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Warnings on jail Muslims were ignored by ministers
By Rajeev Syal and Chris Hastings
(Filed: 30/12/2001)

THE Government ignored specific warnings more than a year ago that Muslim extremists were infiltrating prisons and recruiting inmates, The Telegraph can reveal.

Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, and Martin Narey, the director general of the Prison Service, were told by mainstream Muslim leaders that "bad practices" meant that untrained, radical imams could operate in prisons.

Mr Narey was told separately, in a private meeting with senior Muslims, that a lack of regulations was allowing the extremists to pose as mainstream clerics and gain access to vulnerable prisoners.

"He was told that bogus representatives of the Muslim community could exploit the situation unless qualified imams were given similar status to Christian prison chaplains," said a senior Muslim cleric. "Sadly, nothing was done."

The disclosure, which will embarrass ministers, follows Friday's appearance in a Boston court of Richard Reid, the suspected "shoe bomber", who developed an interest in Islam from an imam while in Feltham young offenders institution in the 1990s.

Special Branch detectives are trying to locate five other young converts who have disappeared over the past six months, and who are linked to Reid.

They are among up to 100 British Muslims thought to have been trained by or be otherwise linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda terrorist network.

Police spoke on Friday to Abdul Haqq Baker, the imam of the Brixton mosque where Reid studied.

Now Scotland Yard detectives have drawn up a list of five main suspects - all British-born converts, some of whom may have changed religion while in prison - from information from Mr Baker and other intelligence sources.

Detectives are investigating suggestions that one of the men could have been Reid's accomplice in his attempt to blow up an American Airlines aircraft from Paris to Boston last weekend. The FBI wants to question a second man.

Scotland Yard fears that Islamic fundamentalists have recruited inmates to a network of terrorist cells across the country.

The recruits, drawn from Britain's 4,000 jailed Muslims, are believed to have been primed to carry out atrocities similar to those planned by Reid, who converted on leaving Feltham.

Imam Abduljalil Sajid, a prison imam and a member of the National Council for the Welfare of Muslim Prisoners, met Mr Narey more than a year ago and warned him that qualified Muslim clerics would not apply for the job because of poor terms and conditions.

The meeting, in Prison Service headquarters in London, was followed by a series of letters asking Mr Straw for an improvement in conditions for prison imams.

Mr Sajid, a leading member of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the Government was to blame for allowing a situation to develop in which "bogus" clerics could infiltrate prisons.

The Home Office has refused to grant Muslim clerics the same pay and conditions as Church of England clerics.

"There is no formal contract and job description of Muslim chaplains. We don't know what their qualifications are or from where they are recruited."

Staff at one high security prison complained yesterday about an imam who has since left the service. The unnamed cleric allegedly handed anti-American literature to inmates and played videos promoting jihad. He is now training to be a pilot.

Last week the Home Office confirmed that it was investigating three imams.

Tom Watson, a Labour member of the Commons home affairs select committee, said: "I am very concerned about what seems to be a cult of extremism developing in the prison system.

"Religious extremists should not be able to recruit thugs to their private armies to carry out terrorist acts.

"I shall ask David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for a full inquiry into the way imams are allowed to work."

There is no suggestion that the majority of imams who volunteer their services to the Home Office are involved in recruitment activity, but officers in a number of jails have expressed concern.

A Prison Service spokesman said Mr Narey could not be contacted for comment.

He said only one imam has had accusations of extremism proved against him, one has been cleared and one is being investigated. "All imams and religious representatives must be security checked."

  • Additional reporting by Daniel Foggo and David Bamber

    29 December 2001: Prison imam sacked for anti-US literature
    29 December 2001: Shoe bomber 'aimed to repeat Lockerbie'
    27 December 2001: Al-Qa'eda men 'know' bomb suspect
    27 December 2001: Radical groups 'brainwashed Reid on Islam'
    27 December 2001: Petty criminal led into extremists' world
    22 December 2001: 'September 11 will bring us all closer together'
    20 December 2001: Terror suspects rounded up

  • Related reports  

    External links  
    Three imams accused of 'inflammatory' prison sermons [28 Dec '01] - Muslim News
    Prison life - HM Prison Service
    Prisons - Home Office
    The Muslim Council of Britain
    Anti-Terrorist Branch - Metropolitan Police
    Al-Qa'eda - Federation of American Scientists
    Islamic Cultural Centre
    IQRA Prisoners Welfare Trust