National security and public safety is the government’s foremost responsibility. Over the past 25 years we have seen the government attempt to tackle crime in various ways — in the 80’s we saw the emergency of Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ and in the 90’s we saw Clinton’s ‘Crime Bill’ and both significantly increased the number people in prison and disproportionately impacted African-American men.
In recent years, lawmakers have discovered the disproportionality of programs of the past and are on the path of correcting those wrongs. President Obama has “shortened the prison sentences for dozens of additional drug offenders…” according to CNN as a part of his continuous efforts to “reign in lengthy punishments for non-violent crimes.” And this is an issue that not only has the focus of Democrats. House Speaker Paul Ryan plans to bring to the floor of the House legislation that would reduce sentences for federal prison inmates that have committed non-violent crimes.
While most objective observers would agree with the positions of President Obama and Speaker Ryan, one thing that appears to be missing from this equation is understanding the full criminal background of these individuals before being released from prison. A critique of many national security experts is the possibility that individuals with terrorist connections could potentially be listed as non-violent criminals and released with programs similar to the one in the works by Speaker Ryan. The odds of this occurrence may be slim, but it is certainly something to ponder and consider.
From a public safety perspective, early release of drug offenders from federal prison is already highly problematic. However, when one factors in that 1) federal prisons have served as incubators for enhanced criminal activity once released including Islamic jihadism due to indoctrination of inmates, both by jihadist fellow inmates and jihadist chaplains; and 2) drug trafficking has been a major source of financial support for jihadist terrorism and related enterprises, the early release of drug offenders from federal prison becomes an unacceptably high-risk proposition from a homeland security perspective as well. Experts have warned that federal prisons are major sources of indoctrination of inmates to Islamic jihadism. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, self-identified Muslims constituted 6.1% of the Federal prison population in 2015, more than six times the number in the general population.
London School of Economics Professor Patrick Dunleavy, who also served as deputy inspector in the criminal intelligence unit of the New York Department of Correctional Services, notes that numerous inmates have been radicalized in prison by other inmates, or by listening to recorded jihadist sermons on devices smuggled into prison. Then would it not be reasonable to assume that some of those non-violent prisoners could potential become radicalized during their time in prison? Surely, it is not illogical to beg the question of the odds of this being a reality.
Prison radicalization is not a theoretical risk. In 2010, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report identifying three dozen U.S. citizens who converted to Islam while in prison, and upon their release, traveled to Yemen to train in al Qaeda camps.
The drug trade has long been a strong source of financing for terrorist organizations. In 2008, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that up to sixty percent of terrorist organizations were connected, at the time, with the global drug trade. In 2012, an Afghan drug trafficker with ties to the Taliban was convicted in federal court of trafficking heroin and using the proceeds to finance the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. As recently as February of this year, the DEA announced it had uncovered a massive Hezbollah drug and money laundering operation as part of the DEA’s Project Cassandra, which focused on targeting a global Hezbollah network responsible for drug trafficking and laundering for the purpose of financing terrorism.
So while the President and others such as Speaker Ryan are attempting to do the so call right thing, we must be careful not to release inmates that are endangering and causing far greater harm to the American way of life than we may be currently anticipating or understand.