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The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House is focusing again on what he calls the radicalization of Muslim Americans. This time New York Republican Peter King is holding a hearing on terrorist recruitment within the walls of American prisons. King generated a big backlash earlier in the spring from religious and civil rights groups after he held a hearing on extremism among Muslims.
As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, people who study national security say the number of criminals who turn to extremism behind bars is small, but worrisome.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Six years ago, police swooped in to a Los Angeles area apartment building and arrested two men. Authorities said the men were on the verge of attacking synagogues and U.S. military recruiting stations. FBI and Justice Department sources call it the most serious domestic terrorist threat since September 11th. The leader, Kevin James, orchestrated the plot from inside California's New Folsom Prison, where he was locked up for robberies he committed as a member of the Crips gang.
Mark Hamm, who teaches criminology at Indiana State University, studied the case.
Professor MARK HAMM (Indiana State University): I mean this is fairly remarkable, that you can send somebody off to a maximum security prison and while behind bars they can still wage a terrorist attack.
JOHNSON: Right under the noses of California prison officials, James had directed a fellow inmate about to win parole to find people with clean records and an understated demeanor to help carry out a spectacular attack. The men robbed gas stations to get money to fund their plot. Then authorities got lucky. One of the robbers dropped his cell phone, leading police to their apartment.
Gregory Saathoff studies prison radicalization at the University of Virginia. He says the case exposed a vulnerability.
Dr. GREGORY SAATHOFF (University of Virginia): Depending on budgets and priorities, there are some states that are much less able to devote resources, just in terms of understanding what's going on within their prisons.
JOHNSON: Since the Kevin James case, Saathoff says, it's mostly been a good news story for U.S. jails and prisons when it comes to violent extremism. But scholars are watching a few recent episodes with concern.
Last month, an Illinois man who converted to a radical form of Islam while locked up for another crime was sentenced to 28 years in prison for trying to blow up a federal courthouse. Two other men from New York who spent time in prison and converted there have been charged with trying to attack synagogues. Still, civil rights groups argue there's not enough evidence to say prison extremism is a real problem, let alone hold a congressional hearing about it.
Laura Murphy leads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. LAURA MURPHY (American Civil Liberties Union): This approach is just a recipe for sensationalizing and scaring people and turning neighbor against neighbor and it promotes racial profiling and religious intolerance.
JOHNSON: But Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York who's leading the hearing, told Fox News he's not scapegoating a whole religion.
Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): Prisoners in jail often are looking for a new alternative. And being converted to Islam, there's actually nothing wrong with that. In fact, in many cases it's ideal for prisoners. This is the religion they've been looking for.
JOHNSON: In fact, prison authorities say Islam, the fastest growing religion inside prisons, has a positive effect on inmates' behavior. Experts who track extremism aren't talking about the kind of Islam that most people, including prisoners, follow. Instead, they're worried about a different version, often preached behind bars by charismatic gang members with a lot of influence over other inmates.
Again, Mark Hamm.
Prof. HAMM: And this religious foundation can be very esoteric and also very seductive. It can constitute sort of cherry-picking versions of the Holy Quran and putting them together in such a way that they seem to justify violence against infidels.
JOHNSON: Hamm says jails need to make sure there are more chaplains and imams on hand to provide legitimate religious advice. In the overcrowded New Folsom prison where Kevin James plotted, for instance, there was only one chaplain for every 2,500 inmates. As for James, he's now living in a special federal prison unit in Indiana, where counterterrorism authorities listen in on his every word.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.