Wanted: European Gangsters to Join ISIS

Terrorism expert finds that jihadi groups increasingly recruit from criminal gangs, not mosques.

AFTERMATH: Parisians gather to honor the victims of the November 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital.
Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia Commons
AFTERMATH: Parisians gather to honor the victims of the November 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital.

Once spurned by ISIS recruiters, European gang members are becoming a favored recruitment target, creating a nexus that Jytte Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, labels “gangster jihadism” in a just-published article.

This new alliance with the criminal underworld marks a major shift in how Islamic extremists lure new members. In the past, young European men were radicalized in mosques and via the internet. Yet Klausen found that 22 percent of jihadis who were captured or killed in Brussels between 2012-17 were known to have had a criminal history before becoming radicalized.

“We have a growing gang problem in Europe, and gangs have increasingly taken on a politicized nature,” Klausen says. “We haven’t previously seen this overlap between street gangs and politicized violence.”

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, for example, the ringleader of the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, had belonged to a gang, and had committed robbery and assault. Abderozzak Benarabe, known as “Big A,” who traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad, was a convicted drug trafficker and the leader of one of Denmark’s most notorious organized-crime gangs.

The gangs from which Isis now recruits include Muslims and non-Muslims, and typically operate in poor neighborhoods in medium-sized European cities. Members commit crimes ranging from petty theft and drug offenses to murder.

“You’re talking about street-side thugs who start out joining the gangs and then segue into jihadism,” Klausen says.

In the past, jihadi groups have rejected such recruits because their criminal activity violates Islam’s tenets. But law enforcement’s success in cracking down on the groups’ traditional recruiting methods has forced them to look for alternative jihadi breeding grounds. Gang members have the advantage of already being inclined toward violence. Their criminal activities can also raise funds for jihadi groups.

In her article, Klausen calls for new measures to combat gangster jihadi. “More needs to be done to control jihadi gangs in prison and the networks linking radicalized members inside and outside prisons,” she writes.

She urges law enforcement to intervene by using a community policing model in particular locations and believes foreign fighters should be prosecuted for crimes committed outside Europe. “Investigating and highlighting such atrocious crimes may help turn young people against the narrative of terrorist groups as defenders of Islam,” she explains.

Klausen’s article is included in the book “2019: Challenges in Counter-Extremism,” published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, wrote the book’s foreword.