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The Dangers of Prison Radicalization and Jihadist Recidivism

Flavien Baumgartner, Assmae Gartite, Lilija Sannikova, Zarah Sheikh, Kyle Walter


January 3, 2021

Islamist terrorism has become a growing security issue in the European region, with one of the most pressing problems for counter-terrorism services being the prison system. Individuals who have been imprisoned and convicted for their involvement with terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, pose a growing risk, as they have the power to influence other prisoners and potentially radicalize them. In recent years, hundreds of people accused of jihadist involvement have been arrested. Consequently, the number of jihadists jailed has increased sharply, and prisons have become, among other things, a meeting place for fundamentalists. [1]

Several measures have been put in place to prevent jihadist radicalization, both in general society and in prisons. Many European states’ governments have passed new anti-terrorism laws to assess foreign fighters who fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and have created several programs intending to detect and counter the so-called "lone wolves." However, these measures have proved to be insufficient as great difficulties have been uncovered, especially in regards to the prevention of radicalization in prisons.

One of the main problems faced when dealing with this phenomenon is that the radicalization process is not always accompanied by immediately recognizable behavioral changes. The reasons behind the transformation of a prisoner's belief system and behavior are varied and may include a search for meaning and identity, a desire to challenge authority or the system in general as well as the need for physical protection.[2]

Europe has been one of the largest purveyors of jihadists who joined the Islamic State, the Al-Nusra Front, or Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria (also known as foreign fighters). According to a comprehensive study carried out by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, between 12,972 and 14,177 Western, Central and Eastern Europeans have joined the ranks of these three organizations between 2011 and 2019, and between 2,816 and 2,963 of them have returned home in the past seven years.[3] Most of them were judged upon their return and sent to prison. Moreover, according to Eurojust, between 2014 and 2019, 2,064 individuals, who did not travel to Iraq or Syria, were also convicted for jihadism-related offenses in the European Union.[4]

The average conviction in Europe for jihadist-inspired terrorism has consistently increased from 5.8 years in 2014 to 6.9 years in 2019.[5],[6] Prison radicalization is a well-known issue, and several prisons have been identified in studies as being important breeding grounds of jihadist ideology.[7] 57% of jihadists were incarcerated prior to their radicalization, while 27% of them were radicalized in prison, which represents around 2,500 jihadists around Europe.[8] This shows a reinforced crime-terror nexus which will most likely impact the activities of terrorist organizations in the future. Once released, these jihadists will have relations, formed inside the prison system, with common law criminals linked to the arms’ trade who can provide them with the necessary weapons to carry out murderous attacks in service of their ideology. Therefore, European prisons harbor numerous jihadists and radicalized common law criminals, many of whom have already, or will soon, finish serving their sentences and be released. For example, France counts 503 inmates convicted for jihadist-inspired terrorism, to which 758 radicalized common law criminals have to be added. Since 2015, more than 150 jihadists have been released at the end of their prison sentence, and 64 more will be released before the end of 2021, as well as, 46 more by December 2022.[9] Further numbers show that 90% of the inmates jailed in France for jihadist offenses will have been released by the end of 2025, with the French intelligence services and police lacking resources to monitor them.[10]

While recidivism is an issue of particular note when discussing any crime, on the topic of terrorism it becomes more profound, as the stakes of re-entering the criminal market include human lives. Founded upon an ideology of struggle and just retribution, jihadism exists to a fault and can be incredibly difficult to eradicate, especially in a prison system where interactions with fellow criminals may both spiritually and materially provide a stronger framework for violence upon release.

Few studies exist regarding terrorists’ recidivism rate. These studies tend to demonstrate that terrorist recidivism is less important than for common law criminals, with rates spanning from 0 to 8.3%.[11] However, these studies tend not to focus on jihadism, but rather on ethno-nationalist terrorism. Studies on jihadist recidivism paint a very different picture. The two main studies on jihadist recidivism were both published by the Centre d’Analyse du Terrorisme and looked at French jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda, who went to fight with them between 1988 and 2006, in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992 - 1995), Afghanistan (1986 - 2006) and Iraq (2003 - 2006). These jihadists were convicted upon their return for various terrorism-related offenses, other than traveling to a conflict zone, as it only became a punishable offense in French law in 2004.

Rather than talking about recidivism, these studies talk about re-engagement and found out that the re-engagement rate for jihadists was between 22% and 60%.[12],[13] These numbers are much higher than what previous studies highlighted for other forms of terrorism and can be worrying. No studies exist for jihadists who left for Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State, the Al-Nusra Front, or Al Qaeda, as not enough time has passed for such studies to be carried out. Further studies are therefore warranted on the specific issue of the Iraqi-Syrian jihad as the results might be very different from the previously published ones. This could be due to the mutations of the jihadist cause and the specific nature of the new jihadists (young jihadists recently converted or who rediscovered religion and in many cases with common criminality backgrounds).

The most recent jihadist attacks in Europe should alarm the authorities, as a large majority of the perpetrators were individuals who had been previously incarcerated for terrorism. This was the case for the 2019 London Bridge attack, the 2020 Streatham attack, and the 2020 Vienna attack.[14] On October 4th, another attack, which was not reported widely, took place in Dresden in Germany, and also exhibited the same characteristics. The perpetrator was known to be an Islamic State recruiter and had been released from prison only a few days earlier. Furthermore, what has been observed in attacks throughout Europe, particularly in instances such as the recent shootings in Vienna, is a pattern of, not only recidivism but exacerbation, as those who initially may have endeavored to participate in the jihad abroad, were radicalized to commit acts of terror domestically.

Present imprisonment policies throughout Europe create a situation which compromises security both in the present and the future. Radicalization in prison has long been a widespread concern in the West, where prisons have often become “radicalization hubs,” as extremists continue their “struggle” by indoctrinating and radicalizing other individuals. Most recent jihadist attacks in Europe have been committed by people who had passed through prison as common-law criminals, and who were radicalized during their imprisonment. Inmates find themselves living in a confined space, which favors contacts between radicals and common law criminals who enter prison as simple practitioners of their faith, or non-believers.

These conditions, combined with personal grievances, such as a state of despair, alienation, or marginalization, prompt these vulnerable individuals to become even more susceptible to radicalization, given that jihadist recruiters provide a sense of community, fulfilling their need to belong as well as acceptance and sometimes protection from other inmate groups. Other factors include traumatic experiences, identity issues, discrimination, economic hardship, and poor integration. Consequently, convinced that jihadism is the solution to the problems of Western societies that have failed to address their needs, these individuals become susceptible to sharing a jihadist vision of the world. If they fall into this ideologization process, they can be integrated into jihadist networks.

The return of "foreign fighters" after the territorial collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has further increased the concerns about the management of jihadist inmates. Indeed, these hardened jihadists cohabitate with common law criminals and are likely to try to influence them. Prisons, therefore, become favorable environments for indoctrination, the transmission of extremist ideologies, and recruitment.[15] As more radicalized individuals are incarcerated and exposed to vulnerable populations in prison, in addition to the imminent release of so many “jihad veterans,” states will be facing a complex network of small-cell activity, against which security services struggle tremendously to counter.

The aftermath of the Dresden attack led a member of the German Bundestag, Konstantin von Notz, to point out the issue of prison radicalization, by stating that not only released jihadists should be monitored.[16] Deradicalization or disengagement programs are of great complexity and have not shown great results so far when aimed at jihadists.[17],[18] Thus, common law criminals should also be monitored, as hardened jihadists benefit from the prestige of their status as ‘jihad veterans’, giving them even more power over newly radicalized individuals. These radicalized common law criminals might be even more dangerous, as they will want to prove themselves to recruiters and already have relations and networks to acquire weapons and money to fund their jihadist aspirations.[19]

Without proper penalties and resources to monitor these jihadists' activities upon their release, European states, already wielding an insufficient security apparatus, are subject to further vulnerabilities, ultimately compounding the dangers of future attacks. The European Union and European states individually should therefore invest more in creating new measures effective to counter this phenomenon, which is spreading in most states’ prisons, and which is vital to the future security of the Union and its citizens.

The EUCOM team at The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) monitors all reports of violence and situations across Europe and Eurasia that have the potential to create instability. Specifically, the EUCOM team also monitors situations that can be taken advantage of by terrorists and insurgent groups within the region. The EUCOM team continues to proactively monitor jihadist activity in Europe, noting trends in prison radicalization and how the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) can properly address these threats. Through the Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) CTG continuously tracks all violent events to provide current fact-based analysis.


[1]98c Plate on Fence” by Isabella Mendes, Pexels licensed under Public Domain

[2] Prisons and terrorism. Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 countries. ICSR, June 2010.

[3] From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’ II: The Challenges Posed by Women and Minors After the Fall of the Caliphate, ICSR, July 2019.

[5] Ibid.

[7] Le nouveau jihad en Occident, Khosrokhavar F., March 2018 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[8] Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime Terror Nexus, ICSR, December 2016

[9] Terrorisme: DGSE - DGSI, l’interview exclusive des chefs du renseignement, Le Figaro, November 2020 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[10] Compte-rendu de la conférence internationale sur le terrorisme : Quelles menaces et quels enjeux après la chute du califat?, Centre d’Analyse du Terrorisme, November 2019 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[11] Overblown: Exploring the Gap Between the Fear of Terrorist Recidivism and the Evidence, Renard T., April 2020

[12] 137 nuances de terrorisme: Les djihadistes de France face à la justice, IFRI, April 2018 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[13] Une étude révèle un taux élevé de récidive chez les djihadistes, Le Figaro, July 2020 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[14] Vienna shooting: Austria hunts suspects after 'Islamist terror' attack, BBC News, November 2020

[15] Le Jihadisme français : Quartiers, Syrie, Prisons, Micheron H., December 2019 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[16] Islam radical: la mue des Verts allemands, Le Figaro, November 2020 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[17] Les territoires conquis de l’Islamisme, Rougier B., January 2020 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[18] «Nous savons que nos programmes sont inutiles pour les djihadistes radicaux de conviction», Troendlé N.., February 2017 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)

[19] Les services publics face à la radicalisation - Rapport d’information de l’Assemblée Nationale, Assemblée Nationale, June 2019 (Translated by Flavien Baumgartner)



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