London, Sep 28 : Al-Qaeda terrorists have targeted 800 Muslim criminals they want to recruit for their "holy war" against Britain, say prison probation officers.
The officers believe that attempts have been made to convert one in 10 of the estimated 8,000 Muslims in the eight high-security prisons in England and Wales to al-Qaeda cause in the past two years, The Times reported.
The Ministry of Justice has begun a programme to persuade convicted terrorists to give up their cause. It is also trying to protect vulnerable Muslim inmates from violent extremists.
The ministry said this weekend that it had established a unit to tackle "the risks of extremism and radicalism in prison".
The radicalisation is being led by some of the estimated 150 terrorist prisoners in England and Wales. The number of Muslim inmates has grown over the past decade to more than 10 percent of the jail population.
Most are young men, typically petty criminals serving two or three-year sentences for crimes such as burglary, theft, drug dealing or fraud.
Many are impressionable and feel aggrieved by what they see as mistreatment by the authorities. They are considered to be ripe for recruitment by al-Qaeda.
One of the most notorious Al-Qaeda terrorists, Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who was convicted of trying to blow up a transatlantic jet in 2001 with explosives in his trainers, had served time as a petty crook before being radicalised.
The size of the problem emerged in evidence given to a review of radicalisation in jails by Nick Herbert, the shadow justice secretary.
An internal review of Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire, where almost a third of the 500 inmates are Muslim, warned that staff were struggling to deal with Muslim gangs. It said the staff feared that a serious incident was imminent.