In wake of Strasbourg attack, experts warn of Islamist radicalization threat in German prisons

The potential threat posed by Islamist radicalization in prisons has been known for years. But after another prominent attack with a perpetrator who had spent time in German prisons, authorities are wondering whether enough is being done to counter the threat.

In wake of Strasbourg attack, experts warn of Islamist radicalization threat in German prisons

The Strasbourg Christmas market attack on December 11th, which killed five and wounded several more, featured several of the characteristics of recent terrorist attacks. Chérif Chekatt, the French perpetrator who was killed in a shootout with police on December 13th, had an immigrant background and was known by local authorities for a history of petty, non-violent crimes. 

Like many behind recent attacks across Europe, his radicalization towards violent Islamism came as a surprise to those who knew him. Another common thread was the location of his radicalization – prison. 

As reported by The Local on December 12th, Chekatt was sentenced to two years and three months in Mainz, Baden-Württemberg in 2016 for burglary. After serving one year, he was transferred back to France. 

Somewhere in this period he is said to have been radicalized. During the attack on the Strasbourg market he is said to have shouted “Allahu Akbar” which roughly translates to ‘god is the greatest’ in Arabic and has been frequently used in terrorist attacks across the globe in recent years. 

Are measures against radicalization effective?

In the past two decades, Germany has apportioned more resources in counter-radicalization measures targeting schools, religious centres and online forums. However, given that this is done at state level, there are concerns that some states are not doing enough to counter the radicalization threat. 

Ahmad Mansour, a psychologist and expert in radicalization, has warned that the problem could get worse without the proper attention. 

“Islamist radicalization behind bars has been a problem for years”, Mansour told German wires agency DPA. “Without an effective strategy for prevention and de-radicalization, prisons could become universities for Islamists”. 

Currently, Mansour says, Bavaria leads the way through the ‘Mind Prevention’ program, which his team has developed to counter radicalization in Bavarian prisons. This or similar programs do not exist to the same extent in other German states however, with the most significant problem areas in North Rhine-Westphalia, Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg. 

North Rhine-Westphalia has recently undertaken a de-radicalization effort, training 2,700 prison staff on how to identify and prevent radicalization before it takes hold. 

For Islamist recruiters, prisons are the perfect breeding grounds for potential recruits. In many cases inmates feel they have been treated poorly by police and other figures of authority, while lacking the opportunities offered to others.

As a result, Islamist recruiters are able to give vulnerable prisoners an identity and a way to ascend through the prison hierarchy. 

A Europe-wide threat

A number of European states have recognized the threat posed by radicalization in the prison system. In many cases, the story is largely similar – with inmates arriving in prison on the back of charges for petty crimes such as theft, before leaving with a different set of values. 

Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the 2016 Berlin Christmas Market attack, arrived in Europe from Tunisia as a petty thief. After spending time in two different prisons in Italy, he emerged with a different ideology – with his friends and family saying that he’d become radicalized. 

Image/ DPA

“He went into prison with one mentality and when he came out he had a totally different mentality,” his brother Abdelkader told Sky News Arabia in 2016. 

“When he left Tunisia he was a normal person. He drank alcohol and didn’t even pray,” said his brother Walid. “He had no religious beliefs. My dad, my brother and I all used to pray and he didn’t.”

Mansour said that efforts can be made to prevent radicalization in prison before it starts. The focus however has to be on identifying vulnerable people and taking steps to work with them before the radicalization takes hold. 

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“We need to be faster than the Islamists, work persistently with the vulnerable and provide them with alternatives. We need to immunize them, make them more mature and able to resist”. 

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German Die Linke politician attacked in Thuringia

A politician from Germany's socialist Die Linke party was insulted and attacked in a supermarket in Eisenberg, Thuringia on Friday.

German Die Linke politician attacked in Thuringia

At the supermarket checkout, a man insulted the party’s state election candidate Steffen Much without reason and grabbed him by his T-shirt, the party’s regional association said on Saturday.

Much was unharmed, according to party sources, and filed a police report against the attacker, who he knew.

“I am glad that Steffen Much was not physically harmed,” said the co-chairman of the Left Party’s regional association, Christian Schaft.

“Insults and attacks like these are intended to intimidate everyone who is committed to an open and democratic society.”

There have been several attacks on politicians across the country recently.

READ ALSO: German far-right AfD candidate attacked with knife in Mannheim

The Thuringia state elections take place on 1 September.