In recent years, a number of Western countries have had to grapple with the question of radical Islamism spreading behind prison walls. As authorities are beginning to realize, many of their maximum-security prison facilities, which contain the most dangerous, violent criminals in their societies, have inadvertently served as hotbeds of radicalization.
In Britain it was recently revealed that Khalid Masood, who in March 2017 murdered five people and injured dozens more on Westminster bridge in an ISIS-inspired jihadi attack, had likely been radicalized during his time in British prisons by ‘self-styled emirs.’ In Australia, similar reports of ‘Jailhouse Jihad’ came out of the SuperMax Detention Center in New South Wales, where inmates are often violently coerced by their fellow Muslim inmates towards extreme and violent interpretations of Islam.
Here in the United States, certain programs attempt to combat extremism behind prison walls, including the adoption of federally-appointed religious chaplains responsible for curating and distributing religious material to prisoners. But among the Muslim chaplains appointed by the Federal Bureau of Incarceration is one Mutahhir Sabree, who has served as an imam at prisons in Estill, Williamsburg, Bennettsville, and Edgefield, South Carolna; Jesup, Georgia; and Tallahassee and Mariana, Florida. In fact, since 2007, Sabree has held 29 contract positions throughout the US Department of Justice.
Sabree is also, however, the U.S. Director of Operations for Islamic Online University (IOU), an organization founded by the notorious Salafi imam Bilal Philips. Philips has in the past been banned from several countries including Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Kenya, and Bangladesh for his ‘extremist views’. He was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. No less unsettlingly, the British Prison Services have banned Philips’s book, “The Fundamentals of Tauheed,” from its detention facilities—putting it alongside other banned texts by prominent Islamist leaders Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
One of IOU’s programs is its Prison Initiative, directed by Sabree, which seeks to distribute IOU coursework to Muslim and non-Muslim inmates in prisons across America. According to its website, the professed goal is to assist Muslims in preparing for life after their release by offering them the “true, peaceful and authentic teachings of Islam” in the face of an increase in terrorist groups who “falsely attribute themselves to Islam.” Prison Initiative’s website boasts of over 1100 registered inmates, with 500 currently enrolled and taking classes in 22 U.S. states.