Interview: Europe’s crime-terror nexus

Evidence suggests that criminal and jihadist milieus are more and more intertwined, challenging established beliefs about the incompatibility of criminal behavior and religious Islamic fundamentalism.

The so-called crime-terror nexus, describing the formal and informal relationships between terrorists and criminals, is a growing concern in South Asia – especially in the Philippines. There, Abu Sayyaf has a long history of combining crime, militancy and terrorism. Increasingly, however, links between terrorism and crime have become evident in Europe, especially with the phenomenon of “criminals- turned-jihadis”.

Rajan Basra, research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), focuses on the crime-terror nexus in his current work and agreed to be interviewed for this article.

Q: Is the emergence of this nexus a new phenomenon? Is it linked to a specific type of terrorism?

Basra: This isn’t a new phenomenon. Some of the earliest terrorist movements, such as the Russian anarchists, engaged in criminal behavior to fund their campaigns. And longstanding terrorist groups from across the ideological spectrum – such as the IRA, Hezbollah, and FARC – have blurred the distinction between crime and terrorism. There are also examples of groups ‘transforming’ from one type of organization to another.

Q: So it has been observed for quite some time now. What are the reasons for ‘alliances’ between terrorists and criminals?

Basra: Examples of formal ‘alliances’ are actually rare – many groups have interactions with criminals, though it is rare for this to develop into a long-standing collaboration. It’s more common on an individual level, though again, this is much more likely to be a discrete transaction rather than an ‘alliance’. Over the last five years in Europe we’ve seen examples of terrorists buying weapons from criminals, and in those instances, it’s not entirely clear if the weapons traffickers even knew they were dealing with terrorists – they were simply looking to make money, and the terrorists appeared as ‘regular’ customers.

On a systemic level, the crime-terror nexus may be a product of convenience in Europe. Terrorists seek to acquire the weaponry for their attacks and may therefore interact with criminals. On an individual level, however, the link may be more substantial. There hasn’t been enough research yet to generalise about individual paths of radicalization with a criminal past. However, Basra notes that “criminals have sometimes been targeted by recruiters, as seen with the efforts of Shiraz Tariq in Denmark – for their criminal skills as well as because they are often in vulnerable situations and are more likely to be receptive to new, even extreme, ideas”. Anis Amri, for example, who perpetrated the Christmas market attack in Germany in 2016, had multiple criminal convictions and a history of drug abuse before becoming a jihadi. Some 66% of foreign fighters traveling from Germany to Syria had police records, and of those leaving from the UK, 47% were known to authorities prior to their departure.

The Islamic State’s theme of ‘redemption’ may play a role in appealing to (former) criminals. Finally doing the ‘right’ thing and being offered redemption from previous wrongs can be a motivational factor for joining the group. There may also appear to be less of a contradiction between criminality and the actions of Islamic State militants, is especially true, given that the organisation has encouraged followers to commit harmful criminal acts against non-believers.

This transformation from a criminal to a jihadi can be facilitated by the prison system.

Basra: Prisons are a natural confluence point where criminals and terrorists can meet and network. Europe has seen several examples of prison radicalization, whereby a common criminal enters prison and leaves as a committed jihadist.

Prisons are also places of vulnerability. Isolated from the outside world and potentially angry or disillusioned, inmates could more easily fall prey to recruiters behind bars. As Neumann and Basra write: “The central point is not just that they are criminals, but that their criminality is relevant to their extremism, as it can affect how they radicalize into violence and how they operate once they are radicalized”. Depending on how governments address the issue of imprisoning convicted terrorists, the risk of prison radicalisation could rise as returnee militants from Syria and Iraq are put on trial and possibly incarcerated with other inmates.

Q: In your opinion, how significant a threat is the crime-terror nexus and what, if anything, should we do about it?

Basra: At the moment it’s difficult to gauge the scale of the issue, but with so many recent attackers having been former (or active) criminals, it is clear that it can be a severe problem. First and foremost we need to rethink what it means to be radicalized, because many jihadist attacks in Europe have been carried out by individuals who engaged in behavior that contradicts the stereotypes of a religious fundamentalist. The autopsy of Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016 and killed 12 people, showed that he regularly consumed cocaine. Police also surveilled him dealing drugs. So we firstly need to understand that engagement in crime and engagement in jihadism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Rajan Basra studies the relationship between crime and terrorism, focusing on individuals that transition between these two activities. He is completing a PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, examining the crime-terror nexus in Europe, and holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London and an undergraduate degree in Politics from the University of Warwick.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Linda Schlegel

Linda Schlegel holds a BA in Liberal Arts (cum laude) from the University College Maastricht and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society (distinction) from King's College London. Her special interests include counter-terrorism, radicalization, societal resilience and social deviance.