Convicted terrorists linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda led religious services at one-third of the federal prisons audited by a federal watchdog, a practice officials say presents safety and security risks.
The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that convicts linked to the terror groups led classes at four out of twelve Bureau of Prisons facilities, according to a report released Wednesday. Bureau of Prisons staff members worry terror-linked inmates could use the religious services "as a method to obtain power and influence among the inmate population," the report says. The Bureau of Prisons operates 122 facilities across the United States.
An al-Qaeda affiliate who was convicted on terrorism charges led religious services "on a frequent basis," the report said. The chaplain at the prison, which is not identified, told investigators that the convicted terrorist was selected by other inmates to lead the classes because of his Arab fluency and his "extensive" knowledge of Islam.
Officials within the Bureau of Prisons told investigators they opposed terrorists leading the classes. But they said the agency does not have clear policies regarding who can lead the services.
The inspector general determined that a "persistent" shortage of chaplains within the Bureau of Prisons has created a need to rely on inmates to lead some religious classes. The watchdog also faulted a "lack of diversity" among the religious groups represented by the agency’s chaplaincy services program.
The watchdog said that the over-reliance on inmates likely creates an "unacceptable level of risk," especially when classes are led by convicted terrorists.
Some U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns in the past about potential terrorist influence in religious programs at federal prisons. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) raised concern in 2016 that the Bureau of Prisons allowed the Islamic Society of North America to assist in vetting contractors hired to lead Islamic classes at federal prisons. Grassley noted that the Islamic Society was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism case.
The Bureau of Prisons told the Washington Free Beacon it is revising agency policy in order to provide clear guidance on religious services led by inmates, as well as to strengthen security measures. The agency did not address questions about which facilities house the terrorist inmates cited in the inspector general's report.