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Islamic terrorists lead religious services in a quarter of federal prisons: inspector general report

Audit found inmates affiliated with Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab allowed to lead services.

Updated: July 8, 2021 - 11:31am

Inmates convicted on terrorism-related charges or with "known connections to terrorist organizations," including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, were allowed to lead religious services at a third of the federal prisons audited by a federal watchdog, raising deep security concerns. 

A recent audit by the Justice Department's inspector general of the Chaplaincy Services Program in the Federal Bureau of Prisons found four out of 12 facilities in which terrorist inmates were eligible to lead religious services.

At three of the facilities, the prisoners were affiliated with Islamic terrorist groups, with at least two leading services "on a regular basis" or a "frequent basis." One of them was chosen to lead services by other inmate coreligionists "due to his extensive faith knowledge and Arabic fluency."

This wasn't the first time the IG found terrorist inmates leading services, the report states, citing a March 2020 audit.

The July report blamed the absence of a "fully-staffed and diverse chaplaincy" for such lapses: The 236 chaplains are about 30 percent below BOP targets. This prompted many institutions to "turn to alternatives such as inmate-led services and heavy reliance on contract faith providers and minimally vetted volunteer faith providers to fill the gaps in the chaplaincy staff. These staffing shortages and alternatives present risks."

BOP policies don't restrict "certain inmates from leading services and appear to be inconsistent regarding the level of required monitoring," the report states. It found only one chaplain who "reportedly took preemptive action to prevent a known terrorist from leading religious services."

Chaplains told IG staff they let prisoners choose their own faith leaders "to avoid complaints, lawsuits, or the rejection of leaders that would otherwise be selected by BOP staff."

At two facilities, "inmates disagreed with the ideology of a contract faith provider secured by the BOP." One of those allowed "two convicted terrorists" of unidentified affiliation to lead services instead of the provider, while staff at the other warned the provider that conducting services "for the objecting inmates would jeopardize the provider’s safety," according to the report.

The IG said some inmates had a "known nexus" to domestic terrorism, but the only mention of non-Islamic terrorists appears to be in the section on "faith group lockers." It said one facility had a faith group locker containing "documents and images advocating white supremacy."

A section on "inappropriate chapel library materials" stated BOP advisories were inconsistently followed by chaplains. Two coordinators emailed their chaplains ahead of IG site visits, recommending they remove publications that "should have been removed several years ago" under existing guidance.

These included "books and videos by a high-level, well-known terrorist and other concerning authors that were designated as 'accepted'" in the chapel library database. IG staff also found books by the same authors that weren't listed in the database.

While facilities made some pandemic-related changes, including suspending volunteer faith providers entirely from March through November 2020, the audit didn't address the effectiveness of these changes.