In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 17 people over three days, French officials called for new efforts to counter the radicalization of young Muslim men.
One place to start: the prisons. Some of the biggest recent homegrown French terrorists— Mohammed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, and now Amedy Coulibaly—were not religious men who suddenly became radicalized. Instead, they were nonreligious petty criminals who were recruited by radical Islamists while in prison.
France’s counterterrorism chief, François Molins, told CNN that Merah—a French national of Algerian origin who in March 2012 shot and killed three soldiers before turning his gun on a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse—started reading the Quran while in prison, where he had come in contact with radical elements. It wasn’t until he left prison that he went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he attended an al-Qaida training camp.
Nemmouche, also a French national of Algerian origin, who shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2013, followed a similar path, from petty criminal to radicalized Muslim. Before going to prison for a robbery in 2007, Nemmouche “did not go to the mosque and did not talk about religion,” his aunt told French radio station Europe 1.
Coulibaly, who apparently coordinated his attack on the kosher grocery store with the Charlie Hebdo assailants, also started his career as a petty criminal. In 2001 he received a prison term of several years for aggravated theft. A few years later, he went back to prison, this time for armed robbery. During those years, Coulibaly was recruited to the radical Muslim cause and in December 2013 he was charged with trying to help Smaïn Aït Ali Belkacem, the Algerian terrorist and mastermind behind the 1995 Paris Métro bombings, escape from prison.
The Kouachi brothers, or at least Chérif Kouachi, seemed to have initially been radicalized outside of prison by a self-declared emir of the so-called Buttes-Chaumont group, named after a park in northeastern Paris where a network of wannabe jihadists, recruited to go fight in Iraq during the American invasion in 2003, gathered to exercise. But it was in prison that he met other radicalized elements, including Coulibaly, and further hardened his beliefs.
The prison system is an acknowledged breeding ground for Islamic radicalism in France, and yet the government has not devoted enough resources for moderate Muslim prison chaplains to do their job. In June of last year, only six months before the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, the national organization for Muslim chaplains issued a press release asking for an official recognition of their profession. El Alaoui Talibi, the national prison chaplain, deplored the fact that the chaplains receive a stipend that covers only their commute to and from the prisons even though, “every day, without concern for [our] time and energy [we] try to impart to the inmates religious and human values, including the sacred nature of human life, the respect of others, cohabitation, and the respect of the laws of the Republic.”
One of these chaplains, Fouad Saanadi, who works in Aquitaine in southwestern France, told Europe 1 that he only has time to respond to letters regarding religious practices, leaving the path open to radicalization: “The role of the chaplain is to heal people; the inmates are fragile because they have to live with the mistakes they have made. We have to make sure they are immune to the fundamentalism that awaits them in prison and outside.”
A chaplain at the prison in Alençon, Normandy, also told Europe 1 about his struggle to get close to Muslim inmates. “In order to reason with a ‘radical’ you have to hang on. The radical inmates are more powerful than I am simply because they spend more time in prison than I do. I am not there very often, I can’t afford to [be]; I am not going to work from Monday to Friday for 500 euros.”
In December, only two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, president of the center-right political party Union of Democrats and Independents, spoke publicly about the Muslim chaplains’ warning about the consequences of the lack of resources in their profession. “Last year, I believe we only added 20 chaplains in our prisons,” he told France Info, “which we know are breeding grounds for radicalization. Twenty out of the thousands of inmates, it’s ridiculous.”
It is illegal to count the number of Muslim prisoners in France, but they are estimated to constitute somewhere between 30 percent and 60 percent of 67,500 prisoners (while they constitute an estimated 10 percent of the French population, according to the State Department). Yet there are only an estimated 169 Muslim chaplains in the French prison system (compared with 655 Catholic and 317 Protestant chaplains), and these are mainly volunteers who receive no salary.
And it’s not just the chaplains: According to Europe 1, there is currently only one official in each prison in charge of detecting cases of radicalization.
Several of the homegrown French terrorists who have staged attacks inside and outside France in the past three years were initially nonreligious young men in search of a cause to give their life meaning. They were recruited in prison by people who provided them with that cause. There is no one solution to this problem, but if Muslim chaplains were able to go into the prison system and teach undistorted Islamic beliefs, that may keep some of the fundamentalism from spreading.