Jailing Jihadists in the West

Western prison systems still struggle to incarcerate notorious jihadists, as illustrated by the case of top ideologue Abu Qatadah

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Jailing Jihadists in the West
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

“Did you have any trouble getting here?” asked the balding man with the bullish neck, grey beard, and high-pitched voice. “Just a little bit,” I answered politely, concealing the difficulty I had finding his home. Abu Qatadah lives in Tabarbour, just outside the Jordanian desert town of Zarqa. Google Maps had deemed his street insignificant, so I drove around in circles trying to locate it. When I eventually arrived at the place where Abu Qatadah has been under house arrest for the past six years, I found one of the world’s most notorious jihadist ideologues quietly picking up plastic bags and bottles off the street like he’d moved with the times and become an eco-warrior.

In November 2019, as debates intensified in the West about Islamic State prisoners like Shamima Begum stranded in northeastern Syria, and after recent attacks by the group in Europe, I went to Jordan to explore the question that policy makers in Europe and the United Kingdom are still wrangling with: How do you imprison jihadists in a Western democracy?

I had been given a set of unreleased judicial review documents from an inmate in Long Lartin Prison in England that related to the prison governor’s management of the high-security unit following Abu Qatadah’s arrival there in 2008. According to the documents, the governor had been preoccupied with containing Abu Qatadah’s influence, claiming that he ran roughshod over the needs of the other detainees. While the governor’s extensive witness statement made his reasoning clear, Abu Qatadah’s one-page statement was far less revealing. And so, I went to see the man who had spent more than a decade in a Western prison and whom the British tabloids had dubbed “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man.”

Admittedly, Abu Qatadah was a tabloid editor’s dream; they didn’t have to work hard conjuring up headlines as there was plenty material for them to work with. He and his companions looked like villains out of Islamist central casting. The who’s who of jihadists attended his sermons in Lisson Green, London. Some of his fatwas were so controversial that even his fellow jihadists broke with him. In 1995, fellow jihadist ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri distanced himself because of a fatwa Abu Qatadah had issued justifying the indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians, which Abu Qatadah later recanted.

But when he was arrested in 2002, the world had changed. The image of the stricken Twin Towers was seared into the collective memory of the West. When Abu Qatadah’s sermons were discovered in the Hamburg house of Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, the British government came after him. The House of Lords’ assessment was unequivocal. As the spiritual advisor to many terror groups, the “reach and depth of Abu Qatadah’s experience was formidable even if the words he used were couched in careful language, they justified violence against innocents.” And while formal links to proscribed terror outfits had never been demonstrated, there was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest a connection. To the House of Lords, Abu Qatadah was at best ardently seditious, and at worst a terrorist.

Abu Qatadah was sent to a high-security British prison, where he stayed during a decade-long extradition battle that ended in 2012 when he was moved to a Jordanian prison. After 2014, he was placed under house arrest just outside Zarqa, the birthplace of the founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Surprisingly, despite the human rights concerns raised by Western NGOs regarding Jordanian prisons, he says he preferred the latter.

“I saw a degree of empathy from prisoners, the directors and the wardens [in Jordan] who dealt with us day-to-day,” Abu Qatadah told me. “Prison life in Britain is harder from a psychological or mental health perspective.”

The problem, he explained, was that in the United Kingdom, the wardens and prison directors were wholly unfamiliar with Islam and its culture; for example, a Jordanian warden would instinctively know that someone asking about the jurisprudence of ablution was not an indication of radicalization.

I had interviewed many inmates who said the prison wardens in Britain had labeled them radicalizers for converting their cellmates to Islam, when in fact, given the amount of time they have on their hands, it is unsurprising that cellmates discuss religion. To Abu Qatadah, it seemed that Fleet Street treated him and other inmates like caricatures. In Jordan, however, a country with a long history of dealing with Islamist militants, the regime knew how to deal with them, and so eight years on, Abu Qatadah’s outlook may have mellowed. I sensed that he did not harbor feelings of bitterness towards the Jordanian authorities as he did with the British. “Here they dealt with us according to their personal interactions with us,” he said, not as the villains typically cast in war on terror productions in the West.

The treatment of suspected jihadists matters acutely now as Europe is simultaneously faced with an undiminished terrorism threat from within and the controversial prospect of repatriating former ISIS members to their native European countries. In the last three months, France and Austria have suffered horrific jihadist attacks, and the governments in Paris and Vienna have floated draconian measures to deal with their Muslim populations. In France, President Emmanuel Macron wants to force Muslims into an accommodation with state secularism. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for a broad ideological alliance against political Islam while making no effort to define this all-encompassing concept. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is struggling to reconcile citizenship with barbarism – in other words, whether to repatriate British ISIS fighters accused of grave atrocities on foreign soil, including against their fellow countrymen. If ISIS fighters are brought back, should they be confined to separate prisons or thrown in with the general prison population? Either way, it remains unclear which penal regimen is best suited for containing them.

Abu Qatadah’s case is instructive because of the amount of time he spent living in a Western country before becoming a prisoner in one.

Abu Qatadah’s case is instructive because of the amount of time he spent living in a Western country before becoming a prisoner in one. Prior to his arrest, he walked a fine line between freedom of speech and incitement, and Britain hadn’t figured out how to handle men like him, as is evident in European countries today. While in Abu Qatadah’s case there may have been reasonable suspicion that he was involved in terrorist activities, the evidence threshold for it to be proven in criminal proceedings was simply not high enough. Britain struggled with balancing security and public safety on the one hand and human rights and the rule of law on the other. At the time, the authorities navigated this tension by reasoning that security was a fundamental right, and the government was under an obligation under human rights law to protect it.

Abu Qatadah was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 1993 at a time when there was no indication these radical exiles would pose a national security concern for Britain. The authorities quietly tolerated the Jordanian Palestinian as he built up a small but devoted following of Arab exiles in Lisson Green and beyond. Many of these mostly Arab speakers were attracted to his learning, charisma, and paternalism. Despite his lack of field experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Abu Qatadah had become a reference point for jihadists in the pre-9/11 era. His al-Ansar magazine enjoyed a circulation not only in the United Kingdom but also elsewhere in Europe and carried Eid greetings from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, as well as communiques from the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), which was embroiled in the Algerian Civil War and was carrying out attacks on French soil.

Although he agitated against Muslim and other European countries, Abu Qatadah seemed to have a tacit understanding with the British security services that he would never let his radicals loose in the United Kingdom. While he made it clear that he believed in jihad and supported bin Laden, he also had “little love of the methodology and policies pursued by Osama bin Laden,” according to an intelligence officer. All that ended when the Twin Towers came down, inaugurating the Bush Administration’s “global war on terror.” Perhaps the British authorities were in shock or perhaps they were improvising under immense public pressure, but they came after Abu Qatadah and others assumed to be like him using a sweeping toolkit that defined the government’s nascent efforts against extremism and which continues to impact Muslim communities in the United Kingdom.

The British government introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which gave it the power to detain terrorism suspects without charge or trial. There was intense discussion and scrutiny over the issue at the time, and various amendments were added to safeguard against human rights abuses. In February 2001, Abu Qatadah was arrested for his suspected links with terrorism but released later that month without charge. However, after the 9/11 attacks his passport was taken away, and he was ordered to stay at home. Anticipating the Anti-Terrorism Act coming into force, he went on the run for 10 months before eventually being caught in a South London government-subsidized apartment and arrested on an immigration charge.

Abu Qatadah was transferred to Belmarsh high-security prison along with the Caliph of Lisson Green, Muhammed al-Rifai, and others. The British Home Office (which, among other things, is responsible for counterterrorism and immigration and passports), began deportation proceedings to expel him to his native Jordan, where he was wanted for a bomb plot. But they failed repeatedly, and Abu Qatadah was moved around various high-security prisons in Britain until he came to Long Lartin in 2008.

There, he encountered a prison governor determined to curb his intellectual and ideological sway over fellow incarcerated Islamists.

The Isolation Unit inside Long Lartin Prison was both an experiment and a conundrum in the context of a Western democracy. What had once been a segregation unit for drug addicts became a place to contain those subject to deportation under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (previously the Immigration Act 1971). All the category A detainees, considered to be some of the most dangerous offenders in the country, were awaiting extradition to the Middle East or other jurisdictions in the West. Prominent figures such as Khalid al-Fawwaz, dubbed bin Laden’s Lieutenant, and Adel Abdel-Bari, who was linked to the 1998 East Africa bombings, were among the detainees. The British approach, which seems to have changed little over the years, was to let other legal systems figure out what to do with them.

The one thing successive British governments were unequivocal about was that the movements of suspected terrorists must be restricted lest they rally others to their cause and perpetrate another attack akin to the London bombing on July 7, 2005. But as the prison wardens pointed out in the judicial review, “the detainees we hold have not been charged or convicted of any offence and must be treated as such.” And so, in recognition of their unique status, the detainees were allowed certain freedoms in Long Lartin Prison. They cooked their own food, could mix with the rest of the prison population, could receive goods in the mail, and were allowed limited contact with the outside world. Moreover, they could take part in education programs or work on the herb garden at their leisure.

However, this all changed when Abu Qatadah came to the unit on Dec. 2, 2008. From that point, the detainees were forbidden from mixing with the general prison population and could not leave the Isolation Unit except for medical reasons. Any activities, educational or otherwise, were to be conducted within the small area of 11 cells, an open-air courtyard, games room, prayer room, gym, and kitchen. For the other detainees, this disruption to their accustomed routine came as an immense shock.

Long Lartin’s governor, Ferdi Parker, was clear about why this change was necessary. Having served in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (now HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services), a government body that independently assesses policing and police forces, and dealt with Irish Republican Army inmates at the notorious Maze prison in Northern Ireland, Parker was used to handling challenging prisoners. But Abu Qatadah, a foreigner with a different faith, language, and way of life, represented something wholly new and incomprehensible. Moreover, his transfer to the Isolation Unit brought intense media scrutiny, and any misstep on Parker’s part would most certainly impact his career.

Parker wrote that he took decisive action after receiving warnings from the High Security Unit in Belmarsh prison that Abu Qatadah would foment trouble and encourage other prisoners to “challenge lawful authority” at Long Lartin. Parker also received a letter from Simon Chesterman, special operations constable of West Mercia police, pointing out that prisons were fertile ground for recruitment and that the prison population was susceptible to radicalization. This, combined with the fact that approximately 1,000 mobile phones or SIM cards are discovered inside prisons every month, led him to the conclusion that Abu Qatadah’s communication with the outside world could pose a national security crisis, or at least prove highly embarrassing for all concerned.

But while the judges supported Parker’s position in the judicial review, the question of its effectiveness remains unanswered. Certainly, it had an immense impact on the detainees’ health. Amar Makhlulif, one of the detainees accused of being an al Qaeda recruiter who had also pursued an undergraduate and postgraduate degree, wrote, “It is exceptionally difficult for a small group of people to maintain stability; individual differences become magnified, and the destabilization in terms of health, mental, physical or emotional, of any individual, inevitably serves to destabilize the small group as a whole.” The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights affirmed this in 2004 and noted the concerns that many professional organizations raised about the detrimental effect that holding detainees indefinitely without charge had on mental health. And certainly, the witness statements of many detainees in the unit underscores this was an issue. Abdel-Bari, a longstanding member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who was extradited to the United States, noted, “I eat and sleep and read and go to the toilet in the same place,” adding, “I find this very suffocating and [it] makes me feel like a caged animal.”

Khalid al-Fawwaz, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for being part of a “global conspiracy to kill Americans,” described the situation as “painful and distressing.” He had been imprisoned in those conditions since 1998; his marriage had collapsed and the solace he found in woodwork had been taken away.

Parker, however, failed to curb Abu Qatadah’s influence – in fact, his influence and status may have grown as a result of the changed conditions. When I raised Parker’s concerns, Abu Qatadah didn’t deny that he had an impact on his fellow Muslim inmates. He simply believed that his impact was a positive one. “You know that Muslims inside prison require someone who guides him,” he told me. “So, they would turn to me and ask because I knew jurisprudence and shariah. This isn’t a crime. … But [I] wasn’t a negative influence on the boys. We strengthened them with patience and we prevented them from doing things out of despair. You know there are many suicides in prison.”

Parker also failed in preventing Abu Qatadah’s communiques from reaching the outside world. In April 2009, The Times reported that Abu Qatadah managed to smuggle out a 6,000-word tract in which he boasted that he had been the one to inspire the 2007 Glasgow airport bomber Bilal Abdullah. Abu Qatadah’s status as a jihadist ideologue was ascendant, and on April 27, 2009, al Qaeda indicated his incarceration was a grave injustice. The Times reported that al Qaeda in North Africa threatened to kill a British hostage unless Abu Qatadah was released. The creation of a proto-jihadist jail seemed like a huge own goal for the authorities.

These detainees saw themselves as oppressed and wronged — not the other way around.

The crux of the matter was how the authorities dealt with the inmates from a legal standpoint. When I asked Abu Qatadah about his statements, he said he saw it as an injustice. “Has it been proven by the police, the officers, and the director of the prison that I made a dangerous speech? And if it was the case, why didn’t they prosecute me?” This question remains despite the existence of laws like the Terrorism Act 2006, which proscribes the glorification of terrorism. The way in which all the men, including Abu Qatadah, arrived at the unit without charge or conviction in a criminal court is a critical point. In the judicial review, many of the witness statements made this explicitly clear. These detainees saw themselves as oppressed and wronged — not the other way around. Abu Qatadah felt the same way. After all, he had been detained on an immigration violation, the evidence for which he had not seen due to the curious way the Special Immigration Appeals Commission operated, and so he believed he was not given a fair opportunity to fight his case. The perception that the justice system was not applied equally to them bled into wider society. Abu Qatadah boasted that his incarceration had alienated a whole generation of South Asian men who, prior to this, had never heard of him.

And while the Isolation Unit broke some detainees, this sense of injustice appeared to reinforce Abu Qatadah’s Manichean worldview. “I believe in the decree of God, and I believe I am in a battle with my opponents who want to subdue and humiliate me with their strength,” he said. “So this challenge gave me strength.” And he claimed small but important administrative victories, be it gaining access to Al-Jazeera Arabic or being allowed to run 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) or publishing books while detained at the unit. Abu Qatadah’s morale remained high. And apart from the odd incident where he lost his temper and threatened one of the wardens, Parker admitted that the sheikh was “superficially compliant.”

After being incarcerated in high-security British prisons for a decade, Abu Qatadah was deported to a Jordanian prison on July 7, 2013, to stand trial for a 1999 terrorism plot. The case against him collapsed in 2014 because of insufficient evidence. He was then moved to Tabarbour where, in theory, he is still under house arrest. But Abu Qatadah seems unconcerned about the restrictions which, compared to the restrictive bail conditions in the United Kingdom, are relatively lax. The Jordanian authorities check on him daily, but this doesn’t prevent him from taking care of the area outside his home or going to the local mosque to pray. The Jordanian security services have made it difficult for him to attract followers in Jordan, but he maintains an influence on social media.

Unlike Western countries, Amman appears confident in their handling of Abu Qatadah. Admittedly, the kingdom has two things in its favor. First, unlike the West, it has no qualms about dealing with its prisoners in an inhumane way. If the Jordanian state decrees it, it can place him in administrative detention and circumvent criminal procedure thanks to the Crime Prevention Law of 1954. Second, the kingdom has decades of experience dealing with Islamist militants in its prisons, in the same way that Western democracies have experience dealing with domestic left- and right-wing terrorists. For the Jordanian state, Islamist militants are part of the regional milieu.

This may explain why Abu Qatadah appears to have mellowed with his repatriation. He seems less bitter about his treatment by the Jordanian state; it is as if he expected better from the United Kingdom. And while prison hasn’t caused him to abandon the jihadist project or his admiration for bin Laden, as he told me, he is pragmatic in his view that the political climate doesn’t exist for it to succeed in the region. He made clear to me that he is an avowed opponent of ISIS.

His recommendations to the West on how to keep Muslim inmates from being radicalized by extremists in prisons is not borne out of any love for the West but is grounded in his desire that those he considers brothers in faith avoid the same fate.

He believes that everyone should be treated by the same legal standard whether one is foreign or native. “We cannot seclude human beings totally from the [radical Islamist] influence,” Abu Qatadah said. “They can always access it on the internet now. The way is to open doors. I am not calling for anything except dealing with each individual circumstance on a case-by-case basis. This isolation will achieve nothing, and there will be more problems for the government.” Here, Osama bin Laden’s so-called former right-hand man doesn’t stray far from what penologists and counterterrorism experts would suggest in a white paper.

But what was most striking from reading the judicial review documents is that whatever answer Western democracies come up with, whether it is to separate or keep suspected Islamist militants with the rest of the category A prison population, the policy has to be grounded in justice and fairness, and perhaps most important it must be perceived as such. When one is convicted of a crime by a jury in an open court instead of detained on an immigration charge, it is far more difficult both for the outside world to view the individual as cause célèbre and for the person convicted to believe they have been wronged when they have been given the opportunity to defend themself.

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