MADRID, Oct. 30 – Rather than scan all of society for recruits, Islamic militants in Spain have found that many of the most promising candidates have already been collected into one bountiful pool, law enforcement experts say.
It is the Spanish prison system, which has become increasingly populated with immigrants from North Africa, many possessing the characteristics that the recruiters are seeking, the law enforcement experts say. The prisoners are often Muslims, even if largely lapsed ones, and they are often bitter about their experiences in the West or their prison experiences.
The Spanish police announced Thursday that they had arrested 13 people they suspected of belonging to a terrorist cell made up almost entirely of North African immigrants recruited in a Spanish prison.
The group, which included 18 others arrested two weeks ago, began as a collection of unacquainted men jailed for minor criminal offenses like weapons possession, document fraud or robbery, the police said.
But their time in prison transformed them into the Martyrs for Morocco, a terrorist group planning to blow up the national court in Madrid, investigators said.
“It has confirmed that the nucleus for recruitment is centered on people convicted of common crimes,” Baltasar Garzon, the judge investigating the case, said in a report released this week. He urged the government to tighten controls on the prison population here.
Prisons in other countries have become recruiting grounds as well, experts say.
One of the men accused in the March 11 terror attacks in Madrid had served time in a Morocco prison, though before that he had been just “an ordinary criminal who drank too much,” a Spanish intelligence official said.
In Britain, Richard C. Reid, who admitted to trying to blow up a passenger plane with explosives in his shoes, converted to Islam during a stay in prison.
“In the prisons, one finds people who are young, alienated, with a taste for adventure and for risk taking, and who feel their lives have been a waste,” Juan Aviles, director of the Institute for the Investigation of National Security, a research and teaching organization in Madrid, said in a telephone interview. “You can find all the raw materials for forming terrorists.”
In Spain, “One of every 10 prisoners is from Moroccan or Algerian origin,” by Mr. Aviles’s calculations.
The ratio here may be far smaller than it is in countries like France, where more than half of the prison population is Muslim. But it represents a sharp increase from just five years ago, according to an official at the Interior Ministry, who said exact figures were not available.
There are about 60,000 inmates in the Spanish prison system, up from 45,000 in 2000.
In response to the Madrid plot, the government has announced a series of steps, including separating inmates considered Islamic militants from one another in the prison population.
But the move has drawn opposition from Muslim groups. Mansur Escudero, the secretary general of the Islamic Commission of Spain, the Muslim population’s most influential voice here, said the move might actually make the problem worse. “It could foster radicalism because they will be in more prisons,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that recruiters will have access to a broader population of inmates if they are spread throughout the prison system.
Dr. Escudero also questioned whether the government would be able to identify people with such intentions. “How do you tell?” he asked.
But Mr. Aviles said the move was a prudent measure. “Yes there is a risk, but our experience in Spain is that dispersal works,” he said, alluding to a policy adopted by the government in dealing with prisoners from ETA, the Basque separatist group with a history of violent attacks.
Even if it works, the separation policy is still only a partial solution, some analysts contend. “Dispersal has its limits because there is no space,” Jesus Nunez, director of the Institute for the Study of Conflicts and Humanitarian Action, a research organization in Madrid, said in an interview. “Spanish jails are saturated.”
In his report on the Madrid plot, Judge Garzon gave his view of how recruitment takes place. “They are initially exposed to the extremist vision of Islam as a means of atonement for their previous sins,” he said.
Later, he added, the vision is presented as a way “to confer purification upon them through, in this case, martyrdom.”
He also released a portion of a letter from a man he said was a terrorist operative. “The brothers who are in the mountains fight with bullets and bombs, and those who are in the jails of the infidels fight by preaching Islam with their heart, tongue and pencil,” the letter said.
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