"Today's terrorists are gang members, not tea-drinking students"

22 November 2017

The face of European terrorism is changing. Well-educated theology students are no longer the typical jihadi extremists. Criminal gangs are instead the main source for recruitment in the "Generation ISIS" jihadi environment.

Acclaimed terrorism researcher Peter Neumann described the modern landscape of terrorism during an open lecture at Swedish Defence University on Monday. Neumann argues that law enforcement agencies and academics need to adapt to the new jihadist scene.

Interview with Peter Neumann

Fifteen years ago, Al-Qaeda were seen as the main terror threat, today it's ISIS. What's the difference between the new and old terrorists?

– 15 years ago, most terrorists were well-educated and from middle- or upper class backgrounds in their home countries, like the terrorists from 9/11. These terrorists were mathematicians, physicists or theology students who met daily for 5-6 hours to drink tea and discuss theology. Modern jihadists are different and mainly come from criminal milieus. Today only 12 % of them are university educated and two thirds are previously known by police. The recruiters target young people without opportunities in society. The modern ISIS hold a much more forgiving stance to recruiting criminals than Al-Qaeda did, today even branding themselves as "gangster jihad".

ISIS encourage crimes against western society and argue that robberies, welfare fraud and other forms of economic fraud is part of the larger jihad. ISIS's "ganima doctrine" argue that someone can be a gangster and violate Islamic rules such as stealing, as long as they do it for a greater purpose. They see crime against westerners as a form of worship.

Having a criminal background also gives the new terrorists several advantages compared to the old, more intellectual terrorists. Criminals get easier access to weapons, are more used to staying under the radar and are already familiar with violence.

Has this been a disruptive move or a gradual adaptation from old terrorism?

– It didn't change over-night. We have seen increased recruitment of criminals over a number of years, so the trend is not coming from nowhere. But the trend has become much stronger under ISIS.

Screenshot from ISIS promotion video

Screenshot from ISIS recruitment video

You say modern terrorists are criminals, not theologies. Does this mean the death of terror ideology?

– No, this is not the death of ideology. Ideology is still important and people recruited from criminal milieus do believe in the jihadi ideology. Ideology becomes an outer layer to their crimes, giving their criminal deeds a higher purpose. The criminals believe that if they become involved in terrorism they will come to heaven. Ideology is still in the background, but ideology is now being communicated in a much more boiled down and simplistic way. It's no longer required to understand complicated theology, recruitment messages nowadays are almost like slogans instead.

The lowered intellectual barrier of radicalization is problematic for law enforcement because it makes it easier to radicalize people who historically wouldn't be radicalized. However, the lowered ideological importance also presents an opportunity for the police. The old terrorists were hardcore theologues and almost impossible to convert back, but today when ideology is more superficial it could be easier to "turn around" and de-radicalize individuals.

Which are the primary channels for modern terrorist recruitment? Social media? Prisons?

– It's a combination. Most terrorists are still recruited face-to-face. They are part of tightly knit groups of friends who've known each other for a long time. Perhaps they went to school together or played in the same football team. When it comes to tracking down terror suspects, the most reliant way is still to map out social networks.

If you look at a map of where people came from who joined the jihad in Europe, you will see clusters in some areas of countries like Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany. They went to Syria because they knew someone who went to Syria.

The internet plays a role — in branding the jihad. ISIS's heavy online presence is what made them the most important jihadi group today. They used social media to spread an image of adventure, power and dominance. However, the number of people recruited exclusively by the internet is very small.

What role does prisons play in radicalization?

– People get time to reflect and reassess their life in prison. They often become more receptive for a new start in life. This is why many evangelical churchs missionaries visit prisons. But this receptiveness also make the prisoners easy prey for jihadi recruiters. Prisoners become cut off from their old friendships, so they need to form new friendships and social relationships to survive. The new friendships often survive their time in prison, and radicalized inmates could remain involved in jihadi networks even after they leave prison.

An example of this is the nearly simultaneous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket in Paris 2015. Three attackers were committing terror attacks on behalf of two competing terror organizations, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which led to serious confusion in the intelligence community. Had these terror organizations started to cooperate?

No. The investigation found that the attackers had met each other in prison and became close friends, which was why they performed the attacks as a collaborative enterprise, even though they were members in competing terror groups.

Recommendations for law enforcement officers on understanding the new threat?

  1. Re-think radicalization
    – The new terrorists are criminals, not tea-drinking students. It used to be normal for police to assume that someone who was drinking and selling drugs could not be an extremist, because that is un-Islamic behavior. This is no longer true. The Christmas Market attacker in Berlin 2016 sold drugs, used drugs and was a committed jihadist. Jihadism and these behaviors are no longer mutually exclusive.
  2. Re-think prisons
    – There will be an increase of terror related criminals in our prisons in coming years. We have to organize our prisons in a way which prevents inmates from becoming radicalized. It's important that we don't enable creation of terror organizations in prisons.
  3. Re-think financial streams
    – Conventional anti-terror financing work often fail because it's focusing on analyzing bank data to find illegal transfers. Today, most terrorism money comes from criminal activities –drugs, robberies, counterfeit sales, consumer loan fraud and welfare fraud. This money never enters our formal economic system and isn't detected from studying financial data.
  4. Re-think information sharing in the law enforcement sector
    – We need to increase intelligence sharing between traditional police and counter-terrorism departments. Many terrorists were previously active in criminal gangs. We also need EU countries to start sharing their terror suspect databases with each other.

What would you say about Sweden's situation?

– Sweden is not very different from most EU countries. Around 300 people from Sweden have travelled to Syria. In countries of similar size, like Austria, it is 250 people. Sweden battle on the same topics that most other countries do, like returning terrorists, lonewolfs getting instructions from ISIS in Syria and the legal issue of how to convict terrorists returning from Syria. It's a severe situation in Sweden, but it's not fundamentally different from other EU countries.