Czech experts help former jihadists integrate back into European society. From Hlidaci pes, a Czech investigative website.

Western countries were unsettled last fall when Turkey began sending captured Islamic State militants back to Europe. However, many European prisons already have some experience with jihadists, and Czech experts have provided them with specialized know-how.

A small yard, roughly four by 10 meters, surrounded by a high concrete wall. Five young men walk back and forth. They were arrested during a raid by Italian police, who suspected them of being members of a local cell of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

YouTube video

“During the day, these prisoners are locked up in cells,” says Alessio Lupino, an employee of the prison in Sassari, on the Italian island of Sardinia, as he describes the weekly routine of detained Islamists. “They are allowed an hour of movement in the yard in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Then they can still spend a limited amount of time in the common room, but they don’t come into contact with other prisoners.”

A Project from Prague Impresses the EU

Lupino is speaking in an educational film made about the prison two years ago by the international foundation Agenfor. In the film, prison staff explain how they deal with detained Islamists and how they work with the other prisoners to prevent possible radicalization.

The film is one element of an online teaching platform put together by engineers and scientists at the Czech Technical University in Prague (CVUT).

When the university began working on projects within the European Union’s anti-terrorism strategy, it specialized in technical security, such as servers, data sharing, and mailing lists, says Andrej Pastorek, project manager at the Transport Faculty’s institute for security technology. Later, specialists in new media became involved in research and educational activities.

According to Pastorek, the high point of CVUT’s research into technical security was the creations of HERMES, an online learning platform run from the university’s servers. The European Commission recommends the platform as one of the main tools in the fight against radicalization.

HERMES contains a wide range of teaching materials, including presentations, videos, interactive exercises, and case studies, for those involved in the “possible reintegration of potentially harmful individuals,” Pastorek says. Such experts range from judges, court staff, and lawyers to prison and probation employees and social workers. The platform has over 3,000 registered users, about a thousand of them regularly active.

The Czechs Were Skeptical

The courses on the platform are localized – translated from English into other languages, with country-specific details added where relevant.

Czech experts themselves are taking part in active deradicalization training courses, although they were skeptical at first, according to Pastorek.

“Fortunately, the Czech Republic has not had to face problems associated with radicalization as intensively as other members of the European Union,” he says. “However, that doesn’t mean that these problems don’t concern us.”

Most graduates from the Czech Republic reconsidered their initial skepticism after completing the courses, Pastorek says. “I think it’s also because of the way we designed the teaching material. It includes, for example, videos shot with those who have taken part in acts of terrorism, with foreign fighters seeking to return home, or with deradicalized people who today help prevent radicalization in prisons based on their own experience.”

Deradicalization Works, But …

Pastorek believes prisoners can be deradicalized, under the right conditions. He cites the example of a prison in Padua, Italy, where an experimental project of deradicalization and resocialization of prisoners is under way. Participants include local NGOs and businesses. The keystone of the project is strict separation of most inmates from radicalized leaders. The less-radical inmates are offered work with conditions comparable to normal employment.

“Prisoners have the opportunity to work under the same pay and social conditions as in the outside world, and businesses have established workplaces directly in prison: a call center, bakery, confectionery, a bike shop, and so on,” Pastorek says. Businesses get a tax rebate. Prisoners receive salary conditions comparable to those of regular employees, and the possibility of a certificate of employment upon release from prison, he says.

The experiment seems to be working, Pastorek says. “The ‘return rate’ of prisoners is around 10 percent, which is really a significantly lower number compared to other Italian prisons. For example, in Naples, where organized crime still rules to a certain degree, up to 90 percent of inmates return to prison.”

Former Prisoners and Moderate Imams

Another proven positive factor in deradicalization is cooperation with moderate imams who work with prisoners, according to Sami Salem, the imam of a mosque in Rome and a regular visitor to the Regina Coeli prison in the city.

“The ideas behind terrorism don’t emanate from a correct knowledge of Islam, and I come to the prisoners to explain to them what true Islam says,” Salem explains in material prepared for Agenfor.

Pastorek says cooperation with moderate imams also works well in the United Kingdom, especially with returnees from Islamic State. The involvement of former prisoners who were able to rid themselves of radical views also has proven successful.

Prisons as a Seedbed of Terrorism

In a speech last October, the then-European Commissioner for security, Julian King, warned of the radicalization of prisoners. “We face a challenge from those who have been prosecuted and locked up in prison for terrorist offenses over recent years coming to the end of their term and being released,” he said. “There are some thousands of such individuals in our prisons across Europe.”

A review of the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks clearly indicates that prisons are becoming recruitment centers for zealous Islamists. Mehdi Nemmouche, who attacked the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in 2014 and shot four people, had been radicalized in a French prison. Three weeks after his release in 2012, he left for Syria and started preparations for the attack. Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages in a Parisian kosher shop in 2015 and murdered four of them, also became radicalized in prison. Both men came from broken families and bleak social conditions.

According to Pastorek, this underscores the importance of deradicalization projects not only in prisons, but also in vulnerable communities. One of the first EU-wide projects developed at CVUT tried to identify the factors and stresses that can lead to radicalization and the subsequent recruitment of willing terrorists both in Europe and on the wider international level.

Called ISDEP (Improving Security By Democratic Participation), the project was a response to the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe before the migration wave of the mid-2010s, Pastorek says. It sought to ensure timely involvement of experts working with vulnerable communities to prevent violence inspired by extremist ideologies.

Eighty people were trained over the course of the project, he says. They then trained experts in their own countries to identify recruitment narratives connected with any form of terrorism, and “respond to them, challenge them, and create safeguards for vulnerable individuals.”

In Europe, the most pressing question today probably is whether countries should take back Islamic State returnees. No precise statistics are available on how many EU citizens Syria is currently holding. The Belgian Egmont Institute estimates the number at 400-450 men and women and 700-750 children.

Tereza Engelova is a reporter for Hlidaci pes, a Czech investigative website where this article first appeared and then became a finalist in the Solutions Journalism category of the Czech Journalism Prizes. Engelova has worked as a reporter, editor, and moderator for Czech Television and as a freelance correspondent from Pakistan and Turkey. She won a Czech Journalism Prize in 2017. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Jeremy Druker.