European fighters in ISIS were radical before they were religious

In August, Paul Cruickshank at West Point’s Combatting Terrorism center spoke to Alain Grignard, a senior member of the counterterror unit in the Brussels Federal Police: Are we seeing the emergence of a new breed of jihadi in the West?

Grignard: There’s no doubt there has been a shift. The travel flow we are seeing to Syria is to a significant degree an extension of the “inner-city” gang phenomenon. Young Muslim men with a history of social and criminal delinquency are joining up with the Islamic State as part of a sort of “super-gang.”

Previously we were mostly dealing with “radical Islamists”—individuals radicalized toward violence by an extremist interpretation of Islam—but now we’re increasingly dealing with what are best described as “Islamized radicals.” The young Muslims from “inner-city” areas of Belgium, France, and other European countries joining up with the Islamic State were radical before they were religious. Their revolt from society manifested itself through petty crime and delinquency. Many are essentially part of street gangs. What the Islamic State brought in its wake was a new strain of Islam which legitimized their radical approach. These youngsters are getting quickly and completely sucked in. The next thing they know they’re in Syria and in a real video game. The environment they find themselves in over there is attractive to them. Just like in gangs in Europe, respect is equated with fear. They feel like somebody when they’re over in Syria. If someone crosses you there, you put a bullet in his head. The Islamic State has legitimized their violent street credo. The gang dimension, and the group loyalty that it creates, make the social media messages by Belgian fighters in Syria to their circle back home encouraging attacks especially concerning.

CTC: Are you seeing any links between organized crime and Islamist terror cells?

Grignard: So far the links we’ve uncovered are almost all to unorganized crime rather than organized crime. The link between petty crime and Islamic terror is not of course a new phenomenon. For some time we’ve seen so-called takfiris operating in Europe who justified criminality through their radical interpretation of Islam. Additionally, we saw some young Belgians with a history of delinquency joining up with al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas of Pakistan in the late 2000s. But it has now become a much bigger phenomenon. Islamic State propaganda distributed over social media has had a big accelerating effect.

As we saw with the Brussels Jewish museum shooting and the Paris kosher market attack it’s all too easy for young men with a history of criminality to get access to weapons. And petty criminality has been the main source of funding for terrorist plots since 9/11 in Europe, whether it’s stolen cars, stolen credit cards, or fraudulently applying for bank loans.

Prison radicalization is a big factor in all of this. The message of radical recruiters inside jail to Muslim inmates goes something like this: “You had no choice but to carry out criminal actions because you were part of a discriminated against community. You were only defending yourself. And if you now put yourself in service of the cause by supplying false papers and weapons, not only are these actions legitimate but they will win you redemption and reward in paradise.” It’s a message that is unfortunately resonating. [Continue reading…]

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