FLEURY-MEROGIS, France — The man was sent to France’s largest prison for armed robbery. He emerged a toughened radical who would go on to take part in the bloodiest terrorist attacks on French soil in decades.
France’s prisons have a reputation as factories for radical Islamists, taking in ordinary criminals and turning them out as far more dangerous people. Here at the Fleury-Merogis prison — where Amedy Coulibaly did time alongside another of the attackers in the deadly assaults this month in and around Paris — authorities are struggling to quell a problem that they say was long threatening to explode.
Former inmates, imams and guards all describe a chaotic scene inside these concrete walls, 15 miles from the elegant boulevards surrounding the Eiffel Tower. Militancy lurks in the shadows, and the best-behaved men are sometimes the most dangerous. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised last week to flood his nation’s prisons with 60 more Muslim chaplains, doubling their budget to try to combat radicalization. Authorities this week raided 80 prison cells of suspected radicals, saying they found cellphones, USB drives and other contraband. Hundreds of inmates in French prisons are a potential threat, authorities say.
But critics say that these efforts are minuscule compared with the scope of the problem, with prisons so poorly controlled that a leaked French government report once described Osama bin Laden posters hanging on inmates’ walls. The challenge may be compounded by the dozens of people sent to jail after the recent attacks, some for more than a year, under fast-track proceedings in which they were charged with verbal support for terrorism.
“Prison destroys men,” said Mohamed Boina M’Koubou, an imam who works in the Fleury-Merogis prison. “There are people who are easy targets to spot and make into killers.”
Coulibaly had told police that he met “terrorists” during his prison stints, even as he denied that he was one himself.
“If you want me to name all the terrorists I know, it will take you a while. I know them all — the Chechens, the Afghans,” Coulibaly told police in 2010, according to court documents from a trial that year in which he was convicted of trying to help a man who had plotted the 1995 bombings on the Paris subway escape from jail. “I knew them back in prison, but that doesn’t mean I still see them now.”
The poorly staffed prisons were an ideal place to spread violent ideology — in many ways, even better than outside the prison gates. Most prisoners spend up to nine hours a day mingling relatively unsupervised, guards say, first at work and then in the prison yard. French intelligence services pride themselves for their penetration of militant networks in their country — but prisons fall under a different umbrella, experts say, in which many radicals go unchecked, and even unnoticed, by guards.
Other nations, including the United States and Britain, have also struggled with radicalization in prisons. But the issue has proved especially volatile in France, where experts estimate that Muslims make up more than half of the country’s 68,000 inmates even though they are only 5 to 10 percent of the general population. But there are only about 170 imams currently ministering inside prisons.
“The number of people who work on intelligence within prisons is peanuts,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at Paris’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences who has studied prison radicalization. And the most dangerous inmates are the ones who know how to blend in, he said.
“Most of the people who get radicalized in prison know very well they should not let their beards grow, should not go to collective Friday prayer when it exists,” Khosrokhavar said. The ones who do, potentially drawing guards’ attention, are usually the ones who are harmless, he said.
Prison guards, who are each typically responsible for 100 inmates, say they are able to do little about the problem.
“They adapt faster than we do,” said David Dulondel, who works as a guard at the Fleury-Merogis prison and is the head of a union there.
“We don’t have anyone trained for anti-radicalization,” he said. “As it is today, we can’t say whether someone is in the process of radicalizing or not.”
Valls has proposed isolating the most dangerous inmates together rather than allowing them to mingle with the general prison population. Critics question whether it is possible to identify the right inmates, and they ask whether grouping them would simply create even stronger radicalizing cells within the prisons.
For Coulibaly, the Fleury-
Merogis prison was omnipresent when he was growing up right next door in the Paris suburb of Grigny, in a housing project so violence-plagued that the post office there closed last year because it had been robbed too many times. Residents joke grimly that the prison is just another area neighborhood, since people flow in and out of it so regularly.
It was within Fleury-Merogis’s barbed-wire perimeter in 2005 that Coulibaly met two men who would change his life. One was Djamel Beghal, a French Algerian inmate who had been convicted of plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001 and was a handsome, articulate and seductive advocate of violence in the name of religion.
Beghal “was right above me” in the prison, Coulibaly told police — an ideal spot to pass messages to each other with the soda bottles tied to torn sheets that prisoners would hang out of the windows. The communication strategy worked even though Beghal, who was seen as an unusually dangerous radicalizer, was in solitary confinement. Coulibaly captured the method in video footage of prison life that he shot and then smuggled out to a French television network.
Beghal did not preach in prison, Coulibaly said, but he did answer inmates’ questions about Islam.
The other man Coulibaly met in prison was Chérif Kouachi, who with his brother Said killed 12 people this month in the attack at the Paris offices of the satirical newsweekly Charlie Hebdo. At the time, Kouachi was serving time for a bungled attempt to go to Iraq to fight. His prison stint hardened him even further. Lawyers involved in the case watched the transformation from amateur jihadist to a glowering man who once resisted three days of police efforts to question him.
“A lot of my clients were radicalized in prison,” said Dominique Many, a defense lawyer who was involved in the 2005 case in which Kouachi and others were convicted of attempting to go to Iraq to wage jihad.
“They are very well organized,” Many said. “They know how to protect the weak to draw them into the system. They say you’re their family, and then you’re trapped.”
The radicalization that happens inside prison remains an issue long after inmates are freed.
“When you’re in jail for 10 years and in contact with such people, it’s very difficult to come out and turn things around,” said Myriam Benraad of the Paris university Sciences Po, an expert on militant movements who has studied Kouachi’s gang.
The threat has long been appreciated by the French government — radicalized prisoners, once released, are “time bombs,” according to a leaked 2005 government report about the problem.
But for M’Koubou, the prison imam, some stubborn problems are nearly hopeless to eradicate. That’s why on a recent trip away from prison and into Paris’s bookish Left Bank, he bought a weighty tome that he said he intended to read right away: “Al-Qaeda in France.”
Cleophée Demoustier in Fleury-Merogis and Anna Polonyi in Paris contributed to this report.