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Inside the struggle to de-radicalize Islamic extremists in France's prisons

La contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté, Adeline Hazan, se dit "défavorable" au regroupement des détenus islamistes dans le cadre de la lutte contre la radicalisation en prison.
Eric Feferberg (AFP/Archives)
"The further I go, the more I realize ... that most of the prisoners are neither monsters nor fools"

How do you untangle a knot so tightly wound as years of indoctrination or self-radicalization at the hands of extremist Islamic ideology?

It is a question that France -- arguably Europe's ground zero for Islamic State and Al-Aqeda inspired terror -- is grappling with in its ever-swelling prison population, where the number of convicts becoming radicalized has skyrocketed.

Earlier this month the French government officially ended a state of emergency that had been in place since Islamic State-aligned terrorists killed 130 people in a series of shooting and bomb attacks in Paris in November 2015.

Yet France's ongoing terror challenge is not just thwarting future potential attacks, but also dealing with a system that is designed to incarcerate extremists -- but also creates new ones.

There are 500 prisoners who have been sentenced for charges related to Islamic terrorist activity, according to Jean-François Forget, head of French penitential union (UFAP-UNSA), 130 of whom were arrested after returning from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

In order to tackle the phenomenon, France's penitential administration has implemented several plans centered around preventing violence in prisons and initiating a “de-radicalization” process for indoctrinated prisoners.

Within the framework of this initiative, led by the French Penitential Service of Probation and Reentry (SPIP), a tutor named Loïc (not his real name) has met with a number of radicalized prisoners several times a month at the various prisons located in the Paris region.

His experiences going from prison to prison yield remarkable insights into France's radicalized inmates -- out of sight but still a potentially potent force for ill.

Inter-religious dialogue

Sasha Goldsmith via AP

Loïc is a specialist on racism, discrimination and internet conspiracy theories. Following the 2015 jihadist attacks in Paris, with French coexistence in jeopardy, he was sought after for consultation.

His proposed solution was inter-religious dialogue.

Two years ago, in tandem with penitential authorities, Loïc proposed starting workshops for prisoners who wanted to become more independently-minded. Loïc says an educational approach to de-radicalization is best performed through workshops with a small numbers of participants, allowing them to speak more freely.

Moreover, following up over several sessions is a key element in allowing a tutor like Loïc to gain the trust of the prisoners, further facilitating a helpful dialogue.

"To me, it was crucial to talk about everything,” Loïc tells i24NEWS. “People didn't want to talk about religion or politics because they were afraid to offend or stigmatize someone, or because they didn't feel able to manage discussing sensitive subjects."

Loïc says exposure to such dialogue is even more essential for radicalized individuals who have what he calls a “critical mind”.

“When it comes to indoctrination and conspiracy theories, we are talking about an excessively critical mind that says, 'Don't believe anything. Don't trust the media.'”

Indeed discussions about the internet, and more specifically about social media, are a major part of the workshops that Loïc helps lead -- given that both are fertile platforms for conspiracy theories and jihadist brainwashing.

"I make them think about the roots of the (conspiracy) theories they believe in,” Loïc says.

“Recently, I made them watch a video that is often used by the Islamic State. Of course, they had all [already] watched it before and knew it,” he said. “But when I proved to them that it actually originated from an American far-right evangelical movement, they were quite shocked."

Latent anti-semitism

FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (AFP/Archives)

Loïc also talks about the issue of prejudice among prisoners and dissects with them images on the internet created with the explicit intention of encouraging racism against minorities in urban areas, including Muslims. He analyzes these images with the prisoners and asks them why they agree with the ideology they promote.

"What we try to do is understand what the significance of these images is, as well as to show that someone who is watching racist videos is not in fact racist, but rather full of fears and preconceptions,” he explains.

“It's easier to begin with prejudice they recognize as such, and then to arrive at prejudice they themselves bear,” Loïc says, explaining that in the end the point is to establish both as coming from the same mechanisms.

Loïc says that anti-Semitism is prominent among radicalized prisoners, many of whom embrace the claims of French humorist Dieudonné who touts anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes including that Jews rule the world.

"When it comes to anti-Semitism, they speak about Jews very negatively and very violently," he says.

Loïc says that anti-Semitism takes on different forms among prisoners from different generations, with prisoners over 30 who have had more exposure to Jewish people expressing milder, less violent sentiment towards Jews.

"Prisoners over 30 can certainly be anti-Semitic, but they will have a milder speech, saying 'Jews and Zionists are not the same, we grew up and lived with Jews', while the young have total fantasies about the 'figure of the Jew'."

Influence of cellmates

JACQUES DEMARTHON (AFP/File)

One of Loïc’s most poignant observations has been the diversity of the prison population.

Through his workshops, Loïc has been exposed to prisoners charged not only after returning to France having fought alongside jihadist groups in Syria, but also to prisoners who were charged for visiting jihadist websites and individuals who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“These very wide definitions [of a terrorist] result in a cohabitation of people with very different profiles," he says, arguing that this often contributes to even further radicalization of those imprisoned on less serious offenses at the hands of more ideologically driven prisoners.

"The further I go, the more I realize, happily or sadly, that most of the prisoners are neither monsters nor fools,” he says. “I see a lot of winding paths of people who met bad people, or who [are] easily influenced by others, people who have no future, and delinquents who became radicalized.”

Despite the occasional breakthrough during the workshops, such high concentrations of terror suspects and convicts living together in prison remains a gigantic obstacle for those who try to free themselves from jihadist ideology.

Just after attending a workshop, many return to their cells and become once again subject to the pressures and influences of more radicalized prisoners who often succeed in keeping them under the umbrella of radical Islamism.

In fact, many experts and professionals working within the prison system say that France may unintentionally be creating an environment in its prisons that can lead to a generation of potential jihadist prisoners.

“Some say to me, I'm bored, I stay alone reading my Koran all day, and I'll stay like this for many years,” says Loïc. "If we leave them hanging out with fellow prisoners sentenced for terrorism, we can worry about the future.

“The first prisoners to be released from prison will be free in 2019," he continued. “When they are released, some of them will have the same ideology that they had when they went into jail and others may even be more radical.”

At the same time, Loïc tries to find elements of hope in some of what the prisoners have said to him.

“A female prisoner once told me that 'prison is a rebirth for me, because it allows me to stay away from the people who had a bad influence on me,’” Loïc recalls. “She said to me, ‘I needed to be away from them so I can think about myself'."

According to Loïc, the majority of the prisoners believe that they must bear consequences for their actions, something that helps him feel hopeful. Nevertheless, Loïc spoke of a need to always remain cautiously optimistic.

“Admitting that they were wrong doesn't mean that they have developed a different political and religious vision of the world."

It will be crucial to repress this phenomenon of radicalism within French prisons with a preventive and educational approach with radicalized prisoners such as the one used by Loïc, as France continues its fight against jihadist ideology.

Jeremie Elfassy is a web editor and journalist for i24NEWS' French channel

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