21 November 2009

Crossroads: Transnational Terrorism and Prison Gangs

Given the interdisciplinary nature of terrorism and the morphing methodology of the suspected terrorist, I envision this posting to serve as the first of many commentaries in a series which is to be called, "Crossroads." The purpose of this series is to promote dialogue and interaction between intellectuals relating to issues which are woven into the matrix of extreme jihadi violence, especially al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda's "principal architect of 9/11," Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is to be tried in a U.S. civilian court beginning sometime in the next six months. Not only will the amount of public media coverage his case receives boost recruitment and financing for AQ and its affiliates, but it will cause confusion amongst policy-makers and citizens alike concerning the appropriate methods of dealing with suspected terrorists. Of importance to this discussion, I wish to focus on why intellectuals and intelligence officials need to begin to discuss the multitude of potential problems we are on course to face once suspected terrorists are convicted and are sentenced to either await their execution or serve a [life] sentence in prison.

(Of course, discussing whether or not convicted terrorists should be sent to a prison cell at all - and proposing solutions for placement and aligning processes and procedures - is one conversation we must have in addition to this another time).

In light of the new avenue AG Holder, under the leadership of the Obama Administration, has paved for the U.S. legal system, at least for the time being - and putting aside whether or not the decision is actually constitutional - we must imagine the following:
  1. What type of setting, atmosphere, and environment KSM and other suspected terrorists will enter into;

  2. How they themselves will be viewed, understood, and regarded, and;

  3. Who they will have direct and indirect access to and interaction with.

Ultimately, we must converse with one another to decide on a) how we ought to move forward and b) what resources are at our disposal to prevent and counter organized recruitment, hierarchical indoctrination, planned bouts of violence, and uncontrollable outbreaks of dissent.

I think the most pressing issue is the spread of propoganda in support of the recruitment of operatives by connecting to prison-gangs. In this manner, AQ can become dynamically dangerous because of the capability it will have to expand its jihadi pool. Essentially, internal efforts within prison walls will reach external gang leaders in space and time.

Even when considering the various amount and diverse types of prison-gangs - in measuring mentality, philosophy, structural hierarchy, indoctrination methods, organized criminal activity, and employed violent methods - it is crystal clear that AQ ideology and methodology aligns itself with one group in particular; namely, the Neta Association also known as La Sombra, which means "The Shadow."

Founded by Carlos Torres in Puerto Rico, NA has grown to one of the top five prison-gangs in the U.S., mostly disturbing New England states of MA, CT, NY, and NJ as well as FL and TX. Torres formed the "cultural organization" to protect and further the rights of [Puerto Rican] prisoners in the midst of communal suffering and abuses. It sees itself as being the "voice of the marginalized," mainly as a direct result of the assassination of their leader in 1979 by a member of their Puerto Rican rival, G-27.

Roles of members are distributed according to their hierarchy, and gender responsibilities are understood horizontally: men recruit most Hispanic teenagers, teach gang values, and engage in violent campaigns while women take care of inmates, manage funds like secretaries, and provide "public service."

Of particular relevance to the crossroads of AQ and NA is the oath members take just before being "baptized" in to the organization:

“I swear to God and the Neta Association from this day on, I will live conscious to finish with the abuse that we confront, because of the administration...From this day on I will live conscious of my Neta brothers. Your suffering and pitfalls will be mine. Your bloodshed will be my bloodshed also. For this reason, I will never intend to take a life of a brother Neta."

Afterward, the member signs a sworn testimony, which states:
“I swear in the presence of my brothers and Almighty God that when I accept to be a brother of the Neta Association I will live by the norms, and protect them in my mind and heart. I will never kill another brother or his family. Your suffering will be my fight brother, their bloodshed will be mine also. I will be a warrior if it is necessary, so that the dreams of our brothers and leader Carlos La Sombra will be strong forever. I will fight against the abuse of the [G-27] and the corruption of the administration everyday of my life. I except it's ideals and I will respect the norms and leaders forever.”

Moveover, the leaders host a monthly meeting on the 30th day to pay homage to their fallen brothers. In concluding this ceremony, members recite the following:

"May the spirit of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the memory of our maximum leader, Carlos Torres Iriate, aka Carlos La Sombra; and the rest of our brothers that lost their lives in the struggle, reign in our hearts and minds forever and ever. . .”

Each of these three recitations, which are woven into the structured, ceremonial indoctrination process, highlight the strong, overwhelming use of religiously-centered ideology. Each also spotlights the "justification" inherent in their rhetoric. Furthermore, NA's theological interpretation of what it means to be loyal, trustworthy, and just is dictated to them through their ritualistic, communal tradition(s). This disturbing activity is homologous to AQ's method of propaganda to build a nation of fighters willing to die by way of "defensive jihad."

In conclusion, the parallels I have presented here - which represent only the tip of the iceberg when considering the comprehensive methodology and reach of NA - target problems on the horizon for intellectuals, intelligence specialists, and criminal justice professionals. I urge us to begin to first identify these striking similarities in order to script a plan that will structurally and systematically counter and prevent partnerships/alliances between convicted terrorists and prison-gangs, especially AQ and ones such as NA.

This work, I propose, can start with a case study analysis of the suspected chief of the Spanish AQ cell, Syrian Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas - alias Abu Dahdah - who was tried in Madrid and convicted to only 27 years in prison for conspiracy. (The DA argued for 60,000 years - 25 for each victim; thus, 2,400 total). 18 other AQ members were convicted, but what is interesting to study is the comment Yarkas made at the end of the trial:

"The existence of a terrorist cell is an invention. The relationships between the accused came about naturally [because] we've been living [in the country] for 20 years, we come from the same country, we have the same religion and the same customs."

Can we not imagine Khalid Sheikh Mohammed saying something similar to an NA President, Vice President, or Recruiter?


  1. DP --

    Some quick first thoughts:

    We seem to be getting in "anthro" territory here: Victor Turner's notion of "liminality" in The Ritual Process and Roy Rappaport's understanding of ritual in Ecology, Meaning and Religion come to mind as good background sources.

    And I have a comment up on the Foreign Policy AfPak blog about two narco-religious gangs, the (Pakistani) UK Gambinos and the Mexican evangelical La Famila, which would seem at least tangentially related to your topic here -- quick links, not much detail.

    Hope something here helps..

  2. DP:

    Great post, thanks for considering this aspect of the problem. Your post reminded me of some of the descriptions I've read concerning the initial formation of what would eventually become the "Egyptian wing" of AQ - formed and currently led by Ayman al Zawahiri. See a short bio here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayman_al-Zawahiri

    The best description I've read lately was in Lawrence Wright's phenomenal book, "The Looming Tower" (2006). Although many similar accounts exist, Wright succinctly describes the pivotal role played by Zawahiri's early involvement in Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and subsequent time in prison after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The brutal conditions and torture in prison combined with the network of other radical-minded individuals he made likely served to radicalize him further and allowed him to build the foundation of EIJ, which would merge with AQ in 1998.

    All of this is probably already pretty common knowledge to most who are reading this blog, but I want to highlight his specific case as one that should be studied in further depth to understand the causal relationship between imprisonment and radicalization. Are any of the other readers aware of a more in-depth study along these lines? I think it's critical that we learn from past incidences in order to attempt to prevent (or at least limit) the radicalization of another generation of extremist jihadists.

    On the other side of the coin, I am also reminded of my first-hand experiences with the detention and criminal justice systems in Iraq. Anyone who spent time fighting the insurgency in that country can attest to the extremely high recidivism rate. We had several top Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leaders who were captured (many with legit, 30-page thick target packets) near the beginning of our deployment in late 2007, released (often due to corruption/bribes) in 2008, involved in further attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and US forces and captured again in late 2008/early 2009.

    I still have pictures that I saved taken of several of our detainees at Camp Cropper (located at BIAP) who had grown full "wahabbi" beards and were allowed to hold their own "sharia" courts where fellow inmates were tried for petty crimes and violation of strict "Islamist" laws. In addition, AQI had a full leadership and recruiting system in place within the prison system at Cropper that allowed folks to leave the system more radicalized than when they entered a few months prior. During one interrogation of a top AQI leader, he admitted that no one could be chosen to serve as a top AQI commander unless they had established their "street cred" in prison at least once. In his case, he was chosen to by the SE Mosul AQI Emir only because of the connections he made while detained. Clearly, the system there was broken (and still is) and severely limited by US efforts to be too politically correct and culturally sensitive.

    We must find a balance between torture and repressive prisons that will further radicalize and the free-for-all "Jihad University" that pervades in Iraq right now.

  3. *With Pukk's permission, I am posting this comment in order to provide further perspective on this issue. Please check out the links listed below.

    DP – thanks for bringing up recruiting strategies, particularly through the US prison system. Jihadist recruiting/operating through jails has been going on for at least since the early 90s and we’ve been reaping what we sowed most recently – Blind Sheikh/Lynn Stewart, the recent plot near Newburgh, NY, CPT Yee in Guantanamo, etc. etc. The shocking thing is we haven’t learned anything despite one lesson after another. Jihadists are not common criminals. Jihadism cannot be effectively dealt with by law enforcement. Welcome to stateless, netcentric, global, warfare. So I think the first big mistake is to put Jihadists into our civilian justice system (Leah has already said she disagrees with that) and the next big mistake is to allow Jihadists to mix with the general population in prisons. The next big mistake is to allow Jihadists access to their sympathizers – almost impossible if we treat them to civilian justice. Their access to lawyers, family and friends on the outside, and their ability to continue to preach during proceedings (self-representation) is impossible to stop. We don’t need to experiment with KSM – we’ve already seen it happen. Hell, it’s even happening right now with Tarek Mehanna: http://www.revolutionmuslim.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1643:1st-letter-from-tariq&catid=1:yousefalkhattab&Itemid=4
    and http://www.revolutionmuslim.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1700:2nd-letter-from-brother-tariq&catid=1:yousefalkhattab&Itemid=4

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