December 2, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Criminals of Terror

• Of the six identified suspects in the November 13 Paris attacks, five had criminal records—the latest in a long trend of criminals advancing to terrorism

• Other recent high-profile terrorists such as Salim Benghalem, Cherif Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly, and Michael Adebolajo also had lengthy criminal records

• There is more emphasis on the anti-establishment and criminality of terrorism than ideology for a striking number of attackers—a trend reaching back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the 1990s

• Much as with any criminal gang, maladjusted and angry young men with criminal tendencies find a home in groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.


This week’s trial of several accused members of the Buttes-Chaumont terrorist network in France highlights what has been a long but under-examined trend in many terrorist profiles. While ideology and the core beliefs of groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda certainly play a significant role in the recruitment and motivation of members, the anti-social and criminal nature of the groups is just as important. Salim Benghalem, who is being tried in absentia for his role in the Buttes-Chaumount network, has a history of arrests related to gang violence. For Benghalem and many others, the Islamic State or al-Qaeda is their gang.

Five of the six identified perpetrators of last months’s attacks in Paris have prior criminal records, mostly for drugs and petty crime. This is in no way unusual for prominent terrorists. Their final attacks can be seen as the culminating point of radicalization, but they can also be seen as a drastic escalation of years’ worth of criminal and anti-social behavior. Before men like Ibrahim Abdeslam, Salah Abdeslam, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, and Samy Amimour were ‘known wolves of terror,' they were simply known criminals.

It has long been obvious that prisons are a breeding ground for violent radicalization, but what is left unstated is that people such as Amedy Coulibaly, one of the attackers in last January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, were criminals long before they became terrorists. Prison provides a closed feedback loop in which people with pre-existing anti-social behaviors and pathologies can be influenced and radicalized by a charismatic individual. One such individual is Djamel Beghal, who, while in prison on terrorism charges, helped further radicalize Charlie Hebdo attackers Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi when all where imprisoned together. Salim Benghalem, who was arrested in 2007 for gang violence, was also a charismatic prison influencer; he traveled to Syria in 2011 after his release, while his Buttes-Chaumont network become involved in numerous plots and attacks.

Of course, some terrorists’ criminal pasts are primarily related to violent extremism. Cherif Kouchi was able to fall under the influence of Djamel Beghal because he was imprisoned for attempting to travel to Iraq and fight for al-Qaeda. Michael Adebolajo, who murdered Lee Rigby on a busy southeast London street in May 2013, had been arrested several times for violent protests and extremist-related travel to Kenya.

Patterns of criminal history—such as in the case of the Paris attackers who lived in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, Belgium—do provide law enforcement with some opportunity to detect and hopefully disrupt nascent cells before they go operational. Network and link analysis of criminals and known charismatic extremists can help at least identify some known criminals early in their escalation to terror. The vast majority of criminals do not move on to terrorism, but focusing on the nexus between criminal and terror influencers will help authorities better grasp the odds.

The truly troubling cases are the complete unknowns of terror—individuals who not only have no previously-known extremist ties, but no criminal history. None of the four suicide bombers in the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks in London that killed 52 people and wounded 700—Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Hasib Mir Hussain, and Germaine Maurice Lindsay—had any previous contact with law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Seifeddine Rezgui, the gunman who killed 38 vacationers in Sousse, Tunisia in June 2015, had no criminal history, no known association with extremist groups, and had not even left Tunisia once. Such individuals are less common in terrorism cases, however, than those with some criminal past.

Even if specific individual terrorists do not have criminal histories, their groups or cells likely do. The criminal networks used in smuggling drugs, people, and weapons align nicely with terror networks. The extremist cells responsible for the March 2003 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people funded themselves with extensive narcotic trafficking and forgeries. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has long used kidnapping as a revenue stream, as have other terrorist groups. More recently, human trafficking, especially in Libya, has provided terrorist organizations with criminal income.


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