Foreign Policy Essay

America’s Terrorism Problem Doesn’t End with Prison—It Might Just Begin There

By Lorenzo Vidino, Seamus Hughes
Sunday, June 17, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries that have faced a persistent terrorism threat have found that putting terrorists in jail does not solve the problem. In jail, terrorists network and proselytize, making the problem worse. Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes of George Washington University's Program on Extremism warn that released jihadists in the United States may pose a similar problem and call for a more comprehensive approach that recognizes and counters the risks of prison.


Although many view the downfall of the Islamic State’s territorial project as a moment of relative respite, U.S. counterterrorism authorities continue to contend with potential terrorist threats against the homeland. Most analysts recognize the challenges posed by returning American foreign fighters, online radicalization, and lone Islamic State sympathizers. But somewhat overlooked is yet another substantial concern: the impending release of terrorists who have served their time in prison.

The problem is widely debated in Europe. Last week, France’s top terrorism prosecutor, François Molins, revealed that about 40 convicted terrorists are due to be released from the French prison system, calling the phenomenon a “major risk.” British authorities have recently expressed similar concerns. It has in fact been revealed that some 80 individuals convicted of terrorism offenses between 2007 and 2016 in the UK will be released by the end of the year, and that many others whose terms have not expired will be eligible for release halfway through their sentence. These fears are common throughout Europe, where prison radicalization, whether involving the radicalization of inmates convicted of non-terrorism related offenses or the often-connected phenomenon of proselytism by those incarcerated for their involvement in terrorism, is a major policy issue. The cases of Anis Amri, the Tunisian who radicalized in Italian prisons before involving himself in Salafist networks in Germany and carrying out the 2016 Berlin Christmas Market attack, and Amedy Coulibaly, who radicalized in French prisons through interaction with known jihadists and carried out the January 2015 attack at the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris, are just two of the most notorious examples of the phenomenon—the tip of a large iceberg.

While less debated, the problem exists also in the United States. According to a database created by The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, more than 275 individuals have been convicted of various homegrown terrorism-related charges and subsequently housed in the U.S. prison system. While some are serving a life sentence, more than 80 individuals have been released or are up for release in the next five years. These individuals fall into two broad categories: those convicted after 9/11 for material support of terrorism (the catch-all charge often used for individuals involved in terrorist activities, such as raising money for a foreign terrorist organization or attempting to travel to join groups like al-Qaeda), and those involved in the more recent Islamic State-related mobilization, many of whom are receiving, in comparison, relatively short sentences for milder charges, such as providing false statements to the FBI.

It is unobjectionable that individuals who have paid their debt to society, no matter what their crimes, should be granted their freedom. What is problematic is that the United States has not developed a comprehensive system to rehabilitate individuals convicted for terrorism while they are incarcerated and track their activities upon release. As for the former, the U.S. government fully understands the importance of creating programs to de-radicalize convicted terrorists. In fact, the State Department and other agencies have spent millions to support prison de-radicalization programs in several foreign countries. Domestically, programs aimed at reintegration do exist for convicted gang members and white supremacists, but there has been little effort to introduce any kind of rehabilitation program for incarcerated jihadi terrorists, who are left to fester in their anger and radical views. Some recently released American jihadists that we have interviewed have de-radicalized, but have done so of their own volition and without any external assistance. However, there are some worrying examples of American terrorist recidivism. One of the highest-ranking Americans in the Islamic State, John Georgelas, was incarcerated for jihadist-linked criminal activities. When he was released, he returned to his extremist tendencies, eventually traveling to Syria. Heather Coffman, one of the first American Islamic State supporter released from jail, also appears to continue to hold her radical beliefs.

By the same token, authorities have not developed a comprehensive system to monitor convicted terrorists after they are released. Each is given radically different terms of probation. Some are subjected to a lifetime review of their online activities, while a few have been ordered to just participate in therapy. Quite simply, there is no uniform approach to terrorist reentry and no system to reintegrate them. Our concern, motivated by previous experiences in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States, is that some, upon release, will use their prison-acquired “street cred” to attract a following of budding jihadists.

The reasons for the government’s inaction are manifold. Attempting to rehabilitate inmates and monitoring individuals upon release are activities fraught with civil rights concerns. Authorities are also wary of getting into an area that might impinge on the separation of religion and state, as most de-radicalization programs tend to have at least some theological components. Such programs would also require funding. In Virginia, one probation officer supervises most of the terrorists released. Given his experience, that officer is uniquely qualified to understand and raise concerns if individuals show signs of radicalization. But Virginia is, in many ways, unique in having specialized personnel. Probation officers in most other states must juggle an enormous case load and often do not possess the proper training to assess warning signs for released terrorism convicts.

Despite these obstacles, authorities do feel that a more comprehensive approach is needed. Elaine Duke, then-acting secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, recently acknowledged before Congress that “we need to work with the Department of Justice and its Bureau of Prisons…to make sure [convicted terrorists] do not return to violence once released.” And federal judges around the country are starting to force a conversation on terrorist rehabilitation. During the sentencing of a Minnesota man who had attempted to join the Islamic State, the judge demanded that he be placed in a halfway house that offered youth counseling after serving a short term in prison. An Ohio judge, frustrated by the lack of options, delayed sentencing of a young man who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and ordered the government to identify local programs that would be available to the defendant upon release.

Several European countries, faced with an admittedly larger problem than the United States, have long developed rehabilitation programs that, while not perfect, have achieved some positive results. It is high time for authorities in the United States to do the same.