Indi Phillips, an Australian research analyst based in Lebanon
Incarceration centers across the MENA region are known for their lawlessness and tendency to act as incubators for the reinforcement and hardening of ideologies and violent behaviors. Roumieh Prison in Lebanon is no exception. Using data gathered from sources associated with Roumieh in capacities ranging from judicial to ex-prisoner, this article introduces the reality of the situation inside the prison.
Through examining prison culture and its interaction with processes of radicalization to violent Sunni extremism, it will become clear how inmates participate in and perpetuate an environment which is conducive to maintaining and amplifying radical and violent views and behavior. This is achieved not necessarily through ideological means but through participation in a unified, resourced and internally governed prison society.
Awareness of such environments is essential before the planning and implementing of deradicalization measures within the region. The same is true for the design of rehabilitation programs of foreign fighters returning to Europe, many of whom have been incarcerated in similar facilities after the collapse of the Islamic State (ISIS) “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
In Lebanon, the majority of individuals charged with terrorism offences are held in Roumieh prison’s notorious block B. This block, holding only Sunni prisoners, has featured in ISIS propaganda material and in Lebanese and international media.[1, 2] Its notoriety is born of evidence, seized in a raid conducted by security forces in 2015, linking inmates to the coordination of various terror attacks both within Lebanon and over the border in Syria.
Block B provides the perfect conditions for the amplification and reinforcement of the radical views held by many of its inhabitants. Overcrowding, imprisonment by religious denomination, mixed sentence imprisonment, under-resourced guard presence, and rife corruption of prison authorities lead to a rich culture of resource smuggling, bribery and radicalization. These processes have resulted in a powerful and highly hierarchical prisoner population who have access to extensive technological and monetary resources.
As radicalization processes are apparently inseparable from block B culture and structure, the implementation of deradicalization programs by prison authorities, led by a small population of guards, seems unrealistic at best.
Overcrowding and its Consequences
Block B houses individuals from groups such as Fatah al-Islam, a notorious offshoot of the Assad regime’s manipulation of Sunni jihadists as part of its foreign policy; Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch; and ISIS. There are also prisoners associated with smaller, Sunni Lebanese militias involved in conflicts across the country from 2007 to present day.[5, 6, 7]
Roumieh’s Block B houses approximately 850 inmates on a variety of counts, all of which come under the broader umbrella of terrorism charges. They are held on three floors, each floor containing twenty-four cells that branch off from one central corridor. Each cell, originally built to hold three individuals, now holds a minimum of twelve. Guard presence has not increased to balance the rise in prisoner numbers and stands currently at three to five guards per block.
To dramatize those numbers: Block B contains 850 inmates distributed across three floors, meaning that each floor holds (at a conservative estimate) 250 inmates, and there are between one and two guards responsible for each of these floors. A prison designed to have a guard to prisoner ratio of around 1:36 now has a ratio of 1:125 or worse. A clear security issue exists in such a numerical imbalance between prisoners and guards.
The “remedy” in place to address the fact that the guard numbers are insufficient to maintain order is a thriving market of resource smuggling. Prisoners demands are delivered through the guard network in order to maintain peace in the block and prevent rioting. Prisoners demands range from calls for greater internet access, and increased supplies of protein, to waiving the requirement to strip-search inmates’ visitors.
Internal Systems of Governance
The overcrowding and lack of guard enforced security has resulted in a de facto prisoner-run facility. Indeed, in the absence of security enforced by guards or any external authority, inmates in Block B have developed their own quasi-governmental structures. These consist of an electoral system, healthcare, social, and crime-and-punishment committees with an internally functioning court designed to judge and punish behavior perceived as contrary to block norms.
A notable feature of this prisoners’ justice system is the presence of two figures: the Masul and the Shawish. The Masul is the elected representative of the inmates, and the Shawish is often an older prisoner from a politically influential family or clan and is responsible for communication between prisoners and the political sphere.
Block B and its 850 inhabitants appear to exist inside—and to be involved in perpetuating—a highly functional and cohesive society, governed by its elected leaders.
A thriving skills trade is also a feature of Block B culture. One ex-prisoner described block B as a “criminal university” in which it was possible to benefit from fellow prisoners’ experience in anything from arms dealing and financial fraud to identity theft and bomb-making. The accumulation and amalgamation of such skills automatically results in behavioral changes and further adoption of ways of thinking promoted within the block, namely those of violent Sunni extremism.
Weaponry, technology and other resources available within the block allegedly originate from what interview sources referred to as “political references”. Therefore, the audience these prisoners have access to is wide and of considerable influence.
It is important to note that the remaining six blocks of Roumieh, which do not contain the same concentration of Sunni extremists, do not feature the same organizational and power structures as Block B. The strength and power wielded by those inside Block B may, in part, be born of the sheer intensity and unified nature of the block’s ideology and practice, allowing the block to function and perpetuate itself as a highly cohesive social entity.
Indirect Radicalization Processes
The degree of structural development and social cohesion means that individuals incarcerated inside block B are automatically forced to participate in a block culture which encourages, and indeed expects participation in, extremist and terrorist behavior.
Ex-prisoner sources describe an expectation that, upon release, one would return to Syria or participate in supportive activities for Sunni jihadists on the ground in Lebanon. In the meantime, a culture of education, preparation, and participation is reportedly required of individuals within the block. Prisoners are unable to refuse participation in this culture as to do so is to put oneself in danger of punishment by the internal court system. It is inevitable, then, that inmates go through a process of ideological hardening and further radicalization simply through time spent inside Block B as they are forced to participate in the internal society.
The mandatory participation in such a block culture of violent extremism becomes particularly relevant when considering that inside each cell, prisoners’ charges and legal status are mixed. It is possible to find individuals charged but not yet convicted, sharing a cell with those convicted of severe terrorism charges (multiple charges of manslaughter, attempted suicide bombing, etc.). This makes for a highly incendiary situation for two reasons: those who are awaiting conviction come into contact with hardened radicals and are forced to adopt the norms of a radicalized individual—a particular problem if they are actually innocent, or at least found “not guilty”, and released back into the community. Secondly, should prisoners merely have held auxiliary roles in a jihadi group previously, they are susceptible to ideological hardening when held with high-ranking individuals from groups such as Fatah al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, or ISIS.
Although Block B holds individuals from several different militias and extremist groups, allegiances become fluid upon entry to the block and mirrors the success of the Masul in the election process. The Importation model proposed by Irwin, in relation to gang incarceration in South America, suggests that groupings which exist outside of incarceration will be transposed to the prison-internal environment. This is not the case for Block B where the internal governance system appears to trump ideological and functional allegiances to groups outside the block. Prisoners instead fluctuate in their allegiances in accordance with the group from which the Masul is elected. For example, should the Masul hail from Fatah al-Islam, prisoners will swear a form of allegiance to Fatah al-Islam for the duration of the Masul’s term, and so forth. This adds further weight to the understanding of block B as a cohesive and unified whole. Membership in the block’s internal society takes precedence over the allegiances prisoners held in the world outside the prison, emphasizing the effectiveness of the block’s unifying and radicalizing methods, making it a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Currently, as far as the author is aware, any analysis and data gathering involving facilities such as Roumieh is carried out by NGOs that are active in revealing human rights abuses and media outlets looking to expose the prison environment and events occurring inside, such as hunger strikes and raids. There has, however, been minimal if any examination of radicalization processes, hierarchical structures and outside influences within Roumieh or facilities like it.
It is unlikely that Roumieh and Block B are unique in terms of their overcrowding, sectarian-based housing systems, and hierarchical block cultures. It would not be unrealistic to propose that investigation of the societal model developed in Block B could be extrapolated to describe similar, less readily-accessible facilities across the Middle East region.
The prison camps in Iraq and Syria created over the past few years to house those captured from ISIS contain many foreign fighters, large numbers of them from America, Britain, and Europe, who are likely to return to their countries of origin in the coming years. It is vital to develop an understanding of the indirect patterns of radicalization occurring in Roumieh in order to develop effective rehabilitation and deradicalization programs for those who may have been imprisoned in similar facilities.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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