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ISIS Recruits Criminals To Carry Out Attacks In Europe, Report Finds


Our review of who becomes a terrorist might be outdated. That's according to Peter Neumann, head of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.

PETER NEUMANN: For a very long time, there used to be this assumption that people who became involved in al-Qaida, for example, 15 years ago, like the 9/11 attackers, they were middle-class students, engineers, doctors, that they were quite educated.

CORNISH: And now Neumann says the current generation of recruits is less educated and not middle-class.

NEUMANN: In fact they do often come from really marginalized areas of the large cities and that those are often also parts of Europe where you can find a lot of criminals, and indeed a lot of them do have criminal pasts. They've been convicted and many times six, seven, eight times.

CORNISH: Peter Neumann is the co-author of a new report that studied 79 jihadists and their paths to radicalization. It finds that more and more, the Islamic State, or ISIS, is drawing its recruits from former criminals. It's what Neumann calls the crime-terror nexus. I asked him to describe what he meant by that.

NEUMANN: The implication of it is really that on the one hand, that ISIS is offering these young recruits a lot of things that previously gangs used to offer them - a very strong identity, a sense of power, adventure and being superior to everyone else.

And in many cases, in fact ISIS recruits are often joining ISIS as a form of redemption almost. We found these stories about, you know - like, with all the things I've done, I want to do something good. And as crazy as that may sound to us, that's how they often feel.

CORNISH: You said that there are things about radical terrorism that are appealing to a criminal, but what about the other way around? What about this particular pool of people is appealing to, say, an ISIS recruiter?

NEUMANN: Yes, they - the criminals are very attractive to ISIS recruiters because these criminals often do have the ability to, for example, obtain weapons, which isn't so easy in Europe. They do have the ability to obtain forged documents. They know how to finance, for example, a terrorist attack through selling drugs, trading in counterfeit, illicit trade, all these things that allow people to stay under the radar.

And exactly that has happened. Of course in all the recent attacks in Paris, in Brussels, in Charlie Hebdo, all the people involved in these attacks or the majority of them were actually former criminals. And they used their skills that they had learned as criminals and now repurposed them for terrorist attacks.

CORNISH: But is there a religious conversion involved?

NEUMANN: At some point they do convince themselves that this is the true religion. But it's very important to understand that really the initial appeal is something that is not theological. It is about strength and power, about masculinity. It's about being superior to everyone else and finding an outlet for their desire to acquire redemption.

Of course at some point then there comes a theological justification. But it's fair to say that many of them are not terribly interested in theology. And that's also why I think this is so attractive to former criminals because ISIS in many ways is the complete perfect fit for this kind of person.

In contrast to al-Qaida, ISIS no longer tries to engage in serious theological discourse. It doesn't try to impress people with its theological credentials. It really offers a sort of shortcut to redemption, and therefore it appeals to people whose desire to acquire that education is very limited.

CORNISH: You've said more and more that anti-terror work has got to look like traditional police work. So what do you mean by that? How do people address this issue?

NEUMANN: Yes, in many cases, we find that police used to know these people, that they used to know them not as terrorists, but they used to know them as gang members. And so if criminal police and counterterrorism were collaborating more closely perhaps and looking beyond their silos, then perhaps you could make some interesting discoveries and connections.

Also countering terrorism finance traditionally has been all about the international banking system, trying to discover transactions. But really what we're seeing in a lot of cases is that terrorist attacks are increasingly being financed through petty crime, stuff that doesn't turn up in bank accounts or on international transactions.

And so countering petty crime can actually also be a method of countering terrorism finance. So we really have to rethink a lot of the assumptions of countering terror in domestic frameworks.

CORNISH: Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.