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UK considering 'British Guantanamo' for 'extremist' prisoners

Counter-extremism expert warns proposal, which has alarmed prison officials, could allow Islamic State to establish command structure in UK
David Cameron promised major changes to the prison system during a visit to a prison in Rugby, central England this week (AFP)

The British government is considering a proposal to house Muslim prisoners convicted of terrorist offences in a single secure jail to prevent them radicalising other prisoners, according to media reports in the UK.

The plan, which was reported on Saturday by the Guardian and other newspapers, is understood to be among recommendations included in a forthcoming justice ministry report on tackling extremism in prisons.

British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week declared prisons to be a “new front” in the government's campaign against so-called Islamic extremism, and even suggested that some prisoners were being forcibly converted to Islam.

But the proposal has reportedly caused alarm among senior prison officials, while a leading counter-extremism expert warned that it could actually help the Islamic State (IS) group to establish a “command and control structure” in the UK.

In a speech on prison reform, Cameron strongly suggested that he intended to take the justice ministry report seriously, saying that he was considering “major changes” to the current system of handing convicted terrorists.

Cameron said there were about 1,000 prisoners who had been identified as extremists or vulnerable to extremism.

"Some of these individuals are preying on the weak, forcing conversion to Islam, and spreading their warped view of the world. We will not stand by and watch people being radicalised like this while they are in the care of the state,” he said.

“And I want to be clear – I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in prison to changing the locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required.”

Under the current system, prisoners convicted of terrorism offences are held in six high-security jails, including Belmarsh Prison in London. Inmates are regularly moved around to prevent them building long-term relationships.

There are currently about 130 Muslim prisoners in the UK convicted of terrorism-related offences.

But more than 12,000 Muslims make up more than 14 percent of the overall prison population, despite representing less than five percent of the population of England and Wales.

A prison source told the Times newspaper: “If we could identify extremists spreading the wrong messages it would be a good idea to hold them separately to stop them having the opportunity of infecting other inmates with their views.”

But a government source told the Guardian that the head of the UK's prison system was “very concerned” that the report would reach the "wrong conclusion”.

Peter Neumann, a counter-extremism expert at King's College London, said that jailing convicted terrorists in a separate facility to the general prison population was a “bad idea”.

He said the creation of a “British Guantanamo” could allow prisoners to set up “operational command structures”, as well as providing a focal point for public protests.

“With large numbers of ‘lone operators’ who may not be particularly ideological and who have failed to join the command and control structures of groups like IS, the risk of them connecting with ideological and operational leaders while imprisoned is real,” Neumann told the Guardian.

“In other words, a policy of concentration may inadvertently help to create the kind of hierarchical organisation that the terrorists found it impossible to create outside.”

The justice ministry said in a statement: “The justice secretary has asked the department to review its approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in prisons. This is being supported by external expertise and sits alongside the cross-government work currently under way on developing deradicalisation programmes.”