Last April, according to the New York Post, Gotham’s top jails chaplain, Imam Umar Abdul Jalil, told a Muslim student conference in Tucson that Muslims were undergoing torture in a New York City correctional facility, that the world’s “biggest terrorists” occupied the White House, that Muslims cannot allow “the Zionists of the media to dictate what Islam is to us,” and that the Koran commands Muslims to be compassionate with one another but “hard against the kufr [unbeliever].” After briefly suspending Jalil—with pay—Mayor Michael Bloomberg reinstated him, saying, “As Americans we should never pander to xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, or convention. We must never be afraid of free speech or multiculturalism—the genesis of America’s founding. And we must never use the war on terror, or political correctness, as the pretext for stifling political speech.”
Multiculturalism? Stifling political speech? The mayor seems to be confusing an academic First Amendment debate with a critical security issue—keeping America’s jails and prisons free of radical Islamic ideologues. Radical Islam is a real and growing presence behind bars; officials shouldn’t help expand its influence.
Jalil is the second New York Muslim prisoners’ chaplain to come under fire for voicing extremist opinions. Three years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the former chief imam of the New York State prison system thought that the 9/11 hijackers were holy martyrs. “Even Muslims who say they are against terrorism secretly admire and applaud [the September 11 attackers],” he told the Journal. He also argued that the Koran doesn’t forbid terrorism against enemies of Islam and that “this is the sort of teaching they don’t want in prison. . . . But this is what I’m doing.” (In 2005, in another case, the Fire Department asked for, and got, the resignation of department chaplain Intikab Habib after he expressed doubts that al-Qaida was responsible for destroying the World Trade Center, hinting that a “conspiracy” was to blame.)
U.S. counterterrorism officials have known for several years that al-Qaida views the U.S. prison population as a fertile source for recruiting homegrown terrorists—the kind that slip through security measures designed to catch foreign jihadi. Would-be “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, for instance, was a former Chicago gangbanger who converted to radical Islam in prison and traveled to Afghanistan for jihad training. Many observers believe Islam to be the fastest-growing religion behind bars, particularly among black convicts; Muslim prison gangs are proliferating. On some estimates, as much as 20 percent of the New York state prison population may be Muslim.
Last August, police in Torrance, California, disrupted the first known prison-based terrorist cell in the U.S., Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh (JIS). California prosecutors indicted JIS cell leader Kevin James, along with Levar Haney Washington and two other prisoners, for plotting to attack U.S. military bases, synagogues, and Israeli government offices in and around Los Angeles. Washington converted to Islam while incarcerated and joined JIS in 2004, swearing loyalty to James “until death by martyrdom.”
When Washington went free on parole in late 2004, James ordered him to recruit new members on the outside and plan terrorist attacks with them. To raise funds for attacks, Washington and two recruits robbed 11 gas stations across Southern California before their arrest.
The discovery of the JIS cell was a red flag for California law enforcement. Says Mark Leap, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau: “A year ago, we didn’t consider the state or federal prison populations a serious terrorist risk. Now we’re acutely aware of the problem.” LAPD counterterrorism officers are now working with state and federal prison officials to identify the ideology and tactics of radical Islamic prison gangs and communicate potential threats to the LAPD and the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The real challenge, Leap explains, is changing how prison intelligence officials view the prison security environment. “Radical Islamic groups don’t receive” the same kind of attention that the officials give to other prison gangs, because the Muslims aren’t generally violent in prison. As a matter of fact, he says, the opposite may be true. Asked if he thought that police across the country were aware of the dangerous potential of these gangs, Leap voices concern. “We are. I’m not sure how many other departments are.”
Prison officials add fuel to the fire when they hire Muslim chaplains or other contractors sympathetic to radical causes, and nothing suggests that they’re guarding against the possibility. In a report a while back, the Department of Justice’s inspector general found that the Federal Bureau of Prisons lacked adequate background and ideology checks on its Muslim chaplains, religious-service contractors, and volunteers, to prevent radical groups from penetrating the system. Given that Saudi Arabia has spent millions funding the spread of the radical Wahhabi version of Islam in the U.S., building or taking over hundreds of mosques and opening training centers for imams across the country, a blasé attitude about background checks all but guarantees that radicals will make it into the system.
Congress of Racial Equality chairman Roy Innes thinks that politicians are ducking the problem. “Policymakers aren’t taking action against these preachers of hatred, because they are using race and Islam as a cover. We’re not going to tackle this issue until we have an honest public debate.” Jalil’s remarks offered Mayor Bloomberg a perfect opportunity to open such a debate. Too bad he made it into a First Amendment flap and ended the discussion.