Extremist Chaplains and Prison Radicalisation
Written by the Stand for Peace Director; first published at the Gatestone Institute
The number of Muslim prisoners in Britain has doubled in the last decade to nearly 12,000. Many of these prisoners, the media reports, are at “significant risk” of radicalization. The solution, authorities claim, lies with the Islamic prison chaplains. Or are they, in fact, part of the problem? Where do these chaplains come from? What sort of Islam are they espousing?
On May 12, the BBC broadcast its own investigation into the radicalization of prison inmates. The documentary featured interviews with former inmates such as Michael Coe, who “went into prison as a gangster and left as Mikaeel Ibrahim, a convert to Islam.” Coe attributes his conversion to his friendship in jail with al-Qaeda terrorist Dhiren Barot, jailed for life by a British court in 2004 for plotting to blow up limousines by packing them with gas canisters.
While filmed by the BBC, Coe was welcomed upon his release from prison by a group of convicted extremists, including Mizanur Rahman, jailed in 2007 for six years on charges of solicitation to murder after he told the crowd, at a demonstration against the Danish cartoonists, that, “We want to see another 9/11 in Denmark… in Spain… in France… all over Europe. O Allah, destroy all of them. … We don’t want to see them in Baghdad, in Iraq any more. We want to see them coming home in body bags, we want to see their blood running in the streets of Baghdad, we want to see their blood running in Fallujah.”
Just a few days after his release, Coe took part in a rally organized by Anjem Choudary, an extremist preacher who has said he was “very proud” of the Woolwich killers. According to a report by Hope not Hate, 70 convicted terrorists have been linked to Choudary’s group, al-Muhajiroun,
The problem of radicalization in prisons is not new; in 2009, James Brandon, working for the Quilliam Foundation, published a comprehensive report into prison radicalization. As noted by the BBC, British terrorists Richard (“shoe bomber”) Reid, Jermaine Grant and Abdul Muah were all radicalized while in prison.
Supposedly to combat the problem, as a spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Prison Service stated, “The Prison Service employs skilled Imams, from a range of backgrounds, who are able to challenge and address extremist ideology regardless of faith or ethnic background.”
Great faith is therefore placed in the role of Islamic chaplains to combat extremist views in prisons, but no attention is paid to the views actually propagated by these Islamic chaplains.
According to Ahtsham Ali, the Muslim advisor for the Prison Service, “203 Muslim chaplains were employed by the Prison service in 2009.” A Ministry of Justice document states that of the total number of chaplains, 80 were employed full-time.
It seems that extremist branches of Islam, such as the Deobandi movement, have also contributed to radicalizing prisoners. As the British academic Sophie Gilliat-Ray notes, as “a result of the early formation of Deobandi seminaries in Britain, many of these chaplaincy posts have been taken up by graduates of these institutions.”
And, as The Times, in 2007, reported on the spread of the Deobandi movement in Britain:
“Almost half of Britain’s mosques are under the control of a hard-line Islamic sect whose leading preacher loathes Western values and has called on Muslims to “shed blood” for Allah, an investigation by The Times has found. Riyadh ul Haq, who supports armed jihad and preaches contempt for Jews, Christians and Hindus, is in line to become the spiritual leader of the Deobandi sect in Britain. The ultra-conservative movement, which gave birth to the Taleban in Afghanistan, now runs more than 600 of Britain’s 1,350 mosques, according to a police report.”
Prison Service official Ahtsham Ali, however, claimed in 2011 that no “extremist imams” have become prison chaplains: “All recruitment for employed Muslim chaplains has to take place through myself. I have to be present at every single recruitment board and I have been present at every board for the past eight years since I have been in post. Each individual has to have credible qualifications through seminaries, although there are different seminaries.”
One such prison chaplain is Imam Azadul Hussain, who recently spoke at an event organised by CAGE (formerly known as CagePrisoners), a pro-Taliban group led by Moazzam Begg, who was recently charged with “providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas.” The event was jointly hosted with HHUGS, a charity that provides financial support to the families of convicted terrorists. Hussain shared a platform with Suliman Gani, an extremist preacher who is a prominent supporter of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui, whom FBI Director Robert S. Mueller has described as “an al-Qaeda operative and facilitator.”
Azadul Hussain has also promoted claims that “Jewish Al-Sisi [the Egyptian leader]” has turned Egypt into an “Israeli-controlled territory.” On his Facebook page, Hussain propagates material published by MPAC, an anti-Semitic British Islamist group banned from campuses by the National Union of Students; the Islamic Education and Research Academy, a Salafi extremist group whose officials have been banned from entering Britain and have called for the killing of adulterers; Hizb ut-Tahrir, a worldwide Islamist network committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate; and the Convivencia Trust, an Islamist charity whose officials have voiced praise for Hitler and described Shia Muslims as “donkeys of Jews.”
Other prison chaplains under Ali’s supervision have included Sahib Bleher, the former Imam at Woodhill Prison, who was also the General Secretary of the Islamic Party of Britain, a political party that advocated killinghomosexuals and transforming Britain into an Islamic state.
Shaykh Yusuf Az Zahaby, a graduate of a Deobandi seminary, is currently a prison chaplain in West Bromwich. Zahaby is a leading member of Al Hikma Media, an Islamist organisation run by extreme preachers. These include: Shady Suleiman, who calls for the killing of women who engage in pre-marital sex; Abdur Raheem Green, who speaks of a “Jewish stench” and claims that it is permissible to beat women to “bring them to goodness,” and Suhaib Webb. Webb, according to FBI surveillance documents, spoke at a dinner in 2001 alongside the late Al Qaeda operative Anwar Al-Awlaki, and raised £100,000 in donations for the legal defence of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, an Islamist radical who shot and killed two police officers in Georgia, USA.
A number of leading extreme Islamist organizations are also involved in prison chaplaincy. The Markfield Institute, for instance, runs courses “to prepare Muslim chaplains for work in higher and further education, prisons and hospitals.”
The Markfield Institute is part of the Islamic Foundation, the leading publisher of books by Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Bangladeshi group Jamaat-e-Islami, responsible for acts of genocide during the 1971 war in Bangladesh. As The Times reported in 2003, two Islamic Foundation trustees were on the UN sanctions list of people associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Islamic Foundation’s current chairman, Khurshid Ahmad, has described the Taliban as “refulgent and splendid” and has warned of the “implication of Europe’s being in the clasp of Jews.”
Muslim Aid, a British Muslim charity, is also presently working with the Muslim Chaplain’s Association to provide“opportunities to become a prison mentor.” In 2010, Muslim Aid admitted to funding two Palestinian charities that belonged to the terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In addition, a number of Bangladeshi commentators have accused Muslim Aid of funding the violent Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. Muslim Aid was originally established by British Muslim leader Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, whom the Bangladeshi War Crimes Tribunal sentenced to death in November 2013 for his role in the abduction and murder of 18 journalists and intellectuals during the 1971 Liberation War.
It is possible, of course, that the Prison Service’s Muslim advisor, Ahtsham Ali — despite his claims to vet each applicant carefully — is simply oblivious to the growth of extremist influence within the prison chaplaincy system. What is striking, however, is that, until 2011, Ali was also President of the Islamic Society of Britain, which — according to the former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in the West, Kamal el-Helbawy — was originally established by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement described by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, as, “at heart, a terrorist organization.”
Ali was also once the President of Young Muslims UK, an Islamist activist group, as well as the editor of Trends, an Islamist youth magazine, both of which promoted the ideology of Jamaat-e-Islami, the South Asian Islamist movement responsible for mass killings of civilians during the 1971 war in Bangladesh.
In 1995, the Institute of Jewish Affairs noted that the meetings and publications produced by Ahtsham Ali’s Young Muslims organization “feature anti-Zionist propaganda which is couched in anti-Semitic terms.”
In 1994, while in charge of Young Muslims, Ali took part in an interview with Q News, another Islamist youth paper, in which he claimed that Young Muslims continued to invite Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir to participate in Young Muslims’ annual Islamic camps, despite, as Ahtsham Ali explains in the interview, Hizb ut-Tahrir activists’ distributing anti-Semitic literature at their events.
In the same interview, Ali also discussed his continued contact with the then-leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Omar Bakri Mohammed, who in 2005 fled Britain for Lebanon, where he was later convicted of training terrorists. Omar Bakri, an outspoken supporter of terrorism in the late 1990s and early 2000s, openly expressed his delight over the 9/11 attacks. Ahtsham Ali also notes his “good working relationship” with JIMAS, active in the 1990s as an extreme British Islamist group that worked closely with Anwar Al-Awlaki, who later became a senior Al Qaeda leader, until being targeted in a US drone strike.
The UK government regards chaplains as a possible solution to the threat of radicalization in prisons; some of these chaplains appear, however, to be part of the problem. If the government wishes to tackle prison radicalization, the entire chaplaincy program should be urgently reviewed.
 Khurshid Ahmad, “Musharraf, Taliban and the Implementation of Shariah Bill in NWFP”, Tarjuman-ul-Quran, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan website, July 2003
 “Antisemitism World Report 1995,” Institute of Jewish Affairs, page 242.