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Congress Probes Radicalization of Muslims in US Prisons

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee (File Photo)

The House Homeland Security Committee has held a hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims in U.S. prisons. Several state and local law enforcement officials told the panel that radical Islamic groups abroad are targeting the U.S. prison population for recruits to carry out terrorist attacks against Americans. But some Democrats on the committee protested the narrow focus of the hearing on one religious group, saying there are other serious threats, including prison gangs.

Republican Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, strongly defended his decision to hold the second in a series of hearings on the threat of radicalization of Muslim Americans.

This hearing focused on the conversion to radical Islam of some U.S. prison inmates, which King said is an increasing threat. "I will say that again: dozens of ex-cons who became radicalized Muslims inside U.S. prisons have gone to Yemen to join an Al Qaeda group run by a fellow American, Anwar al-Awlaki, whose terrorists have attacked the U.S. homeland several times since 2008 and are generally acknowledged to be Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate," he said.

(Read the live tweets posted during the hearing by VOA reporter David Byrd)

Most of the Democratic members of the committee objected to the narrow focus of King's hearings, pointing out that there are many different kinds of violent prison gangs, and white supremacist groups which also operate inside prisons and pose a threat.

The ranking member, Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said, "Limiting this committee's oversight of radicalization to one religion ignores threats posed by violent extremists of all stripes. And there are other threats to be concerned about."

Thompson said the number of violent attacks by people who converted to Islam in prison is small compared to the problem of gang violence emanating from prisons. One of the experts testifying to the panel, Professor Bert Useem of Purdue University, agreed, saying prisons are not fertile ground for those who would seek to recruit Islamic terrorists.

He said U.S. prisons are supervised and operated much better than they were 30 years ago, and that most convicted felons have different backgrounds than most terrorists.

"A large body of evidence has shown that terrorists tend to come from better-educated, advantaged backgrounds, and U.S. prisoners tend to have low education and come from poor communities. The profiles of criminals and terrorists are different," he said.

But the other witnesses to the panel disagreed, saying the threat of Islamic radicalization within U.S. prisons is real. Patrick Dunleavy is a former Deputy Inspector at the New York Department of Correctional Services.

"Despite appearances, prison walls are porous. Outside influences access those on the inside, and inmates reach from the inside out. Individuals and groups that subscribe to radical Islamic ideology have made sustained efforts to target inmates for indoctrination," he said.

Michael Downing, a top official in the Los Angeles Police Department, described the prison conversions to radical Islam as a low-volume occurence, but said it is of consequence considering the size of the U.S. prison population, the largest in the world. "Prisoners by their very nature are at risk and suceptible to recruitment and radicalization by extremist groups, because of their isolation, their violent tendencies and their cultural discontent," he said.

One of the Democratic members of the panel, Laura Richardson of California, condemned Committee Chairman King for focusing on Muslims. "I actually believe that the focus of one particular group on the basis of race or religion can be deemed as racist and is discriminatory," she said.

Congressman King responded, saying Democrats had their chance to hold hearings with a different focus and failed to do so. "Your party had control of this committee for four years. Not one hearing at all, not anything at all involving prisons on skinheads, on Nazis, on Aryan Nation, on white supremacists at all," he said.

King rejected what he called the "political correctness" of opponents of the hearing, saying Islamic radicalization is different than other homegrown violent groups because it is backed by foreign terrorist networks which are actively recruiting Americans. King's first hearing on Islamic radicalization within the Muslim American community in March unleased a fury of protests, and a coalition of Muslim advocacy and civil rights groups also sent a letter to the committee protesting Wednesday's hearing, saying it paints an unfair picture of the estimated seven million Muslim Amercans.