Europe’s Revolving-Door Prisons Compound Growing Terror Threat
by Sebastian Rotella ProPublica, June 4, 2015, 5:45 a.m.
This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.
In the summer of 2011, three French ex-convicts met in Yemen to talk about unleashing death and terror on the streets of Paris.
The trio was part of a crew of jihadis who radicalized together in the Buttes-Chaumont neighborhood of Paris a decade earlier. All three had been convicted of serious crimes. But they were at large thanks to a problem that gets scant attention in France and elsewhere in Europe: lenient sentencing policies for people convicted of terrorism and other violent crimes.
Peter Cherif, the son of Afro-Caribbean and Tunisian immigrants, was the dominant figure at the meeting. In 2004, U.S. troops had captured him while he was fighting for al-Qaida in Iraq. After his return to France, he served just 18 months in jail before he won release pending trial.
By the time the court imposed a five-year sentence on Cherif, he had fled to Yemen to join the al-Qaida offshoot there. U.S. courts have sent terrorists found guilty of comparable offenses to maximum-security prisons for decades or life.
Intelligence officials say Cherif was visited in Yemen by Salim Benghalem, who was radicalized in prison by another Buttes-Chaumont jihadi who fought in Iraq. Convicted for a murder, Benghalem had served about six years before he was back on the street.
Cherif’s other visitor had done a mere 20 months behind bars for his role in sending young Parisian suicide bombers to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. His name: Cherif Kouachi.
In Yemen, the three discussed attacks on U.S. targets in France and on a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, investigators say. Peter Cherif helped provide Kouachi with cash and a few days of al-Qaida training, according to French and U.S. intelligence officials.
Four years later, Kouachi hit the big time. He massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, dying along with his brother Said after a rampage across Paris that killed 17 people and caused international outcry.
Although the Kouachi brothers got most of the public attention, others in their crew have attained frontline roles in terrorist groups. Their story underscores a worrisome reality at a time of unprecedented radicalization among youth in Europe. European law enforcement is good at catching terrorists, but not so good at keeping them locked up. The problem is evident in France and Belgium, two nations that have seen the largest number of extremists travel to Syria to fight.
“Penal policies have not adapted to the reality of the terrorist threat,” said Louis Caprioli, a former counterterror chief of France’s domestic spy agency now with a private security consulting group.
“Terrorists are treated like common criminals when it comes to sentencing, even if they are repeat offenders,” he said. “We have to take these guys off the streets. The philosophy has been to rescue the individual rather than to protect the society.”
Tilt Toward Rehabilitation
If prison terms were tougher, the January attacks in Paris might never have happened. Consider the trajectory of Amedy Coulibaly, a 32-year-old Frenchman who killed hostages at a Jewish grocery in coordination with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Coulibaly’s criminal career began at age 18. In 2004, he was sentenced to six years for armed robberies and drug dealing. While in jail, he met Cherif Kouachi and other terrorists and adopted their extremist views. Soon after their release, French police arrested Coulibaly and Kouachi for plotting to storm a prison and free a convicted terrorist bomb maker.
Charges were dropped against Kouachi. Coulibaly was convicted of illegal arms possession in the jailbreak plot, but sentenced to only five years even though he was a repeat offender linked to known terrorists. By May 2014 he was out again. Eight months later, he was dead 2013 along with four victims at the Jewish grocery and a policewoman he gunned down earlier.
French prosecutors have strong tools for putting terror suspects in preventive detention and convicting them at trial. But when it comes to punishment, judicial authorities have less power than their U.S. counterparts, who win long sentences for crimes such as “material support” of terrorism.
In France, the main weapon in the judicial arsenal is the crime of terrorist conspiracy, which generally brings a maximum of 10 years. Thanks to probation and good behavior policies, people convicted of conspiracy often serve about half their terms, experts say.
“It’s a real problem,” said Mohamed Douhane, a French police commandant and secretary general of the Synergie Officiers police union. “We police officers don’t understand the weak sentences and the fact that convicts don’t serve their entire sentences.”
After the Paris attacks, public scrutiny focused on intelligence breakdowns that had caused police to curtail their monitoring of the Kouachis and Coulibaly. In May, the French parliament approved legislation giving authorities vast new surveillance powers 2014 and raising concerns about civil liberties. Authorities have also sped up a project to segregate convicted terrorists in prison to prevent radicalization of common criminals.
There has been little movement, however, toward beefed-up punishment. Although special investigative magistrates prosecute terrorism cases, courts continue to handle trials, sentencing and their aftermath much like other cases.
“The main difference is in the degree of flexibility in the sentence for parole, semi-conditional liberty, etc.,” said Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for Paris prosecutors. “It is a question we are asking ourselves: Should the sentences for terrorism be longer?”
A report by Europol, the European police alliance, found that in 2012 the average sentence for terrorism in France was five years 2014 which often meant about two and a half years actually behind bars. The average terrorism sentence was six years in Germany and Britain, and five years in Belgium, according to the study. Sentences tended to be tougher in Spain, where Basque and Islamic terrorism have killed hundreds.
In 2013, the average prison term for terrorist offenses in France and Britain rose to seven and nine years, respectively, and declined to four years in Germany, according to Europol.
A deep-rooted judicial philosophy in Europe emphasizes rehabilitation. In a major trial that ended in February, a Belgian court convicted 45 members of Sharia4Belgium, an extremist group that sent dozens of fighters to Syria. Most of the defendants remain in Syria, where some allegedly committed terrorist attacks and atrocities.
The sentences ranged from three to 15 years, and some were suspended. Fouad Belkacem, the group’s charismatic chief based in Antwerp, got 12 years. He had previously been convicted of crimes including drug trafficking and incitement of hatred.
“A 12-year sentence is nothing for a man like that,” complained Ozana Rodrigues Viana, a defendant’s mother, in an interview with La Libre Belgique newspaper. “He’s a terrorist. But Belgium doesn’t want to understand a thing 2026 In Belgium, prison is like a hotel.”
U.S. courts have dealt far more harshly with defendants convicted of joining overseas terrorist groups.
John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, is serving 20 years. A group of Virginia militants who trained in Pakistani terror camps 2014 but did not commit violent acts 2014 got sentences as long as 20 years in 2005. Two leaders of that Virginia cell2014one a cleric based in the United States 2014 went to prison for life. And a U.S. court