NEW YORK - An elite group of corrections officers, cops and federal agents is closely monitoring suspected radicals at city jails to prevent them from recruiting angry and isolated prisoners into their fold.
Authorities believe the jails, along with prisons across the nation, could become fertile recruiting grounds for homegrown jihadists who follow the teachings of Osama Bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists.
Aware of the great risk, New York City correction bosses created the specialized intelligence unit on Rikers Island to stop fanatics before they can indoctrinate others.
"We aggressively monitor all security risk groups," Martin Horn, who runs the city's Department of Correction, told the New York Daily News. "We have our own intelligence unit and we're always looking at inmate alliances."
Last week's arrest of dozens of accused Islamic terrorists - most of them Britons who allegedly plotted to blow up airliners bound for U.S. cities - underscores the growing threat of homegrown extremists.
Even before the terrorist ring was exposed, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that radical Islamists had been spreading their depraved philosophy behind bars in the United States.
"Inmates may be drawn to an extreme form of Islam because it may help justify their violent tendencies," Mr. Mueller said this summer. "These persons represent a heightened threat because of their criminal histories, their propensity for violence and their contacts with criminals."
Prison officials in many states have been monitoring Muslim inmates since the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Rikers Island intelligence unit is among the most sophisticated.
Since being created two years ago, the unit's investigators have not detected a significant threat, but authorities and experts say the surveillance is a vital part of the city's defense against terrorism.
"Prisons are incubators for extremist ideology," said Steven Emerson, a counterterrorism expert based in Washington. "There's no recognition of the problem in federal prisons. And there's no national oversight of the state prison system."