Bomb Case Raises Issue of Islam in Jails
MAY 23, 2009

The possibility that the alleged New York bomb plotters converted to Islam in prison and adopted radical views could provide evidence of how the criminal-justice system can be fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.

Authorities said they believed all four men charged in the attack were Muslim and that some may have converted in prison. It isn't clear whether these conversions were linked to the radical views officials say they espoused while plotting to bomb two New York City synagogues and shoot down U.S. military planes.

The men were arrested Wednesday in a months-long undercover operation that ended with them allegedly placing what they thought were real explosives in front of the synagogues. The plot was monitored by federal authorities who provided the suspects with fake explosives. The men remain in custody and face federal conspiracy charges.

According to New York state corrections records, alleged ringleader James Cromitie and David Williams gave their religion as Muslim during their most recent prison sentences. Onta Williams listed his religion as Baptist and Laguerre Payen said he was Roman Catholic. Police believe two or more of the suspects converted to Islam while in prison.

Concern about jail-house recruitment intensified after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Authorities in the U.S. maintain the practice isn't widespread, but say they are watching closely the pattern in other parts of the world, especially in the U.K., where prison radicalization is a recognized problem.

Mitchell Silber, director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, said there wasn't a "fire hose" of people coming out of the prison system who have turned to radical Islam. Most inmates tend to follow what Mr. Silber's colleagues call "Prislam" -- religion practiced behind bars but dropped upon release. Nonetheless, he estimated about 10 inmates a year in New York are paroled and give authorities "some level of concern."

The federal Bureau of Prisons sits on the National Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes about 40 government agencies. With the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it has developed a nationwide initiative to detect and disrupt attempts to radicalize and recruit members in U.S. prisons and jails.

"While we do not believe there is widespread terrorist-inspired radicalization or recruiting occurring in federal prisons, we do recognize that the potential for inmates to be radicalized is present," said Traci Billingsley, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Prisons. Ms. Billingsley said between 5% and 6% of the federal inmate population identify as Muslims, a figure unchanged in recent years.

Authorities heightened their efforts in 2005 after a former California inmate founded a homegrown terror cell after recruiting co-conspirators in prison.

"There was a real interest by the federal agencies about what else do we have going on inside those prisons and how vulnerable are those groups because they are disenfranchised," said Brian Parry, former assistant director at California Department of Corrections and a consultant for the FBI. Mr. Parry is helping to build a database to allow prisons to share intelligence with other agencies.

Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on Middle East and International Terrorism at the American Jewish Committee, said the government looks "at it more like a prison-gang phenomena instead of this dangerous phenomena." For years, street gangs and white supremacists recruited members in prisons.

The criminal complaint against the New York suspects said an FBI informant met Mr. Cromitie last June at a Newburgh, N.Y., mosque. Mr. Cromitie allegedly told the informant he was upset that U.S. armed forces were killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that he was interested in dying as a "martyr" and doing "something to America."

Salahuddin Muhammad, imam at the mosque, has worked for more than 20 years as a chaplain at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., according to the Department of Corrections. He said his message at his mosque and in prison visits is much the same: tolerance, and the need for people to take responsibility for their lives.

He said he converted very few people in prison, attributing the small numbers to "bad press" that Islam receives.

Mr. Muhammad said he recognized Mr. Cromitie -- who he said wasn't a mosque member -- but didn't know him or the three other accused plotters. Mr. Muhammad, who has spent time in state prison for robbery, has been an imam since 1986 and in Newburgh since 1992.

New York State has allowed imams to be chaplains since the riots at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1972, said Mr. Silber, and some offer the fundamentalist Wahabi version of Islam.

Erik Kriss, spokesman for the New York Department of Correctional Services, said the arrests hadn't raised concerns that inmates are being recruited by radical groups. In two incidents in which radical imams were running Muslim services in state facilities, one was fired and the other disciplined, he said.

"We're aware of the potential of the problem for this," Mr. Kriss said. "That's why we're vigilant that it doesn't become a problem." The prison system videotapes and audiotapes some religious services, while having corrections officers present at others.

Amir Efrati contributed to this article.