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Migration and Home Affairs

Expert Interview with Carlos Fernandes

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Carlos Fernandez offers insight into prisoner radicalisation, exploring the role religion may play

Prisons are by nature harsh environments. It is no surprise, therefore, that they can become breeding grounds for radicalisation and terrorism.

But whether religion plays a part in the process of radicalisation remains under debate.

While research suggests that religious or ideological conversion among inmates is common, radicalisation towards violent extremism (although potentially dangerous) is very rare.

However, religion does play a very big role for Islamist extremists who have been to the caliphate (P&P ex post paper), so in dealing with them religion cannot be dismissed.

While some suggest direct links between Islamist extremist groups in prisons and terrorism, experts like Carlos Fernandez of Spain’s General Secretariat for Penitentiary Institutions believes other variables come into play.

“Religion is religion,” Mr. Fernandez says. “Radicalisation is about an extreme and harmful behaviour... not the result of a long-term religious maturation.”

So while prisons can magnify feelings of resentment, isolation, unfairness most frequently shared by extremists, radicalisation in prisons can result “from the exact same factors that prevail outside prison,” according to Mr. Fernandez. These include social exclusion, poverty and poor education.

“We should instead focus our attention on how these people justify the use of violence and how they include themselves in such closed groups [within prisons]... “We must pay attention to recruiting activities and the existence of ‘leaders’ [within prisons],” Mr. Fernandez says. “It is essential to establish a permanent exchange of information."

While convicted terrorists can thrive in prison, recruiting potential followers, advances in technology and properly trained prison personnel can assist in the detection of such nefarious proselytism.

Social integration and monitoring of each convicts evolution after prison is also required.

“Once the sentence comes to an end and the person is released, prisons themselves have little to say,” explains Mr. Fernandez. “However, how information has been shared with police authorities, how NGOs have been previously in touch with the person, or how family ties have been rebuilt during the imprisonment are factors related to the recommended link between prisons and some social agents.”

“Successful resettlement is quite a work involving not only prison, but society on the whole. That said, concerning now the extremist, we should not forget we also need his/her personal will.”

Young people

What is more, Mr. Fernandez also explains it’s important to “be paying close attention to young people.”

Encouraged by Daesh and to a lesser extent, Al Qaeda, deep societal factors have cemented radical ideology within some Muslim communities in Europe. In fact, the majority of recent attacks in Europe have originated from young European terrorists of Maghrebi origin—from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

In Spain’s bloody 2017 attack, for example, some of the implicated terrorists were minors, aged under 18. While exceptions exist, most of the extremist youth live in precarious conditions, having failed in school and struggled to find employment. Criminality is often their best option.

“It is a youth culture of violence,” says Mr. Fernandez, adding the goal is to minimise the chance of re-offending and maximise the opportunities of reintegration into society.

This interview was prepared by Anthee Carassava. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the RAN Centre of Excellence, the European Commission, any other institution, or participants of the RAN.

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Expert Interview with Carlos Fernandes (PDF version, 222KB) (also available in French and German)