Spanish Prison Manual Offers Tips for Spotting Jihadis

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2009

Madrid2004 Madrid Train Bombing

Spanish Corrections officials continue to try to deal with the growing radicalization of Muslim prisoners. A new 89-page manual marked “confidential” provides guards and officials with a guide to the radicalization process, giving tips on what to watch for in dress, language, and behavior that might indicate a prisoner’s adoption of radical Islam, political extremism, or jihadist violence (El Mundo [Madrid], December 30, 2008). The manual offers the following advice:

  • Officials must be familiar with the prisoner’s background in terms of family involvement in Islamist activities or the prisoner’s own experience with jihad operations.

    • If a scar is found on the prisoner during a frisking procedure and the guard suspects it was the result of a wound inflicted in Bosnia, Chechnya, or Afghanistan, it must be photographed and passed on to the warden.

    • If a cell is papered with holy texts, it must be photographed and the warden notified.

    • Guards must watch for newspapers or journals published by extremist organizations. Oddly, the manual singles out Gara, a bilingual Basque/Spanish newspaper published in San Sebastián. While the paper might appeal to imprisoned members of the Basque ETA terrorist group, it is unlikely to appeal to would-be jihadis, few, if any, of whom might be expected to read Basque.

    • Careful watch should be kept of prisoners who go from no prayers to praying five times a day. Whispering the sura-s of the Koran while working or reciting the Tasbih (short phrases glorifying God) on the Muslim rosary are also suspicious behavior.

    • Other suspicious activities include refusing to shake hands with female social workers and listening to Islamic audio recordings instead of music.

    • Physical signs to watch for include the prisoner’s eyes no longer being red as a result of smoking hashish, the growing of beards, shaving of the head or the complete body, careful cutting of the nails, or the appearance of a prayer scar or callus (zabiba – raisin) on the forehead as a result of bumping the head on the ground while prostrating during prayer.

The manual also includes a glossary of Islam-related words and phrases as well as a complete listing of radical Islamist publications. Authorities are warned prisoners may use what the intelligence community refers to as “idiot codes,” which rely on a pre-arranged agreement on the secret meaning of certain words or phrases. Despite the name, such codes are virtually unbreakable unless the users persist in using the same words or phrases over an extended period.

Islamic radicalism is a growing problem in Spain’s generally liberal prison system. There are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim prisoners in Spain, though only a small percentage of these could be classified as Islamist extremists. The great fear is that the prison environment lends itself to recruitment activities by jihadist leaders. After a prayer leader is selected for a cell block, other prisoners may begin to enforce Islamic rules among Muslims in the block. In 2004, 110 extremists turned a lecture hall into a mosque without permission. The loud call to prayer angered non-Muslim prisoners, but authorities only requested the Muslims to keep the noise down (El Mundo, September 9, 2004). In the same year, a prison-based group known as the “Martyrs of Morocco” devised a plot to ram a truck carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives into Madrid’s National Court building, where the judges and trial-records of the March 2004 Madrid train-bombers were located. Bomb-making formulas were found in cells as well as extensive jihadi correspondence between prisoners that escaped scrutiny because of a shortage of Arabic translators in the corrections service (Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007).

Spanish prisons have attempted to accommodate Muslim prisoners by allowing them to pray in congregations and rescheduling meal-times to accommodate Ramadan observances. In 2006, the Islamic Commission of Spain arranged for approved imam-s (prayer-leaders) to try to persuade Muslim prisoners to avoid radicalization (La Vanguardia [Barcelona], July 31, 2006).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus