“I am ready to die for the Caliphate; prison is nothing.”
This was the declaration of Ali Saleh, a 25-year-old man from New York City who was arrested in 2015 by members of the FBI and the New York Police Department for providing material support to a terrorist organization. Saleh had attempted on several occasions to travel to Syria, join ISIS, and become a mujahid. He pled guilty to the charges in July.
His words were not the idle braggadocio of a wayward youth. Less than two weeks before his guilty plea, Saleh plunged a shank into a correction’s officer at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, reportedly smiling as he did it, telling the wounded officer, “I hope you die.”
The guard survived. Saleh was indicted on August 28, and charged with assaulting a Federal officer and possessing contraband — the shank — in prison.
During a November 1, 2000 escape attempt, Al Qaeda terrorist Mamdouh Mahmud Salim and his co-defendant Khalfan Khamis Mohamed lured officer Louis Pepe into their cell and then stabbed him in his eye with a jailhouse knife. After stabbing him, they poured a boiling liquid substance into the eye socket. The blade penetrated Pepe’s brain, leaving him permanently disabled.
Salim and Mohamed were prisoners in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, awaiting sentencing for their roles in Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania, which killed 11 people.
In May 2013, Muslim extremists at the HMP Full Sutton prison in Yorkshire, UK, took a warden hostage and threatened to decapitate him to show their support for the terrorists who had savagely attacked and killed British soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in London. The incarcerated terrorists also demanded the release of radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, who was being held by UK authorities for his ties to terrorist organizations.
Assaulting staff and attempting to escape are not the only threats posed by terrorists in prison. In 2017, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, also known as the “Chelsea Bomber,” distributed plans for making an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to inmates attending services in the prison mosque.
And the list goes on.
Ali Saleh already faced 35 years in prison before he attacked the guard. If convicted in that attack, his sentence could increase by 20 years, making him 80 years old when he becomes eligible for release. Chances are, he’ll try to attack prison staff again.
This is more proof that Islamic terrorists simply do not fear the US prison system.
This attitude can be attributed to several factors. One is that Islamic terrorist leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahri have publicly announced their support for their imprisoned members in communiques and in online outlets, like Al Qaeda’s Inspiremagazine. They tell their members that they are not forgotten, and that the group’s leaders pray they will rejoin the fight.
Another equally important factor is that terrorists know that they will be placed in the general prison population with other common criminals, and afforded all the privileges and rights that come with that.
Programs that were originally designed to help in the rehabilitation process and the reestablishment of family ties can also be used by terrorists for nefarious purposes. Phone calls, visits, even educational and religious volunteer programs can and have been exploited for jihadist goals. A terrorist is not rendered harmless when incarcerated; he will act when he can, and where he can’t, he will influence.
Not all terrorists are in solitary confinement or Supermax prisons. The vast majority transition from maximum security prisons to less secure facilities over time. Rather than fear the system, they milk it by demanding their rights under the Constitution that they are seeking to destroy.
There is no specific program mandated by the Bureau of Prisons or any state correctional agency that specifically addresses the jihadist movement. At this point in the war on terrorism, 25 years after the first World Trade Center attack, isn’t it time we figured it out so that our guards are safe, and we stop the conveyor belts inside prison walls that often turn petty criminals into jihadists?
People who attempt to join or declare allegiance to an international terrorist organization that has declared war on the United States and Western democracies become enemy combatants. They should be isolated from other inmates and housed in a maximum security prison. They should be treated humanely, not tortured or abused, but not released until the hostilities are over or the enemy has surrendered.
Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He is a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.