|Counterterrorism officials investigating an alleged terrorist plot in Southern California earlier this month have again raised the possibility that Islamic extremists are recruiting gang members in American prisons.|
For some time U.S. officials have been concerned about a possible connection between prison gangs and terrorists.
In California last month, Levar Washington, a paroled convict who served time for assault and robbery at Folsom State Prison was arrested for a series of gas station robberies in the Los Angeles area. The money Mr. Washington took during the robberies was allegedly intended to finance several planned attacks on California targets on September 11th, which will be the fourth anniversary of the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
While incarcerated, Mr. Washington converted to a radical form of Islam practiced by a prison group called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh or JIS, translated as The Assembly of Authentic Islam. He reportedly swore allegiance to al-Qaida and violent jihad, or holy war.
JIS is unfamiliar to national Muslim leaders, says Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Muslim civil rights organization. "We never heard this name before, so either it doesn't exist or it is a fake name. It creates a certain perception that we have in America a danger called Islam; we are not going to lay down and let that happen."
Mr. Hathout added that officials should not be hysterical or fearful just because they're dealing with Islam.
Steve Pomerantz, a former FBI assistant director and counterterrorism chief disagrees. He says U.S. prisons have historically had problems with inmates who follow militant Islamic teachings. "State prison and federal prisons have been fertile ground for extremist recruiting. We've seen it across the board, it's not limited to Islamic fundamentalist, kind of ideology, it's much more general that than. But right now the emphasis and concern and rightfully so is the recruiting in prisons by some of the radical Muslim organizations."
Investigators say they have not yet concluded that followers of JIS hatched the terrorist plot while in prison, but Lance Corcoran, with the California Prison Guards Union says JIS has had a presence at Folsom prison for the past five years, and it's followers are current and former inmates.
He describes the personality of inmates JIS and other known extremist groups try to recruit. "They've probably been involved in some gang activity in the past. They're disenfranchised. Family activity may be minimal and may have been awful. So I mean, they're looking for an opportunity to become part of something."
Steve Pomerantz believes inmates who are converted and radicalized while in prison are a threat. "If there is a terrorist incident that we find to be, in this country, I think there is just as great a likelihood that it will be carried out by our own homegrown terrorists. In the case of radical Islamic fundamentalists, by people who have been converted and radicalized.
Two other men were arrested in connection with the alleged terrorist plot. Investigators believe the mastermind of the plot is Peter Martinez, a former Black Muslim gang member who is the leader of JIS at Folsom Prison. He now goes by the name Sheik Sudani.
Mr. Martinez has been placed in solitary confinement at the prison. Investigators are now trying to track down more than a dozen other former inmates he may have recruited behind bars.