A debate has long circled around the proposition that American prison systems at state and federal levels need counter-radicalization programs. The hypothesis claims that circle-talking and counseling will preempt the manipulation of predisposed inmates by predatory visiting prison imams, or by fellow Islamists inside.
This 2013 Naval Postgraduate School study by Tennessee’s Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Tony Parker established that America’s prison systems offered no counter-radicalization programs despite attacks carried out by radicalized inmates. The study argued in favor of such programs after examining programs in Saudi Arabia and Singapore, where more carrot than stick is applied to nudge jihadists toward productive roles in society.
Unfortunately, as opponents of such prison deradicalization intelligence programs point out, no one can ever show that these soft approaches actually reduce the high-consequence risks associated with the jihadist impulse to kill. Tallying bad events that never happened because programs prevented them is inherently challenging.
Prison systems around the country still do nothing while wavering about what to implement. However, a Virginia prosecution that wrapped up earlier this year provides the strongest argument yet that America’s prison systems need a harder-edged approach.
The 2017-2018 FBI investigation and prosecution of Virginia’s Casey Charles Spain amply demonstrates what is needed: dedicated intelligence-collection programs, based on developed “snitch” networks on the inside, that are designed only to detect Islamist radicalization clues that can guide kinetic FBI operations on the outside.
Ideally, these programs would end for others like they ended for Spain — with suspects back in prison for long, hard sentences. Institutionalized intelligence operations inside and kinetic law enforcement outside would surely present a more certain way to reduce jihadist attack risk among this inmate population than, say, preemptive talk circles.
The Spain case drew shallow media coverage before it was forgotten. It surely warrants a deep discussion for the lessons its court records offer state prison administrations nationwide.
Spain was finishing seven years in the Greensville Correctional Center for sex crimes (malicious wounding and attempted rape of an abducted 15-year-old girl), with an August 11, 2017, release date, when the Virginia Department of Corrections picked up some intelligence. It’s not clear from court records if the Virginia prison system ran a dedicated intelligence collection operation looking for jihadists, or if the snitching was just a lucky break. According to the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Heather J. Brown of the Richmond, Virginia Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), two confidential sources inside snitched that Spain became radicalized, had adopted extremist Islamic views, and planned to launch jihadist attacks as soon as he possibly could upon his release.
Prison officials passed the intel to the FBI, apparently with little time to spare, as the prison was preparing the mandatory release of Spain. Spain had sworn a pledge of loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and tattooed an ISIS flag on his back in the ultimate sign of commitment. They also learned that Spain planned to join ISIS overseas, but that if upon his release he was not allowed to fly out, he would carry out attacks on targets in the United States.
With this information, the FBI put a surveillance team on Spain the day he was released — August 11, 2017. Agent Brown described this operation as “intensive surveillance.”
The FBI didn’t just tail Spain. These were exactly the kind of circumstances that called for introducing an undercover FBI source into the picture. The FBI has successfully used this tradecraft many times in recent years to stop highly predisposed terrorist wannabes from acting out. FBI undercover employees and a “confidential human source” were introduced to Spain on August 19. And they took Spain at his word. He spoke often about his “strong desire to both travel overseas to engage in actions in support of ISIS, and to obtain a handgun,” Agent Brown’s affidavit stated. Of course, it is illegal for convicted felons to possess firearms.
Spain was single-minded about his commitment to violent action. Special Agent Brown wrote that Spain did not want to make friends or find a girlfriend; he talked “almost exclusively” about traveling overseas to join ISIS forces.
Spain gave several reasons for wanting the illegal handgun, which would violate his probation and send him back to prison. First, he felt naked and vulnerable without one. But more to the point, Spain felt he would need it if “three or more” law enforcement officers came to his home. That occurrence, Spain indicated, would show that law enforcement had caught on to his plans, in which case he would try to kill as many officers as he could. Spain said he was never returning to prison, certainly not before he could act on behalf of ISIS.
Spain found what he wanted by perusing the website www.vaguntrader.com. It was a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun with a 50-round barrel canister.
By this time, the state prison was capturing recorded telephone conversations Spain was making to some of his incarcerated friends still on the inside. These were passed to the FBI. A review of them revealed that Spain claimed to be communicating with ISIS members overseas within 72 hours of his release, a government sentencing enhancement memorandum stated.
Spain claimed he logged onto Facebook and had spoken with a “brother in Raqqa,” the supposed Islamic Caliphate’s capital, remarking admiringly: “[I]t is wicked out there bro.” Before the month of August was out, Spain had even told his federal probation officer that he was trying to figure out how to get to the ISIS caliphate. “It’s real bro. I ain’t tryin’ even to stay here bro,” he told an incarcerated inmate by phone. “I dunno if I’m on a no-fly list or not but that’s what I’m on.”
In another recorded conversation, Spain discussed the ISIS flag tattoo on his back and apparently referenced the undercover FBI informant. “I put this jank on Facebook right, and all the people overseas was like, ‘Oh s*** … it feels haram(“forbidden”), but they was like it was a nice image though. That’s what the brothers said in the khalifa (“caliphate”). I been kickin’ it with a brother, he on that type time too. We don’t even rock with anybody else, you know what I mean.”
Realizing they had to get Spain off the street by any means possible, the FBI went after the lowest-hanging fruit: a federal firearms violation.
As Special Agent Brown put it: “Because of Spain’s violent history, his stated intentions, and the impatience he exhibited with regard to obtaining a firearm, the FBI organized an undercover operation in which the (undercover agent) would make a controlled delivery of a handgun, which he told Spain was his own personal weapon.”
The undercover agent rendered the handgun inert, and delivered it to Spain in the early morning of August 31 at his residence on Harvey Road in Richmond. Other members of the FBI’s JTTF, including a SWAT team, were close by and ready to pounce at the signal. The signal came at approximately 2:56 a.m., when Spain took possession of the gun. Spain tried to run and jump a fence, but didn’t get far from the SWAT team.
Although Spain was arrested on a mere firearms charge, government prosecutors argued for an enhanced sentence. “The nature and circumstances of the defendant’s conviction are arguably far more ominous and menacing than the cadre of felons who have been sentenced for possessing a semiautomatic firearm capable of accepting a large capacity magazine. This defendant is a dangerous and volatile individual who is radicalized towards violent jihad.”
In February 2018, they secured the fullest possible sentence: 10 years.
The Spain case serves as a reminder that prison radicalization is an ongoing threat and raises the question of what state prison systems are doing to counter it. But perhaps more importantly, the Spain case argues that dedicated, actionable intelligence and collection systems should be institutionalized inside state prison systems to detect Islamist extremism. Such systems can deliver more empirical results than the theoretical promises of deradicalization programs.