WASHINGTON – Congress is holding the second in a sequence of hearings about violent Islamic radicalization in the U.S., a subject so controversial that the first event drew days of protests from religious and civil rights groups and tears from a Muslim congressman who testified about his religion.
The latest House Homeland Security Committee hearing, led by New York Republican Peter King, examines Islamic radicalization in prisons. That focus is narrower than the March inquiry, which looked at Islamic radicalization and what the Muslim community is doing to combat it.
Though it's not drawing the level of attention and outcry of the first hearing, protesters gathered Tuesday on New York's Long Island to decry what they said is the stereotyping of both Muslims and prisoners.
The majority of the recent terror plots against the U.S. have involved people espousing a radical and violent view of Islam, making it difficult to ignore the role religion plays in this particular threat. But critics say focusing too closely on Islam and the religious motives of those attempted terror attacks threatens to alienate an entire community.
To King, the purpose of these hearings is clear: "It's to show and remind people that the threat is here." Law enforcement officials from New York and California who have handled cases of prison radicalization are slated to testify Wednesday.
King said he can't blame people in the Muslim community for a person adopting a violent interpretation of their religion. But, he said, he can place blame if someone in the community knows of such a radical — for example, a prison chaplain who preaches a violent brand of Islam to impressionable inmates — and fails to point that person out to law enforcement or community leaders.
The White House, which pushed a message of religious tolerance ahead of King's first hearing on Islamic radicalization, had no comment this time around.
There is not an overwhelming number of cases in which terror suspects converted to Islam while in prison and plotted attacks against the U.S. In his prepared opening remarks for the hearing, obtained by The Associated Press, King cites five examples since 2002 as well as a 2010 report by staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations committee that dozens of ex-convicts who were radicalized in U.S. prisons have traveled to Yemen, possibly for terror training.
For years, law enforcement officials have said the prison atmosphere is ripe for recruitment for any extremist cause, from violent Islamist extremism to skinhead, white supremacist and Latino gangs.
The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, points to a 2007 Senate Homeland and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Islamic radicalization in prisons as the catalyst for fear of this type of radicalization in America.
"The U.S. prison system has not become a hotbed for radicalization and terrorist activity — nor is it likely to become one," Thompson said. The committee should not be focusing on the people who are already behind bars, he said, but instead should examine the threat of homegrown terrorist cells and lone wolves who often fly under the radar without any formal affiliation to extremist groups.
Terror recruitment in prisons has been a concern of law enforcement and academics long before 2007 — so much so that the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons created a program in 2003 to improve intelligence collection, detection, deterrence and disruption of terrorist groups and other radicalization in prison.
One of the most cited examples of Islamic prison radicalization in the past decade is the plot in 2004 and 2005 to target military facilities, synagogues and other Los Angeles-area sites. The government said the ringleader, Kevin James, was a California State Prison inmate who converted to Islam while he was incarcerated for robbery. Three of James' followers were arrested before they could carry out the attack.
A more recent case is that of a 2009 plot in New York to bomb synagogues and shoot down military airplanes. Two of the four suspects in the plot converted to Islam while in prison.
Adopting the Islamic faith while in prison is not a new phenomenon. Islam took hold in U.S. prisons in the 1940s, when members of the Nation of Islam were held for refusing to fight in World War II. Malcolm X was one of their most famous prison recruits.
Many chaplains and corrections officials credit the faith, when taught properly, with being a stabilizing force that can help inmates turn their lives around.