The extremist threat picture for the next few years promises more of the same plus difficult new problems. Many recent developments have been positive. In 2018, fatalities from jihadi terrorism were down for the third year in a row. ISIS’s pseudo-state is gone. Hundreds if not thousands of European foreign fighters have died in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds more are trapped in Iraqi and Kurdish detention centres. Many fighters will die in the war still raging in parts of Syria.
Occasionally, extremists seeking to go to Syria to join the diminished ISIS fighter force there are caught at Turkey’s borders, but travel now is mostly in the other direction. Jihadi fighters who return are sent for trial and sentenced to prison in growing numbers. Europe has not been exposed to more commando-style attacks like the one in Paris in November 2015. Overall, the number of successful attacks is down, and those that do succeed have been more amateurish and less lethal.
Some of the worst fears—weaponised drones, for example—have not materialised. A plot to attack 10 Downing Street with a drone was foiled. Jihadis’ cyber-attack capabilities have turned out to be limited to website defacement. This is all good news, but the shooting at a Strasbourg Christmas market in December 2018 was a reminder that the threat is not over.
ISIS remains intent on fomenting attacks in Europe and continues to attract new followers there. There is also evidence that new and possibly more violent networks are forming. The growing nexus of intersecting violent criminal and jihadi networks presents a fresh set of problems. Increasingly, new recruits have criminal pasts or have been radicalised in prison. Many are members of street gangs.
The vast majority of jihadi incidents in Europe originate abroad or are linked to operatives overseas. A major challenge is how to disrupt the networks that connect extremists in Europe to jihadi enclaves in the Middle East and North Africa, and to each other in Europe. However, another novel and immediate challenge is that the lines between terrorist and criminal networks are increasingly becoming blurred.
The ‘New Normal’
The great hidden danger is that the pool of experienced jihadis has grown exponentially over the past five years. This poses new tests for counter-terrorism. A decade ago, only a handful of Western European countries had been affected. Now the problem is Europe-wide. Fifteen countries experienced a terrorist incident in 2017. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of jihadi arrests across Europe tripled. Arrests and prosecutions have remained at a high for three years.
Tens of thousands jihadis have been added to government watch lists. Jihadism-related convictions represent the vast majority of terrorism cases even as Europe deals with more far-right extremists. In December 2018, the UK Home Office reported there were 224 people in prison for terrorism-related offences, the highest number since the government started to keep a record. Of these, 80 per cent were Islamist extremists, and 13 per cent were far-right extremists (29 people, up from nine the previous year).
The links between jihadi hubs are complex, as are their links with criminal networks. Contemporary jihadi movements are at once global and local. Yet, recruitment and radicalisation are the work of clandestine, localised real-world networks. Available data show that the next generation of jihadis is being fostered through links between friends and former fighters in predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods. The result is localised clusters or hubs of extremists. If you live in Molenbeek in Brussels, Angered in Gothenburg or in one of four wards in Birmingham, your contact with a migratory jihadi network might be a friend or cousin.
‘Gangster jihadism’ is one such phenomenon. The term refers to the intersection between people who inhabit both worlds: criminals who become terrorists, and terrorists who engage in regular crime. A recent study of European jihadis who were arrested or died in 2015 found that in some places, nearly 30 per cent had criminal histories. In a few neighbourhoods, the estimate was as high as 50 per cent. The crimes committed before radicalisation ranged in severity from petty theft, drug offences and fraud to assault, trafficking in illicit goods and people, and murder.
Some gang members go from gangs to prisons, and move onto jihadism. Others have returned from fighting for ISIS to rejoin gangs. Big A, a Danish gang leader whose rarely used real name is Abderrozak Benarabe, put his gang on hold while he went to Syria to join a jihadi group—accompanied by a film-maker. Allegedly, his aim was to enhance his status in Copenhagen’s internecine gang milieu.
Molenbeek, home to the ringleaders of the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016, typifies the problem. My research identified 144 jihadis from Brussels who died or were arrested between 2012 and 2017. Twenty-two per cent were known to have a criminal history before becoming radicalised. In Molenbeek, the figure was 33 per cent. Members of the Franco-Belgian ISIS network responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks and other incidents belonged to a local jihadi gang of petty criminals who specialised in robbing tourists and selling drugs. ISIS promotes such criminal activity as legitimate ‘spoils of war’ (ghanimah) against the enemy.
The criminal gains were used to fund the militant recruits’ travel to Syria. Police investigations in Molenbeek after the 2015 and 2016 attacks uncovered 51 organisations and 72 individuals with suspected ties to terrorism, as well as 102 organisations suspected of criminal offences. The numbers indicate the depth of the intertwined criminal and terrorist networks.
Molenbeek is an extreme but not exceptional example. A UK police report in 2013 noted for the first time that some of Birmingham’s numerous organised crime gangs had been funding terrorism with the proceeds from criminal activities.
The old networks, such as those of Hizbullah and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, were top down and their criminality professionally managed to separate organised from political crime. Today’s jihadi crime-terror nexus is both localised and transnational: the boundaries are blurred locally while the top terrorist cadre makes deals with the mafia and international smuggling networks trafficking in drugs, money, weapons and people.
New Approaches Needed
In or out of the European Union, the UK will need to find ways to participate in European collaborations to disrupt and degrade transborder networks. Thousands of displaced foreign fighters are on the move. They will continue to seek to surreptitiously settle in Europe. Multilateral data-sharing and a coordinated legal response across Europe have vastly improved since the November 2015 Paris attacks. However, much needs still to be done.
Foreign fighters should be prosecuted for crimes abroad. Incarceration will take them off the streets—for a while. But the key point is these men and women have committed crimes against humanity directed at other Muslims. Investigating and highlighting such atrocious crimes may help turn young people against the narrative of terrorist groups as defenders of Islam.
Although jihadi offenders do not as a rule come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they do generally come from disadvantaged cities and neighbourhoods. They also tend to come from economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Europe’s metropolitan and medium-sized cities. Radicalisation to violent extremism may take place in front of a computer, but it is nearly always facilitated by recruiters and peer groups. Prevention should be tailored to affected localities.
The gangster-jihadi nexus is a new problem requiring new approaches. The terrorist networks encourage gang mentalities and extreme group loyalty. Jihadi groups use gang-like methods to control the neighbourhoods in which they are based and to recruit. More needs to be done to control jihadi gangs in prison and the networks linking radicalised members inside and outside prisons.
Policymakers and law enforcement should target the hubs. Interventions based on a community policing model that focus on particular locations may be effective. ‘Al Capone’ policing tactics—using any charges that may apply—can be employed to take out gang leaders. They can also target recruiters and jihadi evangelists. Extortion, trafficking in guns and drugs, identity fraud and other forms of fraud are used to finance jihadi activities. Statutes used to prosecute organised crime and racketeering can be used in terrorism cases to neutralise leaders who direct and inspire others to engage in criminality but do not commit the crimes themselves.
There is room here for social policy and countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives. Parents want to know they can turn to law enforcement or social workers for help when a son or a daughter may be about to ‘do something’. Local communities and families need assistance to fight recruiters.
Recognising that Islamist extremism is not a general public health hazard but a specific, marginal gang-like problem is a first step. Scaling back and ensuring CVE is targeted towards at-risk areas will help set more realistic expectations for what CVE can do.
A second step is to accept CVE is no panacea. Most violent extremists are ideologically motivated predators aroused by the status and control they acquire via a terrorist group. White supremacists and jihadis run on different action scripts, however. Prevention needs to match those scripts.
Download all the essays in this collection as a PDF or read them online:
Why 2019 Will Be the Year of the Online Extremist, and What to Do About It
Talking to Terrorists: The Key to Solving Prison Radicalisation
How to Disrupt the Link Between Crime and Extremism
The Challenge of Failed Cities for Countering Violent Extremism
Integration, Identity and Extremism: Why We Need to Renew the Conversation