed 12 people—including a seven-year-old girl—and injured dozens more. (Curiously, there is no plaque or memorial for the victims of this Outrage). Yet their comrade had been moved to a different part of the prison, and the escape attempt failed. In many ways, the episode served as a precursor to the efforts of modern insurgencies and terrorists.
Present-day groups understand prisons are another front in an armed campaign. This was most recently demonstrated by Islamic State (otherwise known as IS, Daesh, or ISIS), who launched a January 2022 assault on Ghwayran prison in Hasakeh, Syria, to free hundreds of imprisoned fighters. The group has a history of this. When it was fighting an insurgency in the run-up to declaring its Caliphate in 2014, Islamic State’s seizure of cities and towns would often result in them freeing prisoners. They even named the campaign “Breaking the Walls”. It did precisely this when it took over Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Some of the prisoners were jihadists, elated to be reunited with their brothers in arms. Others, imprisoned as regular criminals, became indebted to IS for their newfound freedom and joined the group. Footage of the episode was used in its propaganda for added impact. Recently, jihadists have launched similar assaults in the Sahel, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and just this year, there have been jailbreaks in Yemen and Nigeria too.
Prison as an opportunity
Imprisoned terrorists’ time in custody represents an opportunity to strategise, recruit, and plan. This was the case with Islamic State. The group’s nucleus emerged from a period of mass incarceration in Camp Bucca in Iraq during the mid-2000s, when the US-led Coalition forces made little effort to distinguish between prisoners. One of the men detained as a “civilian internee” in February 2004 was a religious scholar named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry. He and other jihadists took full advantage of their situation. They radicalised and recruited other detainees—including members of the recently deposed Baathist regime—while planning their insurgency against the American-led occupation. As one Islamic State member later said:
“We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else … It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership”.
Though the US eventually learnt from its failure to properly sort and risk assess detainees in Iraq, the mismanagement at Camp Bucca had disastrous consequences. The jihadists emerged stronger than when they entered, with no less than nine of IS’ senior leaders spending time there. And a decade later, al-Badry would appear on the world stage as the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of the self-declared Islamic State.1
Blowback can also come from State mistreatment of a more sinister kind. One of the jihadist world’s foremost ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, was profoundly shaped by the injustice he experienced in Egyptian prisons. He was arrested in 1954 after the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempted assassination of Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. As a leading member of the Brotherhood, Qutb was a prime target of the State’s response. He was kept in Nasser’s jails for ten years, where he was tortured and—after a short spell of freedom—eventually executed in 1966. Ironically, imprisonment only helped Qutb realise that nothing less than a revolution was needed. He came to believe that the existing secular order of the Egyptian regime, propped up by the United States, needed to be replaced by an Islamic vanguard that could dispel the ignorance from society. Violent jihad was the means of achieving this, and Qutb encapsulated these ideas in a book, Milestones, written in prison. Al-Qaeda later adopted this worldview and hoped to become that Islamic vanguard to provoke revolution in the Muslim world through its acts of terrorism.
Yet even what may appear as minor prison-centric issues can escalate into something far more significant. The trajectory of The Troubles in Northern Ireland was greatly affected by the treatment of Republican paramilitary prisoners. The British authorities decided to remove their “Special Category Status” in 1976, which had granted them the right to wear their own clothes and not the prison uniform worn by “regular” criminal offenders. For the Republicans who saw themselves as political prisoners, this was an unacceptable affront. Denying them Special Category Status was akin to relegating them to common criminals, challenging the very legitimacy of their struggle. A relatively minor dispute over prison attire was thus transformed into something far greater.
The prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms and only wore the blankets provided in their cells. After being beaten by guards as they went to “slop out” their chamber pots, they refused to leave their cells from March 1978. Instead, they smeared their faeces on their own cell walls. This “No Wash No Slop Out” protest (otherwise referred to as the “Dirty Protest”) lasted for three years, with over 400 inmates participating. The fight for Special Category Status culminated in the 1981 hunger strike, led by the Provisional IRA’s Bobby Sands. Ten inmates died while on hunger strike, including 27-year-old Sands—remarkably elected as a Member of Parliament during the protest—who would become an icon. Thousands attended his funeral, and the Provisional IRA saw a surge in recruitment. The family members of the remaining hunger strikers eventually called off the protest. In the end, Special Category Status was restored in all but name.
Understanding the prison experience
In recent years there has been renewed interest over the issue of prison radicalisation, mainly as it concerns jihadist inmates. Governments worldwide are worried that incarceration could facilitate the adoption of jihadist ideas or the formation of new networks. There is disagreement within the academic literature over the prevalence of (and potential for) these outcomes. Andrew Silke has criticised the “widely held myths” and “profound political controversy” surrounding the extent of prison radicalisation, which routinely lack an empirical basis. Nevertheless, the examples above show why it is vital to understand how terrorists are managed in prison and the narratives and stories that describe life inside. This can help interrupt the processes of radicalisation and recruitment that happen in prison and, in turn, decrease violent extremism.
How can we better understand the dynamics at play here? One way is to speak with people who have been jailed on terrorism charges, to hear first-hand about life in prison. Part of the XCEPT project will involve exactly this: we will interview ex-prisoners who were accused or convicted of terrorism offences. They spent time in Roumieh prison in Lebanon for varying charges related to the jihadist movement and Syrian civil war. How did their experiences shape them? They will have much to say. Over the coming months, we will share their stories to better understand how imprisonment shapes attitudes towards violent and peaceful behaviour.
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.