Mohammed Abu al-Kiyan, who committed this week's stabbing-and-ramming terror attack in Be’er Sheva, was one of 87 operatives linked to the Islamic State who have been imprisoned in Israel. Before his killing of four people on Tuesday, he was convicted in 2016 for membership in a terror group, dissemination of its extremist teachings and attempts to join the Islamic State in Syria.
Though prison officials launched a rehabilitation program for “ISIS prisoners” by integrating them into Fatah prisoner wings, Abu al-Kiyan was later transferred to Hamas wings. This contributed to his radicalization.
In the middle of the last decade, the Islamic State was at the height of its popularity, and dozens of Israeli and West Bank Palestinians sought to join it – some through operations in Israel and some in attempts to join the group in Syria and Iraq.
The prison service deliberated over which wing should house these prisoners. Though Hamas and the Islamic State are both religiously motivated, a rivalry simmers between them amid ideological differences. Thus it was decided to house most of the ISIS prisoners with their Fatah counterparts with the goal of changing their outlook and rehabilitating them in the secular Palestinian community.
“The cellblock spokesmen took the ISIS prisoners under their wings and appointed a senior prisoner to mentor each,” says a senior security official familiar with the program. “They tried to get them to go straight using schooling, culture and personal conversations until the beard, the ISIS trademark, slowly disappeared.”
The prison service’s intelligence division led the project. It divided the prisoners into three groups: the hard ideological core – a small number of prisoners put in separate cells, some suffering from mental issues; operatives, some of whom returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq; and supporters who expressed sympathy for the organization on social media or aimed to leave for Syria.
The second group was put in Hamas wings – which led to religion-based clashes, sometimes violent. The third group, the majority of ISIS prisoners, was sent to Fatah wings.
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“That’s the soft group,” says a senior security official. “We saw that they realize that ISIS isn’t the idyllic world they were shown on social media. We connected them to senior prisoners in the wing, who changed their outlook. Fatah is the relatively moderate organization in prison.”
The ISIS prisoners were divided so there would not be more than one of them per wing, and they were closely monitored. The shaving of the beard was the benchmark. “They would arrive with long beards and no moustaches,” the senior security official says.
“Early on they were instantly identifiable – always alone, no moustache, long beard, they didn't eat with the other prisoners, they prayed apart, walked apart, they were religiously strict to the extreme. But those who integrated into Fatah wings, you could see how they slowly blended in – to the point of cutting off the beard.”
The mentoring program did reasonably well; around half the prisoners didn't return to terrorism. But the integration of ISIS prisoners into Fatah wings didn't always succeed, and violent incidents were frequent.
Abu al-Kiyan was one of six men – residents of the Hura area in the south – arrested in May 2015 on suspicion of disseminating ISIS ideology at mosques and schools where they taught. In prison, all six started off in Fatah wings and with mentors.
“They were rehabilitated, released, and went straight. Except for two. Mohammed was one of them,” says a senior Palestinian source close to the security prisoners. “He kept subscribing to ISIS extremism. Nothing helped.”
Soon Abu al-Kiyan moved between Hamas wings in the various prisons and even took part in the organization’s hunger strikes. In July he was caught with a smuggled SIM card. All told, Abu al-Kiyan did not fit in socially and ended his prison term in a mixed wing.
“He was a strict and extreme Islamist,” the Palestinian source says. "It was a mistake for the prison service to transfer him to Hamas. They exploit anybody who goes there. Israeli Arabs who were in ISIS arrived at Fatah wings, underwent rehabilitation and today some are students at universities around the country. Those who go for rehabilitation in Hamas wings learn an extremist religious culture there.”
Currently 19 prisoners in Israeli prisons are linked to the Islamic State; the most notorious are those who killed four people in the June 2016 shooting attack in Tel Aviv's Sarona shopping district.
“Most of them undergo a change in prison, willingly or not,” a source in the prison service says. “But obviously none of them becomes a Zionist.”