Jihadists Behind Bars Pose New Threats for Europe

Trial of French suspect accused of killing four people in Brussels illustrates the risk that terrorists spread plots and ideology to others while in prison

BRUSSELS—A terrorism trial starting here on Thursday highlights the difficulties Europe’s courts and prisons face containing the spread of jihadist ideology behind bars.
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 33-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, faces life in prison for allegedly shooting and killing four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014. But once in prison, law-enforcement officials warn, terror suspects and convicts breed even more plots and spread their ideology to other inmates. 
European prisons are fertile recruiting ground for new terrorists despite efforts in France, Belgium and other European countries to isolate dangerous and radicalized suspects in dedicated wards to prevent them from proselytizing. The perpetrators in several recent attacks were radicalized in prison, including Mr. Nemmouche and an alleged accomplice also on trial, say prosecutors. In Belgium, which has the highest per capita rate of returnees from Syria and Iraq in Europe, one third of 125 returnees were in prison in early 2018, according to the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank. 
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 33-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, sat in the back of a police vehicle as he arrived at a courthouse in Brussels in December for a preliminary hearing ahead of his trial.
Mehdi Nemmouche, a 33-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, sat in the back of a police vehicle as he arrived at a courthouse in Brussels in December for a preliminary hearing ahead of his trial. Photo: thierry roge/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
“Prisons are one of the most important places of radicalization by now,” said Guy Van Vlierden, a Belgian journalist who specializes in tracking foreign fighters. He said authorities struggle with the question of whether to isolate extremists or imprison them together, each posing its own risks.
European countries are taking prison radicalization seriously, said Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator. France in 2017 created a special intelligence service for the prison system, which is monitoring some 3,000 people for signs of radicalization. In July, the country set up another surveillance unit to monitor radicalized inmates upon their release from prison. Other countries are experimenting with tailored psychological, social and religious counseling. But so far, Mr. de Kerchove said, “nobody has the silver bullet.”
This is the first trial of a West European citizen who traveled to Syria, joined Islamic State and then returned to Europe to allegedly stage a terrorist attack—a pattern replicated by several other so-called foreign fighters in recent years, some directly linked to Mr. Nemmouche. In January 2015, a Frenchman of Malian origin who converted to Islam and became radicalized while in a French prison took hostages and killed four people in a Jewish grocery store in Paris. He coordinated his attack with two other gunmen who days earlier killed 12 people in an assault on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Hard LineNumber of people arrested in the EuropeanUnion on suspicion of religiously inspired orjihadist terrorismSource: EuropolNote: 2017 is most recent year available
Of the roughly 5,000 individuals who left Europe for Iraq and Syria since 2012, around 1,500 returned and about 1,000 were killed, according to Europol, the European Union’s police agency. Authorities move to arrest returnees and sentence them for joining a terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, while others are released on parole and continue to be monitored by law enforcement. All returnees known to governments are on security watch lists. 
Europol registered some 700 people a year being arrested in Europe for religiously inspired and jihadist terrorism in 2015-17, double as many as in 2013-14.
While the number of returnees has dwindled to a trickle, there is still a risk that some who have combat experience and are seen as role models will recruit and radicalize others while in prison, Europol warned in its 2018 Terrorism Situation Report, published in June.
“Returnees and other extremists in prison may encourage inmates to ultimately travel overseas to fight or conduct other terrorist activities,” the report said.
Mr. Nemmouche’s lawyers say he was connected to the Jewish Museum attack but isn’t the shooter seen in surveillance videos.
The surveillance videos, leaked to local media, show the attacker carrying two duffel bags as he enters the museum. He points a gun and shoots an Israeli couple. He then shoots a 25-year-old museum employee in the reception area. When trying to shoot his fourth victim, a French retiree, his handgun jams, giving her time to press a panic button and lock the door. The attacker pulls out a machine gun, shoots the door open and kills her. The attack lasted little over one minute.
Security camera images that were released by police show the Jewish Museum shooting that killed four people.
Security camera images that were released by police show the Jewish Museum shooting that killed four people. Photo: Federal Police/ZUMA PRESS
Prosecutors are confident evidence will prove that Mr. Nemmouche is the killer. When he was arrested in Marseille six days after the attack, getting off a bus from Brussels, Mr. Nemmouche had a sports bag with him containing guns and clothing that matched the videos, say Belgian prosecutors.
A jury of 12 is set to give its verdict in coming months. With the death penalty banned in the EU, the maximum sentence is life in prison, which in Belgium can be shortened on good behavior.
Nacer Bendrer, a 30-year-old Frenchman from Marseille, where Mr. Nemmouche was arrested, is also being tried for allegedly helping him organize the attack and acquire the weapons. Mr. Bendrer denies involvement.
Mr. Nemmouche was separately charged in France for hostage-taking, after being identified by four French journalists who were kidnapped in Syria six years ago by Islamic State extremists. The journalists also identified a Belgian-Moroccan, Najim Laachraoui, who prosecutors say assembled the suicide vests used in the 2015 Paris attacks and was one of the suicide bombers in Brussels four months later.
Belgian lawyers of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French suspect in the Jewish Museum attack, spoke to journalists as they left the courthouse in Brussels in December.
Belgian lawyers of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French suspect in the Jewish Museum attack, spoke to journalists as they left the courthouse in Brussels in December. Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Prosecutors say they have established further connections with the Islamic State cell that carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, such as phone conversations between Mr. Nemmouche and one of the coordinators of the cell, whom he called before the shooting at the Jewish Museum.
Mr. Nemmouche’s contacts with the Paris-Brussels cell didn’t stop after he was arrested, according to prison records seen by Belgium’s public broadcaster. During his pretrial detention in a Belgian maximum security prison, Mr. Nemmouche communicated with another high-profile terror suspect, Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving Paris attacker, RTBF said.
In an unusual incident, a Syria returnee who was convicted to five years in prison for having joined a terrorist group and released on parole in June was arrested earlier this week for allegedly stealing a USB key from the Brussels prosecutor’s office. According to the prosecutor’s office, the key contained copies of the autopsy reports of the 32 people who died in the 2016 Brussels attacks. The man, identified by prosecutors as Iliass K., denies being the thief.
While convicting terrorists is fairly straightforward in Europe, prosecution is more complicated when proving that a radicalized person is a danger to society, Mr. Kerchove said.
“We made it a crime to go abroad and be part of a terror organization, but being radical is not a crime,” he said. “Only when they reach a tipping point, when they download a tutorial on how to buy a gun or build a bomb, can they be prosecuted.”
Write to Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jihadists-behind-bars-pose-new-threats-for-europe-11547035126


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