Islamic extremists try to recruit the most economically devastated prisoners by offering assistance.
By Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 12/02/14
Prisons are prime places to promote extremist ideologies and beliefs, according to security experts. [AFP]
Correctional institutions in the Balkans are fertile grounds for recruitment into Islamic extremist groups, security experts said.
"Prisons are the safest places to preach radical Islamic and other extremist confessional beliefs," Ivan Babanovski, former head of Macedonia's state security agency, told SETimes.
Experts said Karray Kamel Bin Ali, also known as Abu Hamza, was among the first Islamic extremists to have formed a recruiting network while serving a 10-year prison sentence in Zenica.
Abu Hamza was convicted for multiple murders and for preparing to assassinate the pope in 2003 and was deported from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to Tunisia in 2011.
"He gained permission to use a cell that he used for religious services with others, but also to recruit. Prison proved a very suitable place for recruiting and ... the network still functions today," Dzevad Galijasevic, former member of the Expert Team on Fighting Terrorism, Organised Crime and Corruption in Southeast Europe, told SETimes.
Galijasevic said the group has about 30 inmates comprised of those serving the longest sentences for heinous crimes.
"Those are people who are at the bottom of society and accepted radical Islam, but now fear revenge. They have no place to escape in prison," he said.
Babanovski said the recruiters also try to reach the most vulnerable prisoners by offering them economic assistance.
Officials said proponents of Islamic extremism practice their religious traditions differently than other prisoners, but that is a constitutionally guaranteed right.
"So far, we have not noticed any activities suggesting threats to the peace and security in the prison," Ivo Kotevski, spokesperson for the Macedonia interior ministry, told SETimes.
Nevertheless, extremism is on the increase, and some inmates represent a security threat once they are released, said Vasko Nikolovski, professor on terrorism at the MIT University in Skopje.
"They come out of prison as professionals, ready to do terrorist acts," Nikolovski told SETimes.
Nikolovski said regional authorities lack full knowledge, as was the case with the number of local recruits who went on to fight in Syria, which points to the need to learn how recruiters operate inside as well as outside of prisons.
Extremists maintain significant funds -- an effective tool that has helped spread radical Islam in Kosovo, BiH, Montenegro and throughout the Balkans, Nikolovski said.
All this points to the need to bridge the gap by increasing surveillance of people from the Islamic world suspected of organising the recruiting, Babanovski said.
"Certainly, a greater control is needed of people who come here as immigrants from the Islamic countries," Babanovski said.
Correspondent Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo contributed to this report.
What can Balkan authorities do to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies and beliefs in prisons? Share your opinion in the comments space.