Nobody really knows for sure whether today’s terrorists are really yesterday’s criminals, thugs and gangsters.
It seems that studying terrorism and terrorists through the prism of past criminal activities has become particularly fashionable. Western media outlets have been awash with articles that effortlessly make this connection. For instance, in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack in Manhattan, CNN reported on how the suspected perpetrator had multiple interactions with law enforcement agencies in several states.
Drug smuggling also appears to offer a route into the world of Islamist terrorism. Abdelbaki Es Satty, the alleged ringleader of the Barcelona terror cell, was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2012 for smuggling hashish between Morocco and Spain. Brahim and Salah Abdeslam, the brothers behind the infamous Brussels-Paris terrorist cell responsible for the deadly November 2015 Paris attacks, were also known to police for drug smuggling. Salah was later arrested and is currently awaiting trial in Belgium, which is scheduled for December.
Making these connections, in turn, reflects the emergence of fresh thinking concerning the crime-terror nexus. Traditionally, analysts have focused on criminal gangs and terrorists groups as distinct organizations, and asked how they coexist and learn from each other. However, a more novel and innovative approach considers how individuals with contrasting criminal records become radicalized thugs and, in the process, a perfect example of gangster jihadists. Given their past, they are certainly less shy about using violence and can use existing criminal networks to finance and coordinate their activities, not to mention getting their hands on weapons with relative ease.
Adding substance to this debate are additional reports warning that a new breed of terrorist is emerging throughout Europe. Petty criminals are increasingly bypassing more classic forms of Islam (and indeed fundamentalism) and moving toward more nihilistic forms of religion and protest. As a result, the so-called Islamic State’s European legions have turned classic definitions of terrorism on their heads simply by recruiting and radicalizing young thugs.
The idea that petty criminals are “evolving” into a new breed of gangster jihadists and mass murderers seems compelling. But haven’t we seen this before? Take the case of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous al-Qaeda terrorist who was once known as Mr. Marlboro, a reference to his previous career as a tobacco smuggler. And let’s not forget that the plotters behind the 2004 Madrid attacks also had criminal pasts and connections to organized crime.
Such apparent contradictions underpin the fact that nobody really knows for sure whether today’s terrorists are really yesterday’s criminals, thugs and gangsters. That’s what makes our research into this conundrum so vital. There are certainly indications that this is a growing phenomenon in francophone countries. Among the hundreds of French and Belgian foreign fighters and jihadists, an estimated 50% have criminal records varying from petty crime to more serious offenses. The same might also be said of Germany, which has also experienced a recent upsurge in terrorist activity.
However, the scope and scale of the phenomenon inevitably varies from country to country. Italy is a case in point, where there is growing evidence of organizational cooperation between Islamist terrorists and the mafia. It was recently reported, for example, that oil from territories still under Islamic State control had, with mafia assistance, made its way through Italian refineries and into European energy markets. And then there’s Northern Ireland, where “old school terrorists” with a long track record of terror activities on both sides of the Loyalist-Republican divide have turned to crime for funding purposes.
There are, as always, exceptions: The now defunct Basque separatist group ETA had a strict policy of not recruiting criminals into it ranks; the Irish Republican Army (IRA), albeit funded through criminal enterprises like fuel or even pig smuggling, would periodically target “criminals” as exercises in public relations. Undoubtedly, however, terrorist organizations seek recruits with criminal skills that allow them forge documents, “improve” fundraising and more.
While fresh thinking on connections between criminal activities and terrorism is welcome, it is clearly still at a nascent stage. By focusing on over a thousand individuals arrested for terrorism offenses in 11 European countries, we seek to determine once and for all if we are really experiencing a new and dangerous phenomenon.
In this respect, the fact that we will only focus on those individuals who have been arrested for terrorist offenses and convicted (rather than people who have faced legal action as a result of traveling to Syria, for example), will give our research a more representative sample. Our two-year search for bona fide gangster jihadists is still in its inception phase, and we are hundreds of profiles away from drawing a cast-iron conclusion. For now, we might as well surmise that there is no gangster jihad, but there are some very successful gangster jihadists.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.