Al-Qaida targets 'captive audience'
The Baltimore Sun
WASHINGTON — Federal law-enforcement officials are concerned al-Qaida is targeting what authorities fear is a fertile breeding ground for Islamic extremism: U.S. prisons.
In the past year, officials suspect al-Qaida members and other extremists reached out to U.S. prisoners through reading material and personal contacts to try to form a base from which to gather information, funding and recruits.
One former top FBI official said prisoners are one of three groups that most trouble the bureau. The two other groups are those that have trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and those that have joined radical mosques.
Prisons are "a captive audience of people already willing to use violence," the official said. "It's fertile ground."
At least 10 percent of prisoners, and sometimes up to 20 percent, say they are followers of Islam, according to state and federal prison statistics. However, there is no evidence al-Qaida has succeeded in recruiting many prisoners in the United States or overseas.
At least one member of a militant group of Muslims in Seattle with ties to radical London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri converted to Islam in a Washington prison. Ali Shahid Abdul-Raheem, 30, was serving time for an Everett home-invasion robbery in the early 1990s when he adopted Islam at the prison in Walla Walla.
Abdul-Raheem is an associate of James Ujaama, who has been indicted on charges of conspiring to support international terrorism by attempting to establish a terrorism training camp near Bly, Ore., in 1999.
Two other Ujaama associates — Semi Osman, the former imam at the now-defunct Dar-us-Salaam mosque in the Central District, and Abdul-Raheem Al-Arshad Ali, formerly known as Andre Tremaine Anderson — also have been indicted on nonterrorism-related gun charges.
The FBI and federal prosecutors believe Abu Hamza supported that plot. A federal grand jury is investigating his role.
Ali Shahid Abdul-Raheem has been subpoenaed before the grand jury several times, although he has not been charged. He has been outspoken in his support of Abu Hamza and unapologetic about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Authorities also point to the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member accused of plotting to set off a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the United States. Padilla had converted to Islam while in a Florida jail.
In addition, Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an American Airlines passenger jet with a bomb in his shoe, converted to an extreme form of Islam while in prison in London.
Officials say that, while such cases are rare, they can't afford to ignore the extremism that seems to be brewing in the prison system.
Charles Mandigo, special agent-in-charge of the FBI's Seattle field office and an authority on terrorists, said al-Qaida is not likely to be trying to assemble the next band of hijackers or suicide bombers out of groups of incarcerated U.S. convicts.
What's more probable, he said, is that terrorists are looking to establish a support structure in the United States. Such connections could help al-Qaida gather details about targets and build a network of contacts.
Mahdi Bray, who runs the National Islamic Prison Foundation, a Washington-based group, said the foundation receives thousands of books and pamphlets from Arabic nations to distribute to prisoners. Each year, it sends more than 20,000 Qurans and other books to those incarcerated.
But, he said, the group also has received extremist literature, sometimes from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, filled with anti-American vitriol. "When we looked at some of them, we said, 'Hell no,' " Bray said. "I just won't distribute those."
The need to combat this kind of extremist influence strains FBI resources. The work involves hunting not would-be terrorists, but their sympathizers, who might not intend to carry out terrorist acts.
"It eats up a lot of our time," Mandigo said. "Even if they never do anything, we can't afford to ignore them. At a minimum, (prison recruiting) provides a smoke screen" that could divert authorities' resources and attention away from a terrorist plot.
Muslim clerics who work with U.S. prisoners said Islam has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, giving many convicts a moral purpose and teaching them to pursue discipline and self-sacrifice.
But some Muslims acknowledge worries about potentially ominous signs of Islamic extremism: senior clerics, or imams, who have traveled to Arabic countries for "training" and radical literature that has flowed into prison cells.
"I call it the unholy alliance," said Faheem Shuaibe, imam at a mosque in Oakland, Calif., who has spent time working in California prisons.
Shuaibe said he believes al-Qaida and other extremists have been targeting black prisoners, who they hope will turn against the country.
Most black prisoners are not the ready recruits al-Qaida believes they are, Bray said.
"They thought, 'African Americans are the most mistreated; recruit them.' But it didn't work. Ultimately, people see through it," he said. "You can't understand American culture from a cave in Afghanistan, and you certainly can't understand African-American culture."
The prison environment also has created obstacles for investigators.
"The problem (of al-Qaida in prisons) is further exacerbated by the fact that we used to keep prisoners busy," said Bob Fosen, a professor at American University and a former top official in New York and California's prison systems. "Even the untrained person would notice the idleness that's all over the place. It's exactly the kind of environment you don't want."
The United States, Fosen said, largely abandoned the idea of prison rehabilitation in the 1970s — and with it, much of the schooling, work and self-help programs that kept prisoners occupied. "It promotes discontent," he said. "We're not a species that's good at doing nothing."
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.