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. 

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}
p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; min-height: 14.0px}

“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”. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


German court ruling paves way for trial of Maddie suspect

A German court was told Tuesday it has jurisdiction to try the prime suspect in the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann for unrelated sexual offences, paving the way for a trial.

German court ruling paves way for trial of Maddie suspect

The regional court in Brunswick, north Germany, had said in April that it  could not hear the case against Christian B. because the suspect’s last known  address was in a different part of the country.

But a higher court in Brunswick ruled on Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence of another place of residence, after prosecutors appealed the decision.

“The regional court of Brunswick has local jurisdiction for the charges and  must decide on the opening of proceedings,” the higher regional court said in a statement.

Christian B. is already behind bars, serving a seven-year sentence for  raping a 72-year-old US tourist in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz in 2005.

READ ALSO: 15 years on, Portugal eyes German suspect in missing Maddie case

He is also the main suspect in the disappearance of the then three-year-old “Maddie” McCann from a holiday apartment at Praia da Luz in 2007.

Brunswick prosecutors have said they believe Christian B. murdered the girl, but he has yet to face any charges in the McCann case.

As part of their investigations, Brunswick prosecutors last year charged  him with three counts of rape and two sexual offences against children in Portugal — unrelated to McCann — between 2000 and 2017.

Manual widget for ML (class=”ml-manual-widget-container”)

Judges in Brunswick must now decide whether to launch a trial over these  charges.

Brunswick prosecutors welcomed Tuesday’s ruling on the jurisdiction issue, with spokesman Christian Wolters saying it had also “brought clarity for the  Maddie case”.

The investigations into the McCann case were still ongoing, Wolters told AFP.

Reservoir searched

McCann went missing a few days before her fourth birthday, as her parents dined with friends at a tapas bar near the apartment.

Despite a huge international manhunt and global media attention, no trace of her has been found and no one has been charged over her disappearance.

In 2020, German prosecutors revealed they were investigating Christian B. in connection with the case, saying they had “concrete evidence” he killed Maddie.

In May, investigators carried out a three-day search at a reservoir in southern Portugal, at the request of German prosecutors, in the hopes of finding clues into McCann’s disappearance.

Brunswick prosecutors afterwards said “a number of objects” were secured during the search, but that it was too soon to determine any link with the McCann case.

“New investigation results, including those related to the search operation in Portugal, are not yet available,” Wolters told AFP on Tuesday.