As many as three dozen criminals who converted to Islam in American prisons have moved to Yemen where they could pose a "significant threat" to attack the U.S., according to a report on al Qaeda from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be released Wednesday.
"The group seeks to recruit American citizens to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States," said Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., the committee chairman.
The Senate report said that while the ex-convicts "ostensibly" moved to Yemen to study Arabic, U.S. diplomats and law enforcement officials in Yemen "feared that these Americans were radicalized in prison and traveled to Yemen for training."
An American official said the prison converts were believed to be primarily from the New York state prison system.
Members of the Senate staff were told by U.S. law enforcement officials that FBI agents in Yemen did not have the resources to track the ex-cons and that several "have dropped off the radar" for weeks at a time.
U.S. law enforcement officials in Yemen are on "heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports," the report said.
Also of concern to U.S. officials, the Senate staff found, is a group of "nearly 10 non-Yemeni Americans who traveled to Yemen, converted to Islam, became fundamentalists and married Yemeni women so they could remain in the country."
An American official described them as "blond-haired, blue eyed-types" who fit the profile of Americans who al Qaeda has sought to recruit for terror missions.
The report found that the al Qaeda group in Yemen, which calls itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, makes its own "operational decisions," independent of al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
"The prospect that U.S. citizens are being trained at al Qaeda camps" in Yemen and Somalia represents what the report called an "evolving danger."
U.S. law enforcement has long been concerned about reports that some prison converts to Islam had been radicalized behind bars and prepared to seek revenge once released.
Plot to Attack Jewish Sites
"There is a network that steers them once they are out of prison through a series of proving grounds until they end up in Yemen," said Patrick Dunleavy, a former deputy inspector general of the New York State prison system.
"Our informants and electronic intercepts indicated they go through what is called 'underground tactical training' when they get to Yemen," said Dunleavy.
Federal agents broke up a plot in August, 2005 to attack Jewish sites in Los Angeles that they say was hatched inside Folsom Prison by militant Black Muslims who had sworn allegiance to a violent jihad.
The plan was disrupted when two recently released ex-con converts were caught in a string of gas station robberies, which officials said were intended to raise money for the attacks.
At the time, a spokesman for the California prison system said "anything is possible given the freedoms religious groups are guaranteed in prison."
Dunleavy, the former deputy inspector general of the New York prison system and author of the forthcoming "The Fertile Soil of Jihad," said he has repeatedly warned that radical Imams have long had too much free rein inside many institutions.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 9,000 inmates seek to attend Islamic religious services, about six per cent of the total prison population.
Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil-rights group, said any radicalization might be the result of too few qualified Muslim chaplains for inmates.
"I'm deeply troubled by the possibility that these former inmates, who converted to Islam in prison, may have gone missing overseas," said Lekovic. "Frankly, this case just underscores the necessity for the Bureau of Prisons to hire more Muslim chaplains to teach and guide inmates in their understanding and practice of Islam. Without chaplains, inmates are left to their own devices which may be guided by volatile prison dynamics."
A spokesperson for the New York state prison system said that system was not a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. "We do not have any evidence of anything resembling widespread terrorist-inspired radicalization or recruiting," said Erik Kriss, "but we recognize the potential and therefore remain vigilant in guarding against it."
Kriss said the New York correctional system employs about 40 imams, most of them full-time, and that background checks are conducted on all chaplains prior to hiring. Kriss said there had been "a small handful of isolated incidents" at New York prisons in which Muslim religious leaders were disciplined, primarily just after 9/11. One imam, Sufwan El Hadi, was fired after 9/11 for preaching that God had inflicted his punishment on the wicked. The report of a labor arbitrator after El Hadi's firing, said Kriss, indicated he had run out into the prison yard on September 12, 2001, "pumping his arms above his head and chanting." According to Kriss, a retired imam was banned from further visits to New York prisons after published remarks in the Wall Street Journal seemed to support terrorism.