France is already on high alert for terrorism but the security threat is likely to only increase in the coming years, according to France's leading counter-terrorist prosecutor Francois Molins.
Authorities are getting ready to release about 20 radicalised prisoners in 2018 and a further 20 in 2019, Molins said in an interview with BFM TV.
And police, intelligence services and authorities need to take action, he said.
“There is a major risk of seeing people who are not at all repentant at the end of their sentence come out of prison, who could even be more radical given their stay in prison,” he added.
“We need to do a lot more talking to ensure that they are properly monitored which requires thorough work between the prison administration, the intelligence services, the prefectures, those working in the judicial system and the prosecutor's office,” he said.
Currently, more than 1,200 people imprisoned for crimes unrelated to terrorism are considered to have become radicalized behind bars in France while more than 500 are in prison for terrorism, according to reports in the French press.
While some of those in jail for terror offences are serving lengthy sentences, some are due to be released over the coming years with the terror threat likely to remain high in France
“The penitentiary environment acts as an incubator to the extent that there is an interaction” between these two types of prisoners, noted Molins, who is set to leave his post in November after spending seven years at the head of the anti-terrorist prosecution service.
'Fighting an ideological war'
French intelligence services are already struggling to keep tabs on the thousands of individuals on the country's terror watchlist – some of whom have gone on to commit terror attacks – and the release of known extremists from prison gives authorities more headaches.
A researcher at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, François-Bernard Huyghe told The Local that he believes Molins is right to describe the situation in such alarming terms, adding that there are several reasons for the gravity of the situation.
“Radicalised people are being released soon because in order to keep them inside we would have had to charge them for something very serious,” he said. “On top of that, as we know, prisons are the best place to become radicalised – potential jihadis can meet 'heros' of the movement in jail.”
The second reason, he said, was that France is “very, very bad at deradicalising”.
“I have never met this magic person who has been deradicalised and turned into a good citizen,” he said.
The final reason he gave was that while potential jihadists are increasingly struggling to find extremist information online, they are more likely to be able to meet people that have experienced life as a jihadi because there are now several generations of jihadist fighters who have seen action.
“They can learn from the older guys,” he said.
He went on to describe the additional problem that France can't compete with the promises offered by radical Islamist groups, which offer “these young guys from the suburbs a lot”.
“In their minds they're offering them the chance to fight bad guys, as well as apartments and material wealth,” he said, adding that meanwhile France can “only offer them the chance to get a normal job and vote in an election every few years”.
Huyghe went on to describe the solution to the problem as a long-term one which needs to include teaching Republican values, not just talking about them.
“We are beginning to admit that this is ideological warfare not just social,” he said.
But he admitted that France is getting better at stopping attacks and that they have become less “technically successful”.
Government plan to halt radicalisation
France has long-struggled with the issue of radicalisation in its prisons.
In February, The Local reported that the French government had said it would seal off extremists within prisons and open new centres to reintegrate returning jihadists into society as part of a new plan to halt the spread of radical Islam.
France is experimenting with various ways of ending the drift towards extremism of young people growing up on the margins of society, in predominantly immigrant suburbs where organisations like the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda recruit.
The plan aims to draw lessons from past failures, after three years marked by a series of attacks that left over 240 people dead.
“No one has a magic formula for 'deradicalisation' as if you might de-install dangerous software,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in the northern city of Lille where he presented his strategy, flanked by a dozen ministers.
“But in France and elsewhere there are good approaches to prevention and disengagement.”
France is particularly keen to stop extremism flourishing in its prisons, where some of the jihadists behind attacks in recent years first came under the spell of hardliners.
A total of 512 people are currently serving time for terrorism offences in France and a further 1,139 prisoners have been flagged up as being radicalised.
To prevent extremism spreading further, Philippe said he would create 1,500 places in separate prison wings “especially for radicalised inmates”.