BRUSSELS — The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have brought into sharper focus the rise of a new breed of jihadists, one that blurs the line between organized crime and Islamist extremism, using skills honed in lawbreaking in the service of violent radicalism.
The Islamic State is constructing an army of loyalists from Europe that includes an increasing number of street toughs and ex-cons as the nature of radicalization evolves in the era of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Rather than leave behind lives of crime, some adherents are using their illicit talents to finance recruiting rings and travel costs for foreign fighters even as their backgrounds give them potentially easier access to cash and weapons, posing a new kind of challenge to European authorities.
Before he became the notorious ringleader of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for instance, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, was linked to a den of radicalized thieves led by a man nicknamed “Santa Claus.”
The gang — including young men who would go on to fight in Syria and Iraq — robbed tourists and shoplifted, forming a petty-crime operation in the service of the Islamic State, authorities say.
The picture now emerging of the Islamic State’s machinations in Europe is distinct from the development of al-Qaeda, which relied heavily in its early years on ostensibly pious recruits and wealthy foreign sponsors. In contrast, some Islamic State loyalists are using their illicit talents to finance recruiting rings and travel to strongholds, posing a new kind of challenge to authorities.
Map: What a year of Islamic State terror looks like
Abaaoud, the son of Moroccan immigrants to Belgium, was a repeat offender who was thrown out of his home at age 16. He became radicalized and left in 2013 to fight in Syria. But even during his brief return to Belgium later that year, he was still committing thefts. He used the proceeds to help finance another trip to Syria in January 2014, this time with his 13-year-old brother, Younes, according to a senior intelligence official who debriefed an Abaaoud family member. Like other officials interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing terrorism investigation.