Jailbird extremists a threat to Europe

Michel Moutot –
Already wrestling with a constantly-evolving terror threat, European intelligence agencies spy a new problem on the horizon: hundreds of extremists due to be released from prison.
Battling to stop further attacks like those seen everywhere from London to Paris, Brussels to Barcelona, freshly-released prisoners will add to agencies’ surveillance burden.
Although many may go on to lead peaceful lives after prison, some may not — and officials admit they have so far given insufficient attention to working out the scale of the threat.
They are already working to keep track of extremists returning from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.
In France alone, some 500 extremists handed heavy jail sentences at the beginning of the 2000s are set to be released before 2020 after serving their time, an anti-terror official said.
“They represent a potential threat, a worrying threat that we are taking very seriously,” said the official.
Some 1,500 other French prisoners are suspected to have been radicalised behind bars, not least thanks to contact with these hardened extremists.
One of the most infamous examples of authorities losing track of a released extremist is that of Cherif Kouachi, who along with his brother massacred staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in 2015.
“The only solution is to immediately start following their networks. Who is meeting who? Who is telephoning who? In this way you can start to map out their contacts,” Yves Trotignon, a former anti-terror analyst at French foreign intelligence agency DGSE
He added: “We often say that prison is a school for crime, but it’s also a school for extremism.
“It’s the place where those on the fringes get radicalised, where they learn things from those detained earlier.”
Britain has some 200 people in prison on terrorism offences as of December, according to interior ministry figures, a number that has been steadily rising in recent years.
And Belgium is wrestling with a similar problem.
Islamic expert Alain Grignard of Liege University said up to 200 people had been sentenced on terror charges before and after the 2016 Brussels attacks, and at some point they will walk free.
“Rarely do people come out of prison better than when they went in,” he warned.
“Even more so for someone who is idealistic who, as well as a criminal past, has this dimension of a fight against injustice in which Muslims are the victims,” he added.
“They can come out even more motivated than before.”
Dutch lawyer Andre Seebregts, who has defended several suspected extremists recently released from jail, said none of his clients had been offered any formal rehabilitation.
Such convicts are often tracked with GPS ankle bracelets and given contact with a government-provided imam and parole officer.
But “the danger of re-radicalisation is still there,” he said.
Extremists may be carefully surveilled before their arrest but then go on to inhabit what one French penitentiary official called an “intelligence blind spot” once behind bars.
“After the attacks of 2015 and 2016, this is no longer acceptable,” the official said.
French authorities last year gave the prison intelligence agency BCRP boosted powers, and they are increasingly using surveillance techniques previously reserved for police.
Across Europe, the goal is now to try to maintain as much continuity as possible when it comes to tracking extremists in prison and afterwards.
But a senior French anti-terror official pointed out that permanent surveillance of all radicalised prisoners is out of the question.
“Tailing a suspect 24/7 takes 20 or 30 cops,” he said. “You do the math.” — AFP