BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Prisons and private homes have taken over from mosques as recruiting hubs for Islamist radicals in Europe, a shift that cannot be tackled simply by short-term government security measures, an academic said on Wednesday.
Under pressure from state surveillance and disapproval from local communities, activists who once trawled high-profile mosques for recruits increasingly use more discreet venues including makeshift prayer halls and bookshops, said Peter Neumann, a political scientist at Kings College, London. “This pattern of withdrawal from open agitation is consistent across Western Europe,” said Neumann, author of “Joining al Qaeda,” a report on radicalisation in Europe published by an independent British-based think-tank.
“A lot of open activities that used to go on at mosques are now taking place in private flats and apartments, as mosques themselves become more vigilant and clamp down,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a security conference in Belgium.
“It’s been driven underground. It’s much more difficult for people like Abu Hamza to be operating out in the open, although it doesn’t mean they have gone away,” he told Reuters.
He was referring to Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand Muslim preacher who acted as a magnet for radicals drawn to his mosque in north London in the 1990s, an easy surveillance target for police watching out for such activities.
Abu Hamza is serving a seven-year jail term for inciting his followers to violence.
Radical Islamist recruitment is a concern around Europe because law enforcement agencies believe several thousand young Muslims on the continent are part of networks similar to the ones that carried out suicide bombings in London that killed 52 people in 2005 and bombings in Madrid that killed 191 in 2004.
Giving an example of the trend, the report, aimed at policymakers, said: “Mosques in Spain continue to be frequented by extremists, but potential recruits are now invited to private study group sessions as soon as a promising relationship has been established.”
Neumann said radicalisation and recruitment within prisons was likely to worsen, noting that before 2001 no European country with the exception of France had a significant Islamist militant prisoner population. Now there were hundreds of such prisoners in Britain and Spain alone, he said.
“Recent years have seen the emergence of radical Islamic prison gangs which -- although not always overtly political in outlook -- are highly aggressive in their rhetoric,” he said.
Neumann said such gangs provided inmates with a protective social network and a sense of self-esteem, the report says.
European security services, trying to strike a balance between protecting citizens and preserving civil liberties, had yet to formulate a full response to the trend, Neumann said.
“Sometimes they don’t know yet what to do about it. They have awareness (of the trend) but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have all the right solutions,” he said.
The International Commission of Jurists warned this week that Washington’s “war on terror” after the September 11 attacks had eroded human rights worldwide, partly by restricting liberties.
Neumann’s report, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), says social policy has a role to play in countering extremism among youths drawn to radical Islam by social problems such as racial discrimination.
“Recruitment is not just a security problem. The challenge lies in constructing more inclusive societies in which the narratives of exclusion and grievances will not resonate.”
Analysts say some 15 to 20 million Muslims live in Western Europe, up to five percent of the region’s total population.
The report said few radicals were recruited solely on the Internet, but the act of participating in a jihadist web forum facilitated recruitment by allowing participants to experience the sensation of being part of a global movement.
Editing by Peter Millership