Deradicalisation in Austrian Prisons

In February 2016, the Ministry of Justice initiated several measures to fight radicalisation in prison. Security issues, educational measures, and measures concerning prisoners’ support and care were agreed upon and implemented. One aspect of this effort to fight prison radicalisation was the commission of a research project to the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology (IRKS) that should accompany and evaluate the implementation of the measures and collect first evidence of their impact.

Our study is based on a broad empirical basis: We conducted 39 interviews with inmates who were sentenced because of membership in a terrorist organisation, as well as with people who were in prison because of other crimes but who were deemed to hold extremist ideas. We also spoke to various experts working in the prison system in different positions, from prison directors to the prison guard “on the ground”. We interviewed social workers, probation officers, deradicalisation experts, the intelligence service, and many more. In total, we conducted more than 100 interviews. We also had access to court files as well as reports of the prison system.

One of the main steps to fight prison radicalisation and to deradicalize extremists was the conclusion of a contract with the association DERAD whose experts are now working with extremist inmates in prison. Their role is twofold: On the one hand, they assess the degree of the prisoners’ ideological radicalisation for the prison system; on the other hand they conduct deradicalisation talks with these prisoners. Their aim is to deconstruct the jihadist narrative and to foster critical thinking. It seems that with certain groups (see typology below) this approach works well, while others may need more attention than they are getting now or a different kind of expertise.  

Another innovation was the implementation of prison liaison officers to the intelligence service. In every prison there are now two regional liaison officers who are in contact with the local office of the intelligence service. As a result, the information flow from the prison system to the intelligence service has improved, but not vice versa. Other measures, like a special risk assessment tool for this group and an anti-violence-training with a special focus on radicalisation, are still being implemented.

On the basis of our empirical data, we developed a typology of jihadists in Austrian prisons. The typology was inspired by Tore Bjørgo (2011), a Norwegian police scientist who created a typology along four dimensions, i.e. ideological motivation, status in the group, social resources, and sensation seeking. The aim of the typology is to support the development of targeted interventions for different groups with different risks and needs. 

1. Settlers of the caliphate: This group consists of several young, mostly Chechen* men and women who left Austria for Syria with almost romantic images of life in the so-called Islamic state. All of them had no previous convictions and scored very differently on the dimension “ideological motivation”. Most of them are by now released from prison and under probation.

2. The Failures (“die Gescheiterten”): These adult men from the Chechen diaspora have a history of failed integration in Austria; they all have a criminal record. These men imagined Syria as an opportunity to start a new life but also as a place where they could fight Russia. Like the first group, they tried to leave for Syria but their attempts were stopped.

3. We call those who have actually been in Syria or in Iraq Foreign Fighters. While all of them deny that they were fighting for a terrorist organisation they all admitted to having been in the region. This group is treated very differently in prison – ranging from a juvenile who was taken care of by a whole team of professionals, to an adult who has been completely isolated for several months, even during the daily walk in the open air.

4. Marginalized Youth or “socially frustrated youth” as Bjørgo (2011: 283) calls them: These juveniles or young adults with diverse migration backgrounds have all been convicted before, most of them for offences like robbery, assault, etc. and most of them have been imprisoned before. They stem from difficult social and family backgrounds and have a very low education. Most of them are taken care of by DERAD on a regular basis.

5. Ideological Activists (see also Bjørgo 2011: 280) are a small but influential group in Austrian prisons. They received lengthy sentences and are kept isolated under a high security regime. It is an enormous challenge for the prison system to deal with these men, some of them having been very charismatic and influential before their imprisonment.

6. There are also a few imprisoned Veterans & Victims of War. These Chechen immigrants of the first generation were traumatized by the war in their home country and have physical and emotional injuries. They are not jihadists, but Chechen nationalists who support the Caucasus Emirate.

7. Another group we found in our sample may be called the ‘Subjects’ of the Islamic State (“die Untertanen”). These men, some of them very young, came to Austria as asylum seekers just recently. They participated in the Syrian civil war in one way or another. They did not actively join the jihad but found themselves caught up in the Syrian war and arranged themselves with jihadi groups and their para-states.

8. Another type we deduced from the literature (Pressman 2016: 22) is the Criminal Opportunist who is not highly ideological. Rather, he takes advantage of the situation and earns a living from, for example, trafficking fighters from Western Europe to the Syrian border.

9. The last category is Prevented Terrorists/Stopped Attackers. This small group‘s connection to Austria is mainly accidental: These men were stopped on their journey across Europe, accused of being accomplices of the terrorists in Paris and Brussels. Two have been deported to France; one awaits his trial in Austria. 

* A distinctive feature in the Austrian context is the high share of Chechens who are imprisoned because of membership in a terrorist organisation. Austria accommodates the biggest diaspora community of Chechens in Western Europe.

The final report is available in German only.

For more information please contact


Thomas Schmidinger

Project Period

Februar 2016 - November 2016

Project Leader

Veronika Hofinger

Scientific Management

Project Reports