ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups have a new recruiting ground — European criminal gangs.
In a new research paper, Jytte Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, uses the term "gangster jihadism" to describe the nexus between the criminal underworld and radical Islamic groups.
This new alliance marks a major shift in the approach Islamic extremists use to lure new members. In the past, young European men were radicalized in mosques and via the internet.
"We have a growing gang problem in Europe and gangs have increasingly taken on a politicized nature," Klausen said in an interview. "We haven't previously seen this overlap between street gangs and politicized violence."
Klausen's article was 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 forward.
In her research, Klausen found that 22 percent of captured or dead jihadis in Brussels between 2012 and 2017 were known to have a criminal history before becoming radicalized.
The ringleader of the 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was part of a gang. Klausen also cites the example of Abderozzak Benarabe or "Big A," who traveled to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad. He started out as a convicted drug trafficker and the leader of one of Denmark's most notorious organized crime gangs.
Klausen said the gangs include Muslims and non-Muslims and typically operate in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Europe's medium-sized cities. Their 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 segway into jihadism," Klausen said.
In the past, she said jihadist groups would have spurned these recruits because their criminal activity violates the tenets of Islam. But the success of law enforcement in cracking down on the groups' traditional methods of recruitment has forced them to look for alternative jihadist breeding grounds.
Gang members have the advantage of already being inclined toward violence. Their criminal activities can also raise funds for the jihadi groups.
In her article, Klausen called for new measures to combat gangster jihadists. "More needs to be done to control jihadi gangs in prison and the networks linking radicalized members inside and outside prisons," she wrote.
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 wrote.