There’s an increasing convergence between criminal and jihadist milieus in European countries — notably France and the Low Countries, generally Belgium and the Netherlands. Radicalization experts say they expect the crime-terror nexus to grow as Islamic State tries to find new sources of revenue to replace those it is losing as its caliphate shrinks, and to mount attacks in Europe to demonstrate its continued relevance.
The presence of former convicts and criminals inside terrorist groups and mutually-useful connections with crime groups is not new or unprecedented, they say. It has been seen with secular, nationalist as well as Christian-based terror gangs for decades — from Northern Ireland’s IRA and Protestant paramilitaries to the Basque separatist movement, but the phenomenon related to IS has become more pronounced, especially when it comes to recruitment, and will likely become more so in the coming years.
IS appeals to former criminals
In several European countries, most jihadist foreign fighters are former criminals, and IS talent-spotters recruit aggressively among prisoners as well as among ex-convicts on the outside. Criminal gangs and the jihadists are recruiting from the same pool of people, with both needing members who have useful skills — from experience with guns and readiness to be violent to the ability to escape police detection.
The crime connection adds to the challenges for de-radicalization efforts, says Emma Webb, an analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based research organization. She says the criminal past of IS recruits helps to reinforce bonds among members with friendship and criminality reinforcing each other. “The social aspect is something that can really have a strong effect not only in drawing them into extremism but also holding them there…a defection becomes a betrayal not only of the cause but a breaking with a group you formed bonds with and trusted even before joining IS,” she says.
"We do see criminal backgrounds represented in UK terrorism statistics and we see it very broadly across Europe," she adds. She cites the Brussels network behind the November 2015 coordinated Paris attacks. “With the Paris attacks, we see a group of people who have been friends for a long time and they progress together through criminality into extremism, possibly through radicalization in prisons. The bond of trust makes these networks very effective.”
The IS narrative — a simpler one than al-Qaida offered — seems well-suited to recruiting criminals, argues Nazir Afzal, a former top British prosecutor. Grooming recruits for IS is not dissimilar from grooming someone to join an organized crime group or street gang. “It involves manipulating the most vulnerable,” he says. “IS is effective in knowing what buttons to push, whether the potential recruit is seeking redemption or thrill-seeking.”
A landmark report last year by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College, London University, also argued that “the jihadist narrative – as articulated by Islamic State – is surprisingly well-aligned with the personal needs and desires of criminals, and that it can be used to curtail as well as license the continued involvement in crime.”
The ICSR also noted that criminals have useful skills for IS with their abilities to secure weapons and stay ‘under the radar.’
“There hasn’t been a merging of criminal organizations with IS and other jihadist groups, but there has been a partial merging of social networks, environments and milieus," the center reported. More than half of the individuals ICSR profiled ((45 out of 79 profiles)) had been incarcerated prior to their radicalization, with sentences ranging from one month to over 10 years, and a quarter of those who spent time in prison were radicalized during their incarceration.
Other Europe studies show that most jihadist foreign fighters are former criminals.
Emma Webb says IS is “using criminality to fund extremist activity.” Forty percent of terrorist plots in Europe are at least part-funded through ‘petty crime,’ including drug dealing, theft, robberies, the sale of counterfeit goods, loan fraud, and burglaries, say analysts.
New revenue streams
As the terror group is squeezed in territory it once controlled, its primary revenue-generating streams — sales of oil, gas and phosphate as well as extortion of local populations and the sale of ancient loot from archaeological sites — are drying up, forcing the terror group to look elsewhere for revenue. Islamic State will need to rely increasingly on self-funding recruits, if it is to continue to mount attacks in the West, say analysts.
And it isn’t only in Europe IS is drawing closer to criminal networks, cooperating with them as well as taxing them when they want to move contraband, drugs or people through territory IS controls or has a major presence in with fighters.
Analysts say the group is relying on old smuggling routes to move drugs, guns and people. Last year, The New York Times reported the Italian navy had uncovered a new drug trafficking route stretching from Libya to Sicily and Egypt to the Balkans.
Sicilian anti-mafia prosecutors tell VOA that was more of a reconfiguration of old routes that predate the Arab Spring and the fall of the region's strongmen. More often than not, IS and crime gangs are introducing variations to well-established routes.
In remote parts of western Iraq’s Anbar province, IS may be more involved in drugs than just helping their movement. Earlier this year, the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that IS has been encouraging local farmers to cultivate marijuana, which is then moved through Syria into Turkey for onward transportation by crime syndicates to Europe.
“What we are seeing is a chain of cooperation between the jihadists and organized crime built on dozens of deals to make money and traffic contraband — it isn't a matter of some grand pact but opportunism,” says an Italian prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.