|September 28, 2006
An Indiana State University professor who has studied domestic
and international terrorism for nearly two decades is turning his
attention to what may seem an unlikely breeding ground for
terrorists – state and federal prisons.
An estimated 175,000 inmates of American correctional facilities
have converted to Islam since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, making Islam the fastest-growing religion behind bars. While
many are legitimate religious experiences, officials are concerned
about those who may be drawn to particularly radical jihadist
Under contract with the National Institute of Justice,
criminology Professor Mark Hamm plans to interview prison chaplains
and others close to such jailhouse conversions in an effort to
assess the national security implications.
One of the first facilities Hamm hopes to look at is California’s
legendary Folsom prison. An inmate at Folsom is suspected of
hatching a plot to bomb military facilities, an Israeli consulate,
and the El Al airline counter at Los Angeles International Airport.
Believed to have been scheduled for Sept. 11, 2005, the plot was
foiled – but only after the inmate was paroled and recruited help in
robbing several gas stations to finance the operation, Hamm said.
State and federal prisons in the United States house an estimated
2.2 million inmates. Another 6.6 million people pass through local
jails each year. Many such individuals are disaffected young males
who may be receptive to radical Islamic views, Hamm says.
|“You’ve got dozens of terrorists from al-Qaida
incarcerated in American prisons, mixed in with other prisoners.
What is the potential of that group to, in turn, proselytize other
men, other prisoners, into some sort of jihad group that organizes
at the prison level?” Hamm asks, listing as an example one of the
most famous terrorists of the 20th century.
“Carlos the Jackal converted to Islam at the age of 26, right
before his most spectacular act of terrorism, the taking of hostages
at the OPEC conference in 1975,” Hamm noted.
Hamm believes so-called “self starter” groups of impoverished
young people, which could be organized in prisons, now pose a
greater risk than the al-Qaida organization currently based in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. . Those responsible for terrorist attacks
on Jewish targets in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003; the Madrid train
bombing in 2004; and the London bus bombings of 2005, were all
“self-starters,” he notes.
While some of those involved in the bombings have claimed
allegiance to Osama bin Ladin, they are not believed to have taken
orders from al-Qaida.
“These are young men who came up out of local neighborhoods and
met, not in training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but in
gymnasiums, bookstores, barbershops and prison. They met in small
informal gatherings, much like the left wing terrorists of the
1970s. They were connected not so much by their ideology, but the
fact that they hung out in the same bar or that they came from the
same university,” Hamm says.
“Very similar things are going on now with international jihad
groups. One of those areas that people are most concerned about, in
terms of these informal gathering places, are prison cellblocks,
prison classes, yards, recreation areas, prison chapels. My research
is going into these prisons and interviewing chaplains, gang
intelligence officers and prisoners who’ve undergone a conversion to
either Islam or some other non-Judaic Christian faith.”
Most of the limited research previously conducted on jailhouse
conversion to Islam suggests it is a bona fide religious experience
that contributes to prison stability, Hamm says, noting that one of
the most famous jailhouse conversions in history was by Malcolm X,
who went on to be a positive role model for future generations of
But Malcolm X was from a different era – before planes were
hijacked and deliberately flown into buildings, and before the
United States became entangled in a difficult war in Iraq.
The suicide bombings of 2003 through 2005 in Casablanca, Madrid
and London each involved retaliation against American involvement in
Iraq, Hamm notes. Whatever the findings of his research into prison
conversions to Islam, Hamm believes good old-fashioned police work
remains the best way to fight terrorism.
The plot hatched in Folsom prison was undone “not by the Patriot
Act, not by some National Security Agency wiretapping, or any sort
of very intrusive actions by the state,” Hamm notes. “It was foiled
because one of the robbers left his cell phone on the floor of a gas
station. A local police officer ran a check on that cell phone. They
had the guy in custody within 24 hours and broke up the entire
Hamm’s theory is to look at those precursor crimes. “Go after
those and you may interrupt a larger plot designed to kill
Contact: Mark Hamm, professor of criminology, Indiana State
University, (812) 237-2197 or
Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State
University, (812) 237-3743 or