Why Many Terrorists Are Criminals Before They Turn To Extremism

A radicalization expert explains what countries can do to stem the violence.
This still image taken from a video shows armed Belgian police apprehending a suspect in Molenbeek, Belgium, on March 18.
This still image taken from a video shows armed Belgian police apprehending a suspect in Molenbeek, Belgium, on March 18.
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. This week, we speak with author Mubin Shaikh on the rise of jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war.

At least two of the bombers involved in this week's attacks on Brussels, which killed at least 32 people, had extensive criminal backgrounds: Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and his brother Khalid held multiple convictions between them, including for armed robbery, shooting at police officers and attempted car-jacking.

Similarly, some of the people involved in the November terrorist attacks on Paris had previously been convicted of or questioned about a range of crimes.

In fact, analysts have found that jihadi terror networks are often populated with criminals and ex-criminals, complicating the conception that their crimes are inspired by ideology alone. This especially has proven to be the case in France and Belgium.

The WorldPost spoke with radicalization expert Mubin Shaikh, an ex-counterterrorism operative for the Canadian security services and former extremist, to discuss the relationship between extremism and criminal networks.

This CCTV image from the Brussels Airport surveillance cameras, which the Belgian police made available, shows three people who officials believe may be suspects in this week's attack on the airport.
This CCTV image from the Brussels Airport surveillance cameras, which the Belgian police made available, shows three people who officials believe may be suspects in this week's attack on the airport.

What role do criminal networks play in radicalization?

We can say that the criminality aspect of this is what makes these individuals more susceptible to use violence, because they’re used to using violence.

The overarching thing with criminal networks is, number one: It accustoms you to violence. It makes it easier for you to commit that violence, because you’re used to seeing it, you’re around it. Number two, it allows you to build up a operational capability -- you now have a skillset you can apply to terrorism. Number three, it gives you access to a wider network of people who exhibit those previous two attributes.

You will see this in the overwhelming majority of individuals who join ISIS. They are criminals first, and their religion becomes a costume for them.

In terms of areas where radicalization can occur and people can be recruited: Can prison act as an environment for radicalization?

There’s two sides to that issue of radicalization in prisons. One is, if you look at what’s happened in the term "radicalization" -- a lot of people immediately associate that with religion, Muslim radicalization. But radicalization is just a generic term -- it refers to a very human process of people becoming increasingly extreme in their political views, or their ideological frame.

So you could say, yes, prisons are a university of radicalization. I mean that in a general sense -- if somebody goes into a prison, is he going to come out more hardened or is he going to come out softer?

Right, and that could be of any ideology, whether it’s white supremacy or Islamist terrorism.

Exactly, so in that context, prisons are a factory for radicalization. The jihadis themselves say prison is the university of jihad. They say that because you can have intimate networks with people, you can spend time to indoctrinate yourself and you’re not busy with being in the outside world. In that sense, yes, it is.

On the other side, when you’re locking up a disproportionately high number of Muslims, that is their common identity. You can be a drug dealer, a robber or whatever, but at the end of the day you have that common identity around which you can unite.

That feeds into a kind of perception of in-group among radicals?

Yeah, absolutely, it’s a group dynamic aspect of it. At times ideology is a driver of violent extremism, and at other times ideology becomes the passenger while other psychosocial factors become the driver. Those include in-group dynamics, out-group dynamics and marginalization based on discrimination. The prison experience is just another aspect of that.

Another thing that has been noted is that there’s a high proportion among terror attacks of people with close family ties. What role do peers and family members play in radicalization?

Marc Sageman did a lot of study on this, and his argument was that it’s not ideology that drives these people but kinship. It’s not what you know but who you know. So that’s one side of it. A lot of research does indicate that a lot of these people do get involved because of family ties, peers and kinship.

The other thing is operational security. A brother is not going to inform on another brother; a sister on a brother; or a mother on a son. Cohesion -- that you trust your brother, you love your brother -- is very useful for those purposes.

What can security service do to better counter radicalization and violent extremism? Particularly speaking about North American and European security services.

I see it in two ways. One is that you need to have strong human intelligence. Human intelligence is key, and when doing so, framing it in a way that gives those human intelligence services a sense of meaning. A sense that you’re actually doing something good, and you’re defending your faith from people who are failing your religion. This was the narrative they got me on, in that sense.

Another is NGO-based intervention. An intelligence guy can’t talk to an at-risk youth, because he is the enemy as far as they’re concerned. But NGOs that have training in mental health and educational or economic support can intervene when they see a troubled youth and give them an alternative.

Is there any country attempting something like that and showing signs of success?

Yeah, there are a number of countries that have been doing this for some time now. In Denmark, they’ve been doing that. The Nordic countries also have a very particular approach that is very heavy on this. When their intelligence services pick up some guys, what they’ll tell them is, "You should go talk to such-and-such imam, or this community organization." This shows that they’re not just about locking people up and throwing away the key -- they actually want to help.

In North America, it’s really just Canada -- where a lot of community interventions are being done quietly. The U.S. is still not on point yet on that. It’s starting, and there are some cases where there are imams who are talking to people, but it’s still not developed to the level it needs to be.

Any final thoughts in general on this you’d like to add?

I would say that right now what people are starting to agree on is the need for the use of former extremists, reformed extremists who have been there and done that. The equivalent of this is found in Germany, where they have the exit program for white supremacists, and a lot of them use ex-white supremacists.

The principles are exactly the same -- correcting the ideology, correcting the worldview and offering psychosocial support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


For additional coverage in French, visit Le Huffington Post and their live blog; For coverage in German, visit HuffPost Germany; For coverage in Spanish, visitHuffPost Spain; For coverage in Arabic, visit HuffPost Arabi.

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