Radicalization can occur in a variety of locations, both public and private. Although mosques are often heavily scrutinized following violent outbreaks of Islamist extremism, it is important to keep in mind that other types of ideologically-motivated extremism exist and that their adherents can be radicalized in other places. These can range from prison to the Internet.
As some experts have noted, prison time can jump-start the radicalization process for those who are at risk of radicalizing. Within the confines of prison, disaffected individuals can potentially adopt radical/extreme ideals as they search for a sense of belonging and identity, leading them to establish bonds with like-minded individuals.
Islamist Extremism: At each stage in the evolution of Islamist extremism, imprisonment has played a major role. Following the failed assassination attempt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sayyid Qutb and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were imprisoned and tortured. Following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, a crackdown on Islamists in Egypt led to the imprisonment and torture of Ayman al-Zawahiri and others. And during the Iraq War, thousands of Iraqi soldiers and Islamist extremists, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were imprisoned at Camp Bucca. These experiences helped to radicalize each figure: Qutb wrote a book that has inspired future radical Islamists; al-Zawahiri is now the leader of al-Qaeda and was instrumental in plotting its attacks; and al-Baghdadi is now the leader of ISIS and its self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
Camp Bucca played an important role in the rise of ISIS. Approximately 100,000 detainees passed through its barracks, including nine members of ISIS’ top command. Described as a “virtual terrorist university,” Camp Bucca was a melting pot of violent extremists and those who simply looked suspicious, providing ample opportunity for recruiters to swell the ranks of their groups. The camp was a unique setting for prisoner radicalization and collaboration, bringing together Saddam Hussein’s Baathist secularists and Islamist fundamentalists. This marriage of opposites resulted in the radicalization of bureaucrats and former soldiers and the fusion of military structure and discipline with Islamist extremism. There is no doubt that Camp Bucca contributed to the radicalization of its detainees, unleashing a scourge of violent extremism, and giving rise to ISIS.
Prison Gangs & White Supremacy: While the phenomenon of prison radicalization largely factors into the rise of international terrorist groups, it also plays a part within the US. Some prison gangs have adopted radical/extreme ideologies, which are typically associated with domestic extremist groups. Even though the adoption of these ideologies might be integral to forming cohesive group identities within prison, criminal enterprise is still the primary motivator of gang activities.
Among the many prison gangs that subscribe to white supremacy/white nationalism, the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) is the largest and deadliest in the US. Started in 1964 as a way to protect white inmates in newly desegregated prisons, the Aryan Brotherhood has swelled to an estimated 20,000 members within the California and federal prison systems and on the streets. Although it brands itself as a white supremacist group, the AB’s main focus is profiting off of criminal activities such as drug trafficking and gambling. This has factored into the group’s decisions to work with Latino gangs to facilitate their activities. Still, the group’s white supremacist ideology is good for recruiting new members, maintaining structure and discipline, and solidifying its collective identity. The ideology is also responsible for hate crimes that take place both inside and outside of prison.
Role of the Internet
The advent of information technology, wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi), and mobile electronic devices has revolutionized the ways in which people express themselves and interact with the world. It has also modernized the ways in which extremist groups recruit and potentially radicalize new followers.
The Internet allows for the facilitation of easily accessible imagery and videos that reinforce extremists’ narratives, a smoother integration into formal organizations, and a normalization of views and behaviors that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. Most importantly, it has become a virtual echo chamber in which like-minded individuals are encouraged to share their most extreme views and ideas.
ISIS, in particular, has excelled at using social media platforms to lure potential followers and radicalize them from afar. Oftentimes, the allure of companionship and a collective identity is enough to attract those who are searching for a sense of belonging, as was the case with “Alex,” who embraced ISIS’s ideology after establishing an online relationship with ISIS recruiters. Once ISIS ensnares its online recruits, it can use social media to provide logistical support to prospective fighters and/or encourage attacks.