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Here's the Case That Shows How to Handle the Jihadist Prison Radicalization Threat

A debate has long circled around the proposition that American prison systems at state and federal levels need counter-radicalization programs. The hypothesis claims that circle-talking and counseling will preempt the manipulation of predisposed inmates by predatory visiting prison imams, or by fellow Islamists inside.

This 2013 Naval Postgraduate School study by Tennessee’s Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Tony Parker established that America’s prison systems offered no counter-radicalization programs despite attacks carried out by radicalized inmates. The study argued in favor of such programs after examining programs in Saudi Arabia and Singapore, where more carrot than stick is applied to nudge jihadists toward productive roles in society.

Unfortunately, as opponents of such prison deradicalization intelligence programs point out, no one can ever show that these soft approaches actually reduce the high-consequence risks associated with the jihadist impulse to kill. Tallying bad events that never happened because programs prevented them is inherently challenging.

It also doesn’t help that one too many Islamist terrorists faked their way through such programs and attacked afterward.

Prison systems around the country still do nothing while wavering about what to implement. However, a Virginia prosecution that wrapped up earlier this year provides the strongest argument yet that America’s prison systems need a harder-edged approach.

The 2017-2018 FBI investigation and prosecution of Virginia’s Casey Charles Spain amply demonstrates what is needed: dedicated intelligence-collection programs, based on developed “snitch” networks on the inside, that are designed only to detect Islamist radicalization clues that can guide kinetic FBI operations on the outside.

Ideally, these programs would end for others like they ended for Spain -- with suspects back in prison for long, hard sentences. Institutionalized intelligence operations inside and kinetic law enforcement outside would surely present a more certain way to reduce jihadist attack risk among this inmate population than, say, preemptive talk circles.

The Spain case drew shallow media coverage before it was forgotten. It surely warrants a deep discussion for the lessons its court records offer state prison administrations nationwide.

Spain was finishing seven years in the Greensville Correctional Center for sex crimes (malicious wounding and attempted rape of an abducted 15-year-old girl), with an August 11, 2017, release date, when the Virginia Department of Corrections picked up some intelligence. It’s not clear from court records if the Virginia prison system ran a dedicated intelligence collection operation looking for jihadists, or if the snitching was just a lucky break. According to the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Heather J. Brown of the Richmond, Virginia Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), two confidential sources inside snitched that Spain became radicalized, had adopted extremist Islamic views, and planned to launch jihadist attacks as soon as he possibly could upon his release.

Prison officials passed the intel to the FBI, apparently with little time to spare, as the prison was preparing the mandatory release of Spain. Spain had sworn a pledge of loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and tattooed an ISIS flag on his back in the ultimate sign of commitment. They also learned that Spain planned to join ISIS overseas, but that if upon his release he was not allowed to fly out, he would carry out attacks on targets in the United States.