Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’

A police officer stands guard outside the Horse Guards Parade in London. Police arrested an 18-year-old man on Saturday in connection to their investigation into Friday’s bombing on an Underground train. (AFP)
Updated 17 September 2017

Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’

LONDON: The author of a landmark review of extremism in British prisons has defended a controversial strategy to separate “subversive offenders” from other inmates.
The UK Ministry of Justice opened its first separation center in July and plans to open two more in the coming months — housing a total of 28 inmates.
It comes as Prime Minister Theresa May put Britain on its highest security footing following a London commuter train bombing that injured 30 people on Friday.
Separating inmates was one of the central recommendations of a review into extremism in prisons led by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, in 2016.
But the strategy has attracted criticism from some experts who claim it will fuel radicalization.
“Our view to separate extremist prisoners was born of an expert team looking at this very carefully over an extended period of time,” said Acheson in an exclusive interview with Arab News conducted before Friday’s terror attack, the fifth in Britain this year.
“If we thought this solution would exacerbate the problem, then clearly we would have been mad to implement it,” Acheson added.
“Given the scale of the problem, we believe it’s right to segregate a very small number of people whom intelligence suggests are actively subverting the prison system and national security by recruiting (potential extremists).”
Acheson added that separation is necessary to remove hate preachers from the rest of the prison population. “Anyone who says otherwise is completely wrong.”
Acheson said his review offered 69 recommendations to former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove, based on key findings. The Ministry of Justice has since publicly announced nine new anti-extremism measures for prisons.
As Britain’s first prison “separation center” is trialed at HMP Frankland, some experts have warned the move could make the problem worse.
John Horgan, professor at the Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, told Arab News: “The idea of segregating radical prisoners from the rest of the prison population is a terrible idea. In an attempt to solve one problem it will create another, focusing and amplifying radicalization rather than curbing it.”

Smart monitoring
He continued: “It reeks of a knee-jerk political response and just isn’t very smart. Smart monitoring, supervision, program development, resourcing and staff training represent far better solutions.”
Denis MacEoin, a British analyst and writer and a senior fellow at New York’s Gatestone Institute, has previously described the British prison system as “Harvard for radicals.” He recommended extremists be housed in isolated units to stem further “plot making” even if it requires erecting new buildings.
One man who is serving a 24-year sentence in a UK prison told Arab News that prayer times were exploited by recruiters inside prison to lure vulnerable inmates.
“The extremists only recruit at Muslim prayer time, away from the other inmates,” said the prisoner, who spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity.
“They get invited with a smile and promises of extra food and a nice environment. They become part of a gang and it’s the same as any other group in jail. You get fake friends.”
Acheson agreed with this analysis. “Prisoners make pragmatic decisions about their safety when they enter prisons, which are increasingly volatile environments. There is a slang called ‘Prislam’ which is a saying about a convert who reverts back to their own identity when the door is closed and nobody is observing them.”
He said: “Some people convert because it brings a sense of order and discipline to their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. They find meaning through faith, but there is a small number of people, often in relation to substance abuse or mental health problems, who are at risk of becoming converted and then exploited and manipulated into becoming a next-generation terrorist.”
Along with the separation centers, other measures introduced in UK prisons include a crackdown on extremist literature and the tightened vetting of prison chaplains. Front-line prison officers will also be equipped to crack down on extremist behavior with new training, skills and powers.
Acheson said: “A lot of the recommendations stayed below the water line because of issues with national security. But I am led to believe that the vast majority of the recommendations are being implemented.”
Acheson said the need for training among prison staff is pressing. “It was quite clear to us that officers felt unconfident about tackling extremist language and beliefs.”
MacEoin, who authored the controversial report “The Hijacking of British Islam” for the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, emphasized that countering extremism in prisons is important for both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
“Let’s say a young Muslim goes to prison for shoplifting, he could be taken under the wing of a militant Muslim. They will be very friendly but then they gradually work on him and radicalize him. We know that this has happened in very many cases,” he said.
“It’s a concern for the general public because these people turn into terrorists but it’s also a concern for the Muslim population because normal young Muslims may come out of prisons with radicalized views. Muslims don’t want extremists within their population.”
Acheson said a very complex set of factors inform prisoner decisions to convert to Islam. “Some people will convert to Islam for pragmatic reasons; in effect it’s the biggest gang in some prisons.
“If you’re a young man coming into prison for the first time, you will search for meaning and security and you may convert at least out of convenience and for fellowship and protection.
“For some vulnerable individuals, it goes further as they are exploited and become proselytizers for Islamic extremism. It’s those people we are very concerned about. They could be converted to becoming terrorists when released and radicalized.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told Arab News: “The jury is out on whether these anti-radicalization measures will be successful, as it is very early days.
“We are encouraged, however, that the prison authorities are moving cautiously and that only very small numbers of prisoners are being separated from the general population. Talk of ‘jihadi jails’ are wide of the mark.
“Whether or not this approach proves to be effective, there are broader problems in the English and Welsh prison system that urgently need addressing. Prisons are violent and overcrowded, with record levels of suicide and self-harm.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said in a statement: “We have delivered on our plans to house the most subversive prisoners in separation centers — preventing their influence over others — and have also boosted the ability of front-line staff to challenge extremist views by providing over 7,000 staff with enhanced training to tackle this evolving threat.”

How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

Updated 1 min 44 sec ago

How Zahran Hashim went from obscure extremist preacher to the alleged mastermind of the Sri Lanka bombings

  • He split from the National Thowheed Jamaath and formed his own faction, which experts say was the ‘main player’ in the attacks
  • Using social media, he spread pro-Daesh propaganda under the banner Al-Ghuraba Media

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Until last Sunday, the only thing Zahran Hashim was known for was being a member of a local Sri Lankan group accused of defacing Buddhist statues.

Now, the obscure radical preacher is believed to be Daesh’s point person in Sri Lanka and the “mastermind” of the coordinated Easter Sunday attacks that have left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

A video released by Daesh on Tuesday shows seven black-clad, masked men pledging allegiance to the organization, and an eighth man, whose face is visible, leading them. That man is Hashim. Security officials in Sri Lanka claim to have “credible information” that he was planning another attack targeting Muslim shrines that followed the mystical stream of Sufi Islam.

Sri Lanka has no history of Islamist extremism. The Sri Lankan government first named a local militant group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), as the main suspect behind the attacks. It is one of the few Islamist radical groups operating in the country and was thus seen as the main contender for involvement with Daesh. Hashim is known to have been a member of the group until at least 2016 when security officials say he left and formed his own faction because the core group disapproved of his increasingly hard-line views.

Hashim was driven out of his hometown Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka by townspeople and moderate clerics because of his divisive teachings. Media reports say he received his early schooling in Kattankudy and then traveled to India to start a seven-year course on Islamic theology. He dropped out midway. Since then, he has reportedly traveled frequently between India and Sri Lanka.

Shunned by his hometown and the NTJ, Hashim found a small, but loyal, band of supporters online. Over the past two years, he gained thousands of followers for his impassioned sermons against non-Muslims on YouTube and a Sri Lankan Facebook account, which he called Al-Ghuraba Media and used to spread pro-Daesh propaganda.

According to Robert Postings, a researcher whose work focuses on Daesh, Hashim had been a supporter of the group at least since 2017, when he began posting pro-Daesh propaganda on Facebook. In many of Hashim’s videos, the backdrop is images of the burning Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Last year, Hashim appeared on intelligence officials’ radar after several of his students defaced three Buddhist statues in central Sri Lanka. The subsequent investigation led officers to a large weapons cache, including 100 kg of explosives and detonators, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

Experts say Daesh has been recruiting for years in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. On the ground, the group seems to have received help from Hashim after he created the Al-Ghuraba group. “That is the Islamic State (Daesh) branch in Sri Lanka,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on militancy in the region.

Experts with knowledge of the investigations said Hashim’s faction of the NTJ was the “main player” in the Easter attacks and that he worked with international support, given the sophistication of the bombings and the fact that foreigners were targeted.

“Most Sri Lankans have not heard about this (National Thowheed Jamath) group before,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “There is someone behind them, a handler.”


As of Thursday, Daesh had not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine if it had directly provided training or financing to the bombers. There was no evidence to suggest the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for Daesh, he said..

“There were many people who understandably doubt that the attacks were a purely domestic operation,” said Taylor Dibbert, a Sri Lanka expert and fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“The investigation surrounding intelligence failures and the bombings should be done with significant international assistance. The Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted with this type of thing on its own,” he said.




April 11 

Sri Lanka’s police chief issues an intelligence alert, warning that suicide bombers from a group called National Thowheed Jamath plan to hit “prominent churches.”

April 21

8.45 a.m. Four bombs explode on Easter Sunday at the Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels, and
St. Anthony’s church in Colombo; and St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, north of the capital.

8.50 a.m. Explosion at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Hotel.

9.05 a.m. Blast hits the Zion Roman Catholic church in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s
east coast.

1.45 p.m. Explosion at the New Tropical Inn, Dehiwala.

2.15 p.m. Three police officers are killed in an explosion while raiding a house in Colombo.

8 p.m. Curfew begins in the capital; police say they have made their first arrests.

April 22

4 a.m. Evening curfew is lifted amid tight security. Police find 87 detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand.

8 p.m. Another night curfew begins.

April 23

Midnight State of emergency comes into effect.

Daesh releases a video that shows eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under the terror group’s flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The man with his face uncovered is identified as Moulvi Zahran Hashim, a preacher known for his militant views.

April 24

Bomb squads carry out controlled explosions of suspicious packages; US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is “every indication” the bomb attacks were inspired by Daesh.

April 25

Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches suspend all public services over security fears.