Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. opened his second controversial hearing on American Muslim radicalization with harsh words for those who have been critical of his efforts, singling out “radical groups such as the Council of American-Islamic Relations and their allies in the liberal media, personified by the New York Times,” for provoking what he called “mindless hysteria.”
On Wednesday, King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, concentrated on radicalization of prison inmates, saying that “a number of cases since 9/11 have involved terrorists who converted to Islam or were radicalized to Islamism in American prisons.”
Emotions ran high as Democrats argued to make the hearing about examining radical groups in the prison system rather than singling out a religious group for scrutiny. “Limiting this committee’s oversight of radicalization to one religion ignores threats posed by violent extremists of all stripes,” said Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “Let us not forget that James Byrd was dragged to his death on a back road in Texas by right-wing gang members who were radicalized in jail.”
Many Democrats asked to submit for the record accounts of Aryan hate groups, black-supremacist groups, ethnic gangs, and other radical ethnic and religious groups that are present in the U.S. prison system and pose a threat to homeland security. “Information is welcome but condemnation is not,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. “If we look to the informational, we should also include an analysis of how Christian militants are intending to undermine the laws of this nation.”
Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., went the furthest in her condemnation of the hearings, saying, “I actually believe that the focus on one particular group on the basis of race or religion can be deemed as racist and as discriminatory.”
“I disagree 100 percent with the gentlelady,” King responded.
Most of the witnesses maintained that the threat posed by Islamic extremism in the prison system is unique, drawing on specific cases in which inmates turned to extremist Islam while incarcerated. All the witnesses recalled the case of Kevin James, a prisoner in California’s New Folsom prison who orchestrated a plot to bomb synagogues and U.S. military bases while serving a sentence for armed robbery. FBI and Justice Department sources have called the plot, which was broken up by L.A. police before it was carried out, “the most serious domestic terrorist threat since September 11th.”
Although these accounts offered a grave picture of what can occur when an individual is radicalized in prison, the witnesses failed to offer numeric proof to show that U.S. prisons are systemically generating a terrorist threat. Last year, the bipartisan Congressional Research Service determined that only a single example of homegrown terrorism stemmed from an individual who was radicalized in prison. CRS concluded that prisons, “while seen by some as potential hotbeds of radicalization, have not played a large role in producing homegrown terrorists.”
Mark S. Hamm, a professor of criminology at Indiana State University who briefed congressional staff ahead of today’s hearing, said that the testimonies failed to make the critical link between radicalization and terrorism. “They were all over the board in terms of issues covered but they missed the most important one,” he said. “There is nothing inherently criminal about holding extremist views, what is criminal is when those views are translated into acts of terror.”
Hamm also noted that the hearing glossed over important distinctions between the two main groups of “Islamic radicals” in the prison system: the Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam. These distinctions, he believes, are important, and the committee’s failure to account for them indicates that today’s hearing was intended as a “drive-by analysis” of the issue rather than a serious examination of what is driving a small but dangerous number of inmates to acts of violence.