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Within some American communities, the foreign faces of terror can look familiar. Last week in Paris two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, and a lone gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, brought the city’s most famous thoroughfare, the Champ-Elysees, to a standstill. In the end, these latest converts to jihad had murdered 18 persons as part of their fight against Western imperialism, shouting proudly that their deadly campaign was both commissioned by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and consecrated by God.

The Kouachi brothers, 34 and 32 respectively, were French-born orphans of Algerian origin. Coulibaly, also 32 and a French native, reportedly met the younger Kouachi brother—an aspiring rapper—while in prison serving a sentence for robbery and drug possession. Reuters news service in May 2013 reported that many persons on both sides of the law—from French prison guards, wardens, ex-inmates, chaplains and crime experts—attest that prison life there in European nations is turning young men into easy prey for jihadist recruiters. International studies conducted during the past five years show that prison radicalization is a problem in many countries including Britain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and the United States.

In 2012, Mohammed Merah, a suspected jihadist, killed four Jews and three soldiers in the French city of Toulouse. He reportedly became radicalized while in prison for theft. In March 2013, an jihadist who spent five months in jail for drug offenses was arrested on accusations of plotting an imminent bomb attack on French soil. The murderous rampages last week, according to French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, did not stem from external enemies in Mali, Algeria or Tunisia, but from “… an enemy from within” that is rapidly becoming the plague of the industrialized world.

Prison ‘OGs’ influence youth

“They start as minor delinquents, move into selling drugs, sometimes do prison time and convert to radical Islam and hate towards the West,” Valls told Reuters last spring. A guard at Villepinte, one of the French prisons known as a “hot spot” for Islamic radicalization, said his workplace is the most crowded facility in the Paris region and is occupied primarily by “mostly young, Black, undisciplined and totally uncontrollable” youth. “Islamic radicalization has become a real course in most of our prisons,” said Blaise Gangbazo who works at Villepinte. “But in tough jails like ours, it comes about even more easily. Villepinte has become a good school for that.”

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French sociologist and university professor who has written about prison radicalization, reports that about half of the 67,700 inmates within the Paris vicinity are Muslim, increasing to 70 percent in some urban areas. He said the disproportionate ratio of young, disadvantaged Muslims—the majority of which are immigrants from North Africa—is adding to a “toxic mix of overcrowding, overtaxed guards and a lack of mainstream Muslim chaplains” to discourage radicalization. He pointed to a case study of Karim Mokhtari who, at age 18, almost became a jihadist. Mokhtari received a six-year sentence for shooting a man during a robbery. He arrived in jail “alone and vulnerable” according to his 2007 book “Redemption” which describes the prison stay, and was approached early by an older inmate who invited him to pray and study the Koran. “When you arrive in prison, you feel completely abandoned,” Mokhtari said. “You get there and you need to find some strength. You’re seeking hope and when someone holds out a hand, you take it.” Mokhtari said that as the friendship progressed, his new comrade encouraged him to “kill the infidels” wherever you find them. “The idea was to get myself trained and become a violent jihadist.”

Although the prison population in France is more than one-half Muslim, there are reportedly only 160 Islamic chaplains compared to more than 700 for Christians. Mokhtari said increasing Muslim chaplains could help prevent more young people from being lured into violent jihad. Muslim chaplains are in such short supply, he said, that it is estimated that more than 80 percent of Muslims in French prisons each year may never receive a visit from a chaplain. “This fact leaves ample room for recruitment by radicals,” Mokhtari said. He added that some of the chaplains that are working in the prisons may be “preaching radical messages” themselves.

Scourge of poverty, crime, drugs

France may have Europe’s largest Muslim population, but it is not alone in witnessing prison radicalization. Throughout the continent where specific Muslim communities are composed mostly of Black persons, poverty, crime, drug trafficking and high unemployment may mirror some of the problems seen in American ghettos. A series of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2005 cited a warning by French officials that the prisons and poor urban neighborhoods were a “top recruitment” area for radical Islam, and refer to a report by French intelligence services describing the radicalized prisoners as “time bombs.”

There is a constant arrival of uncharged suspects and in the cells or the yard, petty hoodlums are said to quickly cross paths with seasoned criminals. “It’s the little guys who bother us most,” Gangbazo explained, “because on the inside they meet the big guys (radicals). Then the consequences are bad. The guards are powerless against that.”

There are alleged crime-infested districts within the Muslim communities in Paris, Marseilles, Strasbourg, Lille and in Amiens. These areas have been designated by the French Interior Ministry as Priority Security Zones (ZSP) where in August 2013 a crackdown was enforced on lawlessness. Riot police, detectives and intelligence agents were deployed to these ZSP areas in hopes that a “North American-style” war on crime could prevent France’s impoverished suburbs from exploding into turmoil. That month, about 100 Black Muslim youth in the impoverished Fafet-Brossolette district of Amiens went on a two-day arson rampage after police arrested a Muslim man for driving without a license. In response to the two-day riots, about 150 police officers and anti-riot squads were deployed to the Fafet neighborhood and used tear gas and rubber bullets and a helicopter after Muslim youth reportedly fired on them with buckshot and fireworks. When the fires died down, about $7.4 million in damage had resulted.

Amiens Mayor Gilles Demailly was shocked at the riots. “For months I have been asking for the means to alleviate the neighborhood’s problems because tension has been mounting here,” Demailly said. “You have gangs of youths who have turned the areas into a no-go zone. You can no longer order a pizza or get a doctor to come to the house.”

Prior to the Amiens riots, there was a week of violence between rival Muslim gangs in Toulouse. Police there described the Muslim-vs.-Muslim violence as a “… kind of guerilla war” between Black teenagers fighting over drug turf.

French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said the prisons and jails have tried to transfer inmates found to be “proselytizing” to other jails, hoping to disrupt any recruitment to radical Islam. But such measures are difficult to exercise because, according to Khosrokhavar, “Those who become radicals are precisely those who do not show it. It happens without any external signs like growing one’s beard.”

Rep. King targets American prisons

New York Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has looked within American prisons to determine how enticing the allure of jihad is for the many inmates who may opt for radical Islam. The alleged practice has earned the name “Prislam.” King began conducting hearings four years ago into the possible connection between Muslim converts in American prisons and jihadism. “These hearings are necessary because the danger remains real and present, especially because Al Qaeda’s announced intentions to intensify attacks within the United States,” King said in 2011. A witness called by King said many inmates under suspicion by the government are “… primed to become terrorists.”

William Jelani Cobb, a Cold War historian and professor at Rutgers University, is unsure of the accuracy of the King hearings. He said that throughout U.S. history, “Black people represented (a) vulnerable flank in American society” and that there is a reasonable comparison today to the 1950s and ’60s when conservative leaders attempted to thwart the Civil Rights Movement by painting Black leaders as Communists and Socialists. At that time, Cobb explained Black activists were viewed as “… those people who are less American, and less loyal, and thereby are more easily recruited.”

The FBI since 2001 the terrorist attacks has targeted supposed “disaffected” young men of color by creating fake terrorism plots that agents posing as friends lobby the men to endorse. Then they launch a public bust on the nonexistent plot for acts of violence that were fabricated as part of the “sting” operation.

Michigan Rep. Hansen Clarke said in 2012 that the King hearings were missing the point. Of Bangladeshi descent and reared in Detroit, Clarke spoke of his Black boyhood friends who ended up in prison becoming hardened criminals “by virtue of their time in prison” without the allure of jihadism. Clarke said conversion to Islam was a security mechanism for many inmates he has spoken to. “I asked someone who spent time in prison why they converted to Islam and why other people do. I got three reasons: ‘For protection from other inmates, for protection from guards, and to break away from their criminal pasts. In other words, to become ‘a new man.’”

France: A second homeland

The visiting American in Paris has seen since the early part of the 20th century that Black people live throughout much of the City of Lights. Most have come directly from Africa, many from Holland and some are African Americans left over from both world wars who adopted a new language and culture. There were the famous expatriates such as Josephine Baker, musician Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright and James Baldwin who, while maintaining their American citizenship, decided that Paris may have been a more hospitable landscape for their respective ilk. Now comes the jihadist, hidden from view for decades and now ascribing to a variety of reasons why they must disrupt a once peaceful coexistence between natives and immigrants. Martin Luther King famously said amid the bombings, shot guns, attack dogs and fire hoses aimed at protesters that: “We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will surely perish together as fools.”

World leaders converged on Paris following the murders in a show of solidarity against terrorism. The rare gathering of former foes and new allies demonstrated to jihadists of many colors that wanton violence will speed them toward historic obscurity as long as they opt for the fist instead of the outstretched hand.