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.
King was equally dishonest when he invoked the case of Jose Padilla, who was convicted of trying to set off a radioactive bomb in the United States. King’s version of events, as described in his opening statement, is that Padilla “converted to Islam in a Florida jail,” and that “while on the inside, Padilla met a fellow inmate who led him to a radical mosque.”
In reality, the Broward County Sheriff said at the time there was no record of Padilla requesting to meet with an imam, attending Islamic classes, or requesting a name change while incarcerated there. A family friend told CNN that he converted to Islam after he married a Muslim woman in 1996 and moved to the Middle East.
King failed to prove statistically or even anecdotally that Islamic radicalization in prisons is a serious problem worthy of a high-profile Congressional hearing. And even if King were right, it would be odd focus solely on that brand of recruitment and not also on the well-documented problem of white supremacist groups who also recruit and radicalize inmates to commit crimes, along with similar efforts by violent street gangs. Several Democrats made this point during the hearing, but were sharply dismissed by Republican colleagues. “The political correctness in this room is astounding,” scolded Representative Dan Lungren.
It would be easy to dismiss King’s bluster as just that—political theatre. But even that is dangerous, as Representative Mike Honda pointed out here yesterday. “Because of prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of Republican leadership, King is targeting the entire Muslim-American community. Similar to my experience, they are become increasingly marginalized and isolated by our policies.”
Bluster in Congress about terror policies also has real-world effects on law enforcement. When the Department of Homeland Security issued an assessment of domestic terrorism threats, and specifically right-wing extremists, Republicans in Congress were enraged. King himself said DHS should instead “be targeting mosques.” King’s rhetoric was highly effective—DHS dismantled the unit investigating non-Islamic domestic terrorism in the wake of Republican outcry.
Over-hyped concern about Islamic radicalization in prisons also led the Bush administration to concentrate Muslim and Arab inmates in federal prison into a highly restricted unit, as Alia Malek reported for The Nation earlier this year. A pending lawsuit claims that designation to such units was “discriminatory, retaliatory and/or punitive in nature and not rationally related to any legitimate penological purpose or based on substantiated information.” The same could easily be said of today’s hearing.