The Nation of Islam — the most pervasive version in American prisons — is poorly regarded by orthodox imams, because some of its teachings conflict with the sovereignty of Allah and Muhammad — the belief, for instance, that founder W.D. Fard was God, or that an ancient black scientist created all other races. The Nation of Islam is often less pious than polemic; a couple of years ago, its leader, Louis Farrakhan, wrote a letter to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, saying, “We long to see a government that destroys all borders and acknowledges every human being on the Earth as a citizen of the Earth, entitled to a share of all of the wealth that is beneath our feet.”
So the shades of Islam are diverse. For now, though, the difficulty in Philadelphia’s prisons is sorting out the purveyors of radicalism. “There’s very little oversight of the teachings,” O’Connor says. That’s especially dangerous, according to one FBI report, because inmates make up a population that, by definition, has shown a tendency to operate outside social and legal standards.
And then there’s the matter of money — specifically, Saudi money, according to Philadelphia police. The complexities of Middle Eastern religious politics are many, and vast. But it’s clear to authorities that Saudi Arabian extremist groups — namely, Wahhabis and Salafis, sects that seek to bring about the return of an Islamic empire — recognize angry young American prisoners as easy targets, and pour money into radicalizing prisoners both during and after their incarceration. “[T]he immense wealth associated with extreme Wahhabism/Salafism makes the religion appealing to inmates,” according to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
More recently, terrorism analysts at two schools, the University of Virginia and George Washington University, issued a broad report on prisoner radicalization in America. Their conclusion, in essence, is that prison inmates in America are converting to Islam — of one version or another — faster than the prison system can keep up. The lack of oversight — from literature entering the prisons, to imams teaching there, to which groups are funding them — makes prisoners a tempting target for militant clerics. The report said, “The U.S., with its large prison population, is at risk of facing the sort of homegrown terrorism currently plaguing other countries.” And for years, groups like the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation — which the U.S. says finances terrorism — distributed literature in American prisons.