Radical Islamists May Be Recruiting Prison Inmates

A militant Islamist group, thought to be operating in California prisons, is suspected of plotting to attack Los Angeles area targets. This is the latest development in an investigation that began when authorities found what they believe was a terrorist target list after arresting two men on suspicion of a series of gas station robberies.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The FBI is investigating whether terrorist operatives are being recruited from California prisons. State corrections officials yesterday acknowledged that radical Islamist groups may be active among the inmate population--may be. It's not clear, though, if one groups at Folsom state prison is linked to an alleged terrorist plot in Los Angeles. Three men are in custody, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Local cops investigating a string of gas station robberies last month in the LA suburb of Torrance stumbled on to the possible terrorist plot. The discovery came after police searched the home of one of the suspects, Levar Washington. There they found bullet-proof vests, jihadist materials and a list of possible targets: the El Al ticket counter at LAX, National Guard centers and the Israeli consulate.

Authorities say Washington is a former gang member who was recently released from the state prison outside Sacramento. There officials say the radical Islamist gang known as the JIS has been operating for about five years. Washington converted to Islam while in prison. Once released, he met his robbery accomplice at an LA mosque. Both men are in custody, but at this point have only been charged with a hold-up.

Federal and state officials have refused to comment about the investigation, but the FBI has confirmed that the men are the targets of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Their arrest has raised questions about home-grown terrorists in the California prison system. Yesterday, Roderick Hickman, head of the California Department of Corrections, said lots of groups from the Black Panthers to the Aryan Brotherhood have operated in the state's prisons.

Mr. RODERICK HICKMAN (California Department of Corrections): But no matter what the name is, they all have the same objective: to commit crimes and victimize the citizens of this state and our nation. They have to understand that our objective is and will continue to be to always stop them.

KAHN: Without divulging too many details, Walter Allen of the Department of Corrections says the problem isn't limited to California.

Mr. WALTER ALLEN (California Department of Corrections): There are a number of different investigations that are happening in correctional facilities all over the country. We don't want to jeopardize any of the efforts that have been made at this point in time with federal, state and local agencies that have been involved in various investigations.

Unidentified Man: How would that jeopardize it?

Mr. BRIAN JENKINS (RAND Corporation): The fact is, we do not have good control over our own prison populations. We know that.

KAHN: Brian Jenkins, a terrorist expert at the RAND Corporation, says prisoners are ripe targets for terrorist recruiters. But Jenkins says it's unclear how successful radical jihadists have been in their prison recruitment efforts.

Mr. JENKINS: Can this kind of jihadist extremism become a conveyor for general discontents and transform local hoodlums into jihadist warriors? I mean, the answer is for some probably. You need a handful of people. The London attacks were carried out by four guys.

KAHN: Jenkins and federal officials say the saving grace may be that Islamist prison gangs aren't that well organized. But they stress that there is still much to be learned about those groups' international ties. Earlier this month, federal officials arrested a Pakistani national in connection with the LA terrorism plot. According to police reports, he was seen riding in tandem with the two robbery suspects on several occasions and prayed with the men at the same LA mosque.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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