The idea behind this morning’s hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee is that America is endangered by an increasing number of violent jihadis who are being recruited to the cause in prison. The committee chairman, Representative Peter King, described it as a danger that “remains real and present, especially because of Al Qaeda’s announced intention to intensify attacks within the United States.”
King’s hand-picked panel largely agreed. Patrick Dunleavy, the former deputy inspector general for the New York State Department of Corrections—who conveniently has a book coming out in the fall about “the shocking link between America’s prisons and terrorism”—described “sustained efforts [by Al Qaeda] to target inmates.”
The problem, however, is that there is no real problem. Bert Useem, a professor at Purdue University who was the lone panelist not sympathetic to King’s cause, noted that of the 1.6 million people currently incarcerated in the US prison system, there have been only twelve terrorism cases with some evidence that the offender became radicalized in prison. “If prison was a major cause of jihadi radicalization, you’d expect to see more,” he told the committee.
King and his panelists had their own evidence. They didn’t offer any pesky statistics, but rather florid descriptions of terrorists who, while incarcerated, turned violent under the influence of prison Islam—or “prislam,” as it came to be known during the hearing.
But even this anecdotal evidence falls apart under closer inspection. For example, King raised the case of James Cromitie, who will be sentenced tomorrow for his role in planning attacks on an Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, and two synagogues in New York City.
According to King, Cromitie “was radicalized in a New York State prison.” He is “not alone,” King warned. But in fact, the government has made no claim that Cromitie nor any of his co-conspirators hatched their plot in prison, nor that their prison experience contributed to their crimes. Inmates and chaplains at the New York state prison where Cromitie was incarcerated said he did not take part in any of the Islamic prayer meetings.
Moreover, Cromitie’s lawyers have portrayed him as the victim of an altogether different kind of recruitment. They allege that a government informant paid Cromitie $250,000 to plan the terror attacks. When Cromitie expressed reluctance, the informant pressed on, according to court documents. “I told you…I can make $250,000, but you don’t want it, brother. What can I tell you?” he said.