The Spectacular Few

Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat

272 pages

3 b/w figures and 6 tables

March, 2013

ISBN: 9780814723968



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Mark S. Hamm is a former prison warden from Arizona and currently Professor of Criminology at Indiana State University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Terrorism Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. His books include Terrorism as Crime: From Oklahoma City to Al-Qaeda and Beyond (NYU Press, 2007), and In Bad Company: America's Terrorist Underground. He is the recipient of the Frederick Milton Thrasher Award for Outstanding Gang Scholarship, and the Critical Criminologist of the Year Award from the American Society of Criminology.

All books by Mark S. Hamm

The Madrid train bombers, shoe-bomber Richard Reid, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the 9/11 attacks—all were led by men radicalized behind bars. By their very nature, prisons are intended to induce transformative experiences among inmates, but today’s prisons are hotbeds for personal transformation toward terrorist beliefs and actions due to the increasingly chaotic nature of prison life caused by mass incarceration. In The Spectacular Few, Mark Hamm demonstrates how prisoners use criminal cunning, collective resistance and nihilism to incite terrorism against Western targets. A former prison guard himself, Hamm knows the realities of day-to-day prison life and understands how prisoners socialize, especially the inner-workings and power of prison gangs—be they the Aryan Brotherhood or radical Islam. He shows that while Islam is mainly a positive influence in prison, certain forces within the prison Muslim movement are aligned with the efforts of al-Qaeda and its associates to inspire convicts in the United States and Europe to conduct terrorist attacks on their own.  
Drawing from a wide range of sources—including historical case studies of prisoner radicalization reaching from Gandhi and Hitler to Malcolm X, Bobby Sands and the detainees of Guantanamo; a database of cases linking prisoner radicalization with evolving terrorist threats ranging from police shootouts to suicide bombings; interviews with intelligence officers, prisoners affiliated with terrorist groups and those disciplined for conducting radicalizing campaigns in prison—The Spectacular Few imagines the texture of prisoners’ lives: their criminal thinking styles, the social networks that influenced them, and personal “turning points” that set them on the pathway to violent extremism. Hamm provides a broad understanding of how prisoners can be radicalized, arguing that in order to understand the contemporary landscape of terrorism, we must come to terms with how prisoners are treated behind bars.


  • "This is a shrewd, moving and terrifying book. It describes the intensifying role of ideology (and the urge to civil action) in western prisons, showing powerfully how this development brings with it both ‘unprecedented security challenges’ and ‘exceptional possibilities for progressive reform’. Hamm’s meticulous research, on trends in prisoner radicalization in American correctional institutions, shows that America is creating its own terrorists, in its failing prisons."

    —Alison Liebling, co-author of The Prison Officer

  • The Spectacular Few is a refreshing and important work, taking the apparently too-uncommon steps of talking to radical prisoners and performing statistical analyses on samples of radicals to test theories and measure practices.”

    Anthropology Review Database

  • "Hamm's argument is intelligent, compassionate, and well argued....Hamm presents and argues his case well, and this book deserves a wide audience."

    Social Forces, Francis Dodsworth, Open University

  • “It is a must read for anyone interested in contemporary prison sociology radicalization, terrorism, and the fractured world we live in, as well as the changing landscape of prisons internationally. Hamm dedicates his book to John Irwin, an indication of his sociological spirit, and his deep immersion in the kinds of questions outstanding penologists ask. The kinds of questions Hamm is addressing require precisely that sociological spirit.”

    Crime, Law, and Social Change

  • “Mark Hamm is, without doubt, the world’s leading expert on prison radicalization. Based on decades of research, this book presents a nuanced and sophisticated picture. Beautifully written, it is the most complete, and the most empirically rigorous, account of this phenomenon to date. A must read for anyone interested in homegrown radicalization.”

    —Peter Neumann, author of Old and New Terrorism