Inside the blood-soaked prison wars between Muslim and white gangs: I’ve seen toothbrushes turned into knives and am haunted by the screams of victims who had sugar and boiling water thrown in their face

One of my most memorable encounters as a former jailbird was with ‘Ali’, a notorious gangster whom I met days after he was released from a high security prison.

He’d just completed several long sentences for firearms offences and serious violence. We’d become connected through a mutual friend who was one of Ali’s neighbours in HMP Belmarsh — home to the UK’s most notorious and dangerous criminals.

‘Chris, mate,’ the friend wrote. ‘I found someone you gotta talk to. He’s the brother of one of the Beatles.’

I’m a keen music fan and wrote back asking whether it was the sibling of John, Paul, Ringo or George. ‘Not those Beatles,’ came the reply.

Prison guards break up a fight between inmates in a scene from BBC drama Time starring Sean Bean

It turned out that Ali was the brother of one of the four British extremists who had joined Isis and taken part in horrific terrorist crimes in Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2018.

The Beatles we’re talking about were involved in the kidnapping of 27 people and were given the nickname because of their English accents. They were a monstrous quartet who forced their hostages to stage mock executions and fight one another. They also beat them, electrocuted them with Tasers and placed them in chokeholds until they passed out.

Ali’s brother was involved in the murders — by beheading — of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as the killing of aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. He was captured and extradited to the US in 2020, where he was convicted of four murders and given a whole life sentence.

Ali, too, might have spent the rest of his life behind bars. He was heavily involved in West London street gangs, and was convicted in 2010 of possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life.

When I was serving in Wandsworth (pictured) I saw the aftermath of several juggings, and the screams of the victims will haunt me for ever, says Chris

When I was serving in Wandsworth (pictured) I saw the aftermath of several juggings, and the screams of the victims will haunt me for ever, says Chris 

He was made a category A prisoner — the highest level of security — and sent to some of the toughest prisons in the country, including Belmarsh, Frankland and Whitemoor.

‘I’ve still got PTSD from my years in there,’ he admitted. ‘There’s two ways to do your time: turn into a kiss-ass and become part of the very thing you hate, or fight the system and allow it to destroy you. I chose the second, and spent all my time fighting, scoring, running drug crimes inside the prison. I caused a lot of blood to be spilled and had revenge attacks on myself. I nearly died several times.’

Why am I telling you all this? Because the next path Ali chose in prison was to convert to Islam and then join a Muslim gang.

And earlier this month, a senior government adviser on terrorism warned that dangerous Islamist gangs have become a serious problem in Britain’s prisons after a huge increase in the number of Muslim inmates. Jonathan Hall KC, the Government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, described how convicted Islamist terrorists use gangs to pressurise other inmates into converting and sometimes even to seize control of prison wings, imposing Sharia law on prisoners, including having them flogged.

Captured British Islamic State (IS) group fighters El Shafee el-Sheikh, left, and Alexanda Kotey

Captured British Islamic State (IS) group fighters El Shafee el-Sheikh, left, and Alexanda Kotey 

 Meanwhile, Ministry of Justice figures recently revealed there were 15,584 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales last September, compared with just 3,681 in 1997. The figures disclose that 18 per cent of all inmates now identify as Muslim — nearly three times the 6.5 per cent in the general UK population.

And, as Mr Hall said: ‘There is an inevitable pressure in prisons for people to join a group. If the current flavour is Muslim, it could lead to them joining.

‘If you have an emir at the top of a prison gang who is a terrorist offender or strongly radicalised, then the risk of people joining this group, even just for protection, could result in them being radicalised.’

But back to Ali. He was happy to talk to me for my book about life as a prisoner: Time After Time because I am also an ex-con — I got five years for tax fraud in 2016.

Prisoners are a cagey bunch but my past has given me unique access to the criminal underworld. Ironically, he told me he decided to convert to Islam in order to lead a better life.

His family was religious and he felt it was time to turn away from crime. But the decision changed everything. His security level by that stage had dropped down to category C. After he converted, he said, ‘everyone started getting worried. They thought I was going to turn into a suicide bomber. They sent me right back up to A- Cat and into the dispersal circuit — that’s when it got really bad.’

The dispersal system is a ring of ten of the most secure jails in the UK, where terrorists and murderers are moved round constantly to stop them forming connections with each other and fomenting trouble. The problem is that system doesn’t work.

Ali had already spent several years inside and developed beefs with highly dangerous inmates who were spread throughout the dispersal circuit.

He was now faced with a stark choice: either struggle on his own and face brutal violence or even death when he encountered his enemies; or join a gang of extremist Muslims for protection. He chose the latter and was plunged into a turf war between Islamist prisoners and a white supremacist gang called the Piranhas.

‘The Piranhas were hardcore anti-Muslim types,’ he said. ‘They were fighting this long-running war with the extreme Muslims, and it was going on out of sight across the dispersal system.

‘If the screws moved someone to another jail, the other side would know before they got there as everyone has mobile phones.’

Prison guard behind a locked gate at HMP Pentonville, Islington, north London

Prison guard behind a locked gate at HMP Pentonville, Islington, north London

The fighting was horrific, as warring inmates would improvise with whatever the prison service provided. A popular tactic was ‘jugging’ — boiling a kettle and mixing in sugar so it would stick to the skin when it was thrown in someone’s face and permanently scar them.

When I was serving in Wandsworth I saw the aftermath of several juggings, and the screams of the victims will haunt me for ever. Another technique was to fashion a makeshift knife by inserting two razor blades into a toothbrush. The double blade would inflict a pair of deep slits that were impossible to sew up.

If inmates felt such an attack was imminent they’d wear several layers of clothing to protect themselves, and I remember seeing prisoners sweating profusely in the exercise yard on a boiling hot summer’s day as they were wearing three coats.

To overcome this defence their attackers would use a ‘dipper’ — a sharpened thin blade a foot long that could be inserted and removed leaving barely a mark.

Overstretched prison officers were rarely able to stop this heinous violence, so terrified inmates would join extremist gangs for protection. But once they were signed up they could soon be sucked into something far more sinister.

Another contact from my time inside, Steve Gallant, knows more than most about the dangers of radicalisation in jails. Steve had bravely confronted the extremist Usman Khan on London Bridge in November 2019 after Khan had carried out a lethal knife attack killing Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones.

Steve led several other bystanders who memorably tackled the terrorist with a fire extinguisher and a narwhal tusk before the police shot Khan dead, and their heroic actions undoubtedly saved further loss of life.

But what makes Steve’s story even more remarkable is that he was himself convicted of murder and at the time was serving a life sentence for killing Hull firefighter Barrie Jackson. Steve had been inside for 14 years and had just been allowed out on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation conference at Fishmongers’ Hall, where Khan began his deadly attack.

Steve has written about his remarkable journey in his book The Road To London Bridge and believes prison radicalisation started to increase drastically as far back as 2005.

‘The July 7 bombings had just happened when I first went inside,’ he said. ‘Suddenly everyone was worked up about what extremists were capable of. We had a Muslim guy come on to our wing who was involved in the failed Shepherd’s Bush attack on July 21 [one of four attempted bombings on London’s transport network in 2005].

‘There were all these white northern gangsters, some of whom had done equally terrible things, who wanted to take revenge on him.

‘Someone set his cell on fire, but then some other Muslims retaliated with a stabbing. It all spiralled from there.’ By this time Steve had decided to reject violence, but he couldn’t hide from the exploding turf war on his wing. ‘This tit-for-tat kept escalating. It started to suck in Muslims who weren’t terrorists but were naturally affiliated with one side and so they ended up getting radicalised.

‘It wasn’t split along racial lines, as there were white guys in the Muslim gang and vice versa. The white Muslim converts were often the worst.’

As with street gangs, these religious groups would ensnare vulnerable young minds who were susceptible to exploitation. Steve explained: ‘They’d target kids who weren’t the full shilling. Get them comfortable at first, and then the next thing they’re knifing up a bloke in the showers.’

This is something I saw first- hand in HMP Wandsworth. Staffing cuts meant that most prisoners were stuck in their cells, and inmates would do anything to get out and socialise.

Some Muslims even signed up to Alcoholics Anonymous just to spend some time with their mates, despite being completely teetotal. Friday prayers were completely oversubscribed, and I’d see young impressionable inmates coming back to the wings with some pretty ghastly views.

Much of this radicalisation takes place under the authorities’ radar. A lone voice who’s been warning about this for years is Ian Acheson, who was head of security at HMP Wandsworth.

‘We had a stream of violent young men flowing into the system who were credulous, impulsive and facing a long time in custody,’ he said. ‘And so they become easy pickings for the extremists who offered them protection and meaning — as long as you join our gang. They’ll help you convert to Islam in 15 minutes, and then you become their frontline muscle.’

Ian saw a lot of overlap with street gangs, whose members flood the wings of London prisons such as Wandsworth.

‘The power structure is the same in these new Muslim gangs. You have the charismatic brains at the top orchestrating violence, and the young foot soldiers at the bottom who do the dirty work.’

Ian has long campaigned to change the Government’s mindset on radicalisation, but he believes that the system has been in denial for years. ‘There has been enormous naivete from officials who have been completely blind to the growing scale of the problem.’

One reason violent extremism has spread throughout prisons is an official fear of appearing Islamophobic. ‘The system has been crippled by institutional timidity. I remember once visiting HMP Woodhill [a category A prison near Milton Keynes] and watching the staff searching all prisoners going onto yard.

‘A Muslim inmate approached wearing long flowing robes and was allowed through unhindered. I was told that it was religious clothing so he couldn’t be searched. This struck me as insane — he could have had a Kalashnikov hidden in there.’

There’s no doubt that racism is hugely prevalent in British prisons, something I saw on a daily basis in Wandsworth. Young black men are far more likely to face worse conditions, suffer from mental health problems and be the victims of violence.

But rather than address the structural causes of this discrimination, the authorities far too often embark on meaningless token exercises that can backfire.

‘The fear of discriminatory behaviour is exploited by the prisoners who look for any way to undermine the system,’ admits Ian, author of the book Screwed: Britain’s Prison Crisis And How To Escape It. ‘I’ve heard of sex offenders converting to Islam as a way to infiltrate the normal prison population.’

The public might think this doesn’t affect them as it’s out of sight and out of mind. But this is simply burying our heads in the sand, as radicalised prisoners go on to commit terrorist atrocities in the outside world.

Usman Khan, whom Steve tackled on London Bridge, had previously spent several years in prison for terror offences and tricked the authorities into believing he was rehabilitated.

The inquests into the London Bridge deaths found that Khan had been an ‘influential’ terrorist prisoner who was involved in ‘extremist bullying’.

Ali spent time with Khan in HMP Whitemoor and found him intensely creepy. ‘Usman was a nutter, he hated people laughing,’ he recalled. ‘After the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 he was celebrating, saying we should be getting organised, planning more attacks.

‘But one day everything changed. Usman… started doing rehab courses, saying that holy war was wrong and a perversion of Islam. He got a lot of grief from the others, who said he’d gone soft. What they didn’t know is he was playing a long game.’

As part of this long game, Khan went on an impressive-sounding rehabilitation course for extremists — The Healthy Identity Intervention programme. He passed the course with flying colours and was subsequently released into the community.

‘When London Bridge went down, everyone realised that he’d used the system to do what he did,’ Ali explained. ‘There was big respect from some of the others, who said that they would copy the same trick.’

Ali has now turned his back on crime and extremism and is living a law-abiding life. But he’s forever living in the shadow of his younger ‘Beatles’ brother who was also lured by extremists and never turned back. A brother who started dabbling in street crime in West London before joining Isis and becoming fully radicalised.

‘Drug gangs and terrorism are the two sides of the same coin,’ said Ali, ‘It looks like a way out but it leads to the same hell.’

CHRIS ATKINS is the author of Time After Time, Repeat Offenders — The Inside Stories