European jihadists and the new crime-terror nexus

The ICSR database highlights different ways in which prisons matter: (1) they are places of vulnerability in which extremists can find plenty of “angry young men” who are “ripe” for radicalization; (2) they bring together criminals and terrorists, and therefore create opportunities for networking and “skills transfers”; and (3) they often leave inmates with few opportunities to re-integrate into society.

“Skills transfers”
There are many “skills” that terrorists with criminal pasts may have developed. In particular: (1) individuals with a criminal past tend to have easier access to weapons; (2) they are adept at staying “under the radar” and planning discreet logistics; and (3) their familiarity with violence lowers their (psychological) threshold for becoming involved in terrorist acts.

Jihadists not only condone the use of “ordinary” criminality to raise funds, they have argued that doing so is the ideologically correct way of waging “jihad” in the “lands of war.” Combined with large numbers of former criminals in their ranks, this will make financing attacks through crime not only possible and legitimate but, increasingly, their first choice.

Already, up to 40 percent of terrorist plots in Europe are at least part-financed through petty crime, especially drug-dealing, theft, robberies, the sale of counterfeit goods, loan fraud, and burglaries. Based on the ICSR database, jihadists tend to continue doing what they are familiar with, which means that terrorist financing by criminal means will become more important as the number of former criminals is increasing.


  • Re-thinking radicalization:The emergence of the new crime-terror nexus and its associated dynamics should compel researchers, analysts, and policymakers to re-think long-held ideas about how terror, crime, and radicalization have to be understood. Being pious is no guarantee that criminal behavior has stopped, while acting like a “gangster” does not preclude involvement in terrorism.
  • Targeting ALL streams of financing:Countering terrorist finance needs to be broadened beyond the banking system to counter all sources of funding, including small-scale and petty crime, such as drug dealing, theft, robberies, and the trade in counterfeit goods. Not only will doing so help to counter terrorist funding, but also reduce ‘ordinary’ crimes and enable law enforcement agencies to operate a so-called “Al Capone approach.”
  • Data sharing:Just like the lines between crime and terrorism have become blurred, relevant agencies need to break down institutional silos and become more effective at sharing relevant information across departments and “disciplines.” Counter-terrorism, customs, intelligence services, criminal police, and even outside actors need to share information, conduct joint training, and participate in early warning systems.
  • New partnerships:More important than before are relationships with civil society and local authorities who know more about communities, local dynamics and relationships, than law enforcement and the intelligence agencies. Another potentially valuable tool are public-private partnerships, because businesses are affected by many of the crimes described in this report, and — in addition to wanting to be seen as good “citizens” — they typically have a commercial interest in countering smuggling, fraud, or the trade in counterfeit goods.

— Read more in Rajan Basra et al., Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus (ICSR, October 2016)