Prisons have traditionally been breeding grounds for some of the world's most violent street gangs and organized criminal organizations. The hostile and dangerous environment of prison life inspired the creation of a diverse array of well-organized gangs and networks that thrived behind prison walls in everything from extortion, drug and weapons trafficking, smuggling, gambling and other illicit activities. In a testament to their organizational capacity and reach, many gangs spread to prisons outside of their place of origin and continue to flourish among seasoned members released into the general public.
Originally, U.S. prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia (MM), also known as La Eme, the Aryan Brotherhood, and its prison offshoot the Nazi Low Riders, and the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), to name a few, were formed in an effort to bolster ethnic and racial solidarity among jailed Hispanic, White, and African-American inmates who competed for power and influence inside the penal system. In varying degrees, penal systems in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia are struggling with their own breed of dangerous prison networks.
In many cases, these networks are comprised of effective leadership councils, chains of command, and strict codes of conduct for members that often include sworn oaths of allegiance and a complex system of communication based on secret codes and signs designed to circumvent prison authorities.
Members of prison gangs often include psychologically vulnerable inmates seeking the physical protection that gang membership appears to provide. Many are also forced to join a particular gang on the threat of violence by gangs determined to swell their ranks. For others facing long-term sentences, gang affiliations based on ethnic, racial, or regional allegiances provide aspiring members with what they perceive as a worthy cause or a sense of belonging, in addition to the protection of membership in a larger social network that claims to speak and act on their behalf.
Prisons in the Middle East
Given this background, it is worth considering the recent prison riots in Jordan and Afghanistan reportedly instigated by jailed radical Islamists, including alleged members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, respectively (al-Jazeera, March 2; Azadi Radio, March 6). The daring escape of 23 high-profile al-Qaeda inmates from a Yemeni penitentiary also raises interesting questions (Yemen Times, February 4).
Regional sources are convinced that organized radical networks operating within the confines of the prisons in question planned each of these incidents in concert with assistance from the outside and the support of new followers recruited from within. These cases may shed light on the nature and scope of radical networks and organizational structures in foreign prisons in countries of critical importance in the war on terrorism.
These incidents also have serious implications when we consider that the periodic release of incarcerated Islamists that run the gamut from moderate democratic reformers to others tied to violent extremist activities is a favorite political tactic employed by incumbent authoritarian regimes in the region. This strategy is generally aimed at easing internal tensions centered in the Islamist opposition over the lack of progress toward political reforms, increased repression and other grievances.
For example, Egypt recently released over 900 members of the radical Gama'a al-Islamiyya, some having spent over 20 years in prison (al-Jazeera, April 12). Tunisia recently freed over 1,600 members of its own Islamist opposition. Algeria also released over 2,000 imprisoned Islamist activists in a sign of good faith as part of its plan to promote its Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation initiative (al-Jazeera, March 4).
It is not in the interest of the governments in question to release inmates considered to pose a credible and immediate terrorist threat, given that the incumbent regimes would likely be targeted in due course as they were in the past. Moreover, the release of jailed extremists is generally accompanied by a negotiated pact with former radical leaders who in turn often praise the incumbent government's action as a sign of goodwill while renouncing the use of violence and terrorism.
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