Posted on December 22, 2015

The Islamic State Creates a New Type of Jihadist: Part Terrorist, Part Gangster

Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet, Washington Post, December 20, 2015

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have brought into sharper focus the rise of a new breed of jihadists, one that blurs the line between organized crime and Islamist extremism, using skills honed in lawbreaking in the service of violent radicalism.

The Islamic State is constructing an army of loyalists from Europe that includes an increasing number of street toughs and ex-cons as the nature of radicalization evolves in the era of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Rather than leave behind lives of crime, some adherents are using their illicit talents to finance recruiting rings and travel costs for foreign fighters even as their backgrounds give them potentially easier access to cash and weapons, posing a new kind of challenge to European authorities.

Before he became the notorious ringleader of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for instance, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, was linked to a den of radicalized thieves led by a man nicknamed “Santa Claus.”

The gang–including young men who would go on to fight in Syria and Iraq–robbed tourists and shoplifted, forming a petty-crime operation in the service of the Islamic State, authorities say.

The picture now emerging of the Islamic State’s machinations in Europe is distinct from the development of al-Qaeda, which relied heavily in its early years on ostensibly pious recruits and wealthy foreign sponsors. In contrast, some Islamic State loyalists are using their illicit talents to finance recruiting rings and travel to strongholds, posing a new kind of challenge to authorities.


European jails have been breeding grounds of Islamist radicals for years, particularly in Belgium and France. But recently, criminality and extremism have become even more interwoven, with recruits’ illegal behavior continuing even after they are shown “the light” of radical Islam.

“Many of them live lives as hoodlums, had an epiphany, and turned religious, but these connections to criminality are not meant to disappear,” said Peter Neumann, a radicalization expert at King’s College London. “I see this as an operational aspect of the Islamic State.”

In one example of the new trend, a court in Cologne, Germany, has been hearing the case of eight men suspected of having robbed churches, schools and businesses between August 2011 and November 2014 to support Islamist fighters in Syria. {snip}


The newer jihadist groups mark a shift, experts say, from older organizations like al-Qaeda that were far more strict in interpreting theology and used recruiting videos that were often rambling 45-minute sermons from bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi industrialist family. The Islamic State uses showy Internet propaganda to advertise the allure of a paradise where disenfranchised youths can feel a rush of adrenaline and enjoy the spoils of war.

“These are lower quality terrorists,” said another senior European security official.