France 2, File, Associated Press
PARIS — French authorities contend the gunman in a killing spree in Toulouse took the path to religious radicalization behind bars, with neither teacher nor network.
The investigation will show whether gunman Mohamed Merah, who claimed al-Qaida links, acted alone in the three March attacks that killed seven people, and may help decipher his path to radical Islam.
But in the meantime, his case has been seized upon by those who say the model for Islamist radicalization in prisons may be changing, away from networks of extremists and toward more individualized paths to radicalism.
President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered a study on the evolving threat in prisons after last month's killings, and the justice minister called for greater intelligence gathering in prisons and more Muslim prison chaplains.
Tracking such "lone wolf" radicals presents prison authorities with a new challenge: detecting the Muslim inmate who is not just turning to religion but turning the corner to danger. Some worry that even tighter surveillance may carry the risk of a double-edged sword, stigmatizing a Muslim population already deprived of the means to properly practice their faith behind bars.
In countries from Europe to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, prisons have long been known as incubators for Islamist extremism, where self-proclaimed imams or convicted terrorists prey on vulnerable inmates.
The problem is acute in France, the country with the largest Muslim population in western Europe, estimated at some 5 million, and, it is said, the most Muslim prisoners. France doesn't count inmates by ethnicity or religion, but one expert estimates that about half of French inmates are Muslim, far greater than the proportion in the population at large.
Yet there are only 151 Muslim prison chaplains to tend to the needs of prisoners of the Islamic faith, compared to 700 Roman Catholic chaplains. Islamic leaders say the dearth of chaplains and the failure to provide basics like halal food for imprisoned Muslims heightens the risk that inmates will feel rejected by the system and seek their own — possibly radical — path.
This parallels the emergence of "lone wolf" terrorists in the world at large. Experts say the lone wolf phenomenon is in a way a testimony to succesful Western intelligence, which has made it more difficult for networks to form — outside or inside prisons.
"In a way this is a modernization of terrorism. They don't need role models," said Farhad Khosrokhavar, who has written a book on Muslims in prison and another on Muslim prison radicals, and is currently researching the development of extremisms of all kinds in French prisons.
A terrorist cell in France, dismantled in 2005, was famously born behind French prison walls with members recruited by a convicted terror accomplice, Safe Bourada.
"My personal view is those parameters that identify ... radicalized (prisoners) have to be deeply revised because they are based on networks," Khosrokhavar said. He estimates the Muslim prison population at 40-60 percent of the 66,455 people in detention in France.
Justice Minister Michel Mercier recently announced he wants a full-time security official devoted to intelligence gathering in each large prison and closer working ties between the prison administration and intelligence agencies. He also wants an increase in the number of Muslim chaplains in French prisons.
"A new phenomenon has appeared, the self-radicalization of some prisoners," Mercier said. "Mohamed Merah read the Quran alone and it is his own interpretation that led him to radicalization."
Sarkozy has called self-radicalization "the worst thing for democracies," apparently referring to the difficulty in detecting this solitary transformation without trampling on civil liberties.
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