Joel Mowbray

The federal Bureau of Prisons is holding 119 persons with “specific ties” to international Islamist terrorist groups, yet has no full-time Arabic translators or a system to monitor their communications, according to Congressional sources and a whistleblower who now fears retaliation from inmates.

A congressional aide said Bureau of Prisons officials maintain an informal list of 17 employees who are proficient in Arabic.  Prison officials acknowledge, however, that none of the workers had been tested to determine Arabic proficiency or undergone a special screening or background check.

Capitol Hill is starting to notice.

 “It’s ludicrous to think that the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t have a single full-time translator to monitor their communications," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA).  He called the current system “a recipe for disaster.”

 “There is no question that the number of Arabic translators should be beefed up as quickly as possible—the very last thing that prisoners should be able to do from behind bars is write a letter to encourage, recruit or aid terrorists in their plans to attack here or around the world,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY).

After inquiries from members of Congress and this journalist, prison officials said last week that they had hired one designated, full-time Arabic translator and plan to hire one more.  But the employee had not begun work as of last week and there was no indication of any fluency test or special background check.

Since the September 11 attacks, authorities have identified prisons as security threats because of recruitment efforts by al Qaeda and other terror groups. But convicted terrorists in federal penitentiaries, including those behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, retain communication privileges and have had direct contact with other terrorists.

The 119 inmates linked to terror groups include 40 thought to be members of al Qaeda and 23 who are “identified as linked to 9/11,” according to a document prepared by the Bureau of Prisons. It is not clear from the document how many fall under both categories.

The difficulty in translating Arabic communications poses a security threat more than just with respect to the 119 inmates tied to terrorists since many prisoners who convert to Islam also learn Arabic, according to Universal Muslim Association of America spokesman Agha Jafri.  There are over 10,000 Muslims in the federal system.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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