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British target prisons as terror incubators

Officials hope to stem radicalization by training prison imams and closely supervising proselytizers.

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When Richard Reid, a young Briton from a comfortable part of suburban London, was arrested in the heated aftermath of 9/11 for trying to blow up a transatlantic plane, it raised a simple question: where did he get radicalized?

The answer was only partly to be found in his frequenting of a south London mosque. Before that, Mr. Reid had spent stretches in jail for petty crime. It was there, officials believe, that he was first steered toward radical Islam.

Now British authorities are increasingly concerned that this was no one-off. As more Islamist terrorists end up in Britain's jampacked jails, prison officers, terrorism experts, and government officials fear that such radicalization could become commonplace, making prisons a fresh focus as they tackle the lure of terrorism.

A new tape from Osama bin Laden, threatening retribution in Europe for the publication of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad, served as a reminder of the formidable battle for ideas.

"The problem didn't exist 10 years ago, because there were no jihadi prisoners, but now it is only going to get worse," says Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College, London. "The government has finally woken up to this and is starting to address it."

Officials are coy about exactly what measures they are considering. They have launched plans to train dozens of prison imams to ensure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Mentoring vulnerable prisoners is another tactic under consideration.

Aside from that, options are more controversial: grouping jihadis together to prevent proselytizing among the general prison population, close supervision of the noisiest evangelists, and better training for prison officers to alert them to tell-tale signs of radicals at work.

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