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.
A repeat offender
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.
Abaaoud’s terrorist network in Paris, officials say, was distinct from the Brussels petty-crime ring, which did not carry out attacks in Europe but instead recruited fighters and funded their transit to the Middle East. But several of the Paris attackers also had criminal pasts. Two of them — Brahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up on Nov. 13, and his brother, Salah Abdeslam, who is still on the run — operated a cafe in Brussels that was shut down as recently as August due to drug-related activity.
A French official familiar with the Paris investigation also said forensic testing has uncovered traces of Captagon, a blend of amphetamine and theophylline, in the remains of several of the dead assailants despite the prohibition on intoxicants in Islam.
“This connection with the criminal world was not something that you could see with [Osama] bin Laden,” said Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, deputy director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. “You had a certain fundamentalism within the terror.”
Prof. Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Deputy Director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy
“This connection with the criminal world was not something that you could see with [Osama] bin Laden. You had a certain fundamentalism within the terror."
A low breeding ground
European jails have been breeding grounds of Islamist radicals for years, particularly in Belgium and France. But recently, criminality and extremism have become even more interwoven, with recruits’ illegal behavior continuing even after they are shown “the light” of radical Islam.
“Many of them live lives as hoodlums, had an epiphany, and turned religious, but these connections to criminality are not meant to disappear,” said Peter Neumann, a radicalization expert at King’s College London. “I see this as an operational aspect of the Islamic State.”
In one example of the new trend, a court in Cologne, Germany, has been hearing the case of eight men suspected of having robbed churches, schools and businesses between August 2011 and November 2014 to support Islamist fighters in Syria. In one church alone, they allegedly stole sacred objects worth 10,000 euros. It is not yet clear what group they were backing, but “all evidence points to the Islamic State,” said court spokesman Achim Hengstenberg.
Few cases, though, better highlight the apparent links between criminality and radicalization than the Brussels ring allegedly headed by Khalid Zerkani, a 42-year-old rotund and bearded Moroccan with alleged ties to the Islamic State.
Known to his followers as “Papa Noel” — or Santa Claus — Zerkani, authorities say, doled out cash and presents to the wayward youths he recruited as thieves and prospective fighters. They would target train stations and tourists, stealing luggage, even shoplifting for their cause. The profits, officials say, went to help cover the costs of sending recruits from Europe to the battlefields of the Middle East.
Stealing is prohibited in Islam. But Islamic State followers have rationalized such activities by saying that they are targeting non-believers, or that such crimes are done for tactical purposes.
Officials say Zerkani’s alleged network offers a glimpse into the recruiting and financing tactics used by European-born Islamic State fighters. Zerkani, they say, has been tied to at least 30 to 40 people who left Belgium for Syria and Iraq.
One of his recruits, 21-year-old Youssef Bouamar, told authorities that Zerkani had encouraged him to steal luggage at train stations to finance “the Islamist cause.”
Zerkani appeared to target those who already had petty criminal records, wooing recruits at cafes and on the streets near unofficial mosques in Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood with many North African immigrants. Mohamed Karim Haddad, whose brother was recruited to fight in Syria, told officials that Zerkani was “a charlatan who manipulates young men or socially awkward men, for the wrong cause and probably for his own business.”
Belgian authorities arrested Zerkani in February 2014 and charged him with being a leader of a terrorist operation. He was convicted this year and sentenced to 12 years. He pleaded not guilty and is appealing the verdict. His lawyer, Steve Lambert, declined to comment.
Abaaoud was very familiar with “Papa Noel’s” world. His family lived in Molenbeek at a time when Zerkani and his followers had become fixtures there. Abaaoud was linked to at least three of the network’s members, according to intelligence documents, court records, police reports and more than a dozen interviews. He was convicted in absentia this year in the same trial as Zerkani, though authorities stopped short of saying that the men worked together. But a text authorities found on one of Zerkani’s cellphones appears to reference Abaaoud by his nom de guerre in Syria, Abu Omar Soussi.
One of Abaaoud’s younger brothers — Yassine Abaaoud — told authorities that his mother had once begged him to avoid Zerkani and his entourage.
“She was scared of them because of all the problems,” Yassine said, according to court records. “She called them ‘the bearded guys.’ ”
A different angle to jihad
The newer jihadist groups mark a shift, experts say, from older organizations like al-Qaeda that were far more strict in interpreting theology and used recruiting videos that were often rambling 45-minute sermons from bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy Saudi industrialist family. The Islamic State uses showy Internet propaganda to advertise the allure of a paradise where disenfranchised youths can feel a rush of adrenaline and enjoy the spoils of war.
“These are lower quality terrorists,” said another senior European security official.
That hardly means they are less dangerous. Criminal links may be allowing the newer groups’ members to more easily source weapons and cash in Europe, experts say.
And the men’s ties to petty criminality could have led authorities to underestimate how much of a threat they posed.
One of Zerkani’s disciples, a recruit named Yoni Mayne who had had run-ins with the law, left for Syria in early 2013, according to his 68-year-old mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal. After a few weeks, he briefly came home.
His mother said that she asked authorities to stop her son from returning to the Middle East, and that they assured her they were following him.
“But then he left again and they did nothing,” she said.
Authorities blame the limited legal tools they had available at the time. But critics say some authorities in Belgium actually saw such departures as a plus — a way to export the problem of young Muslim men who had engaged in crime. Authorities now say when Mayne returned to Syria in January 2014, he did so in the company of Abaaoud and his 13-year-old brother. Mayne, court records show, is believed to have died fighting for the Islamic State in March 2014.
There are other links between the ringleader of the Paris attacks and Zerkani’s inner circle. A police search in February 2014, court records show, turned up Abaaoud’s expired Moroccan passport in the Brussels apartment of one of Zerkani’s followers.
Officials and Muslim leaders say Islamic State recruiters are appealing to young Muslims with criminal pasts because they make some of the best targets. They are often angry and alienated, like Farid, a slim, pale man in his 20s who was a friend of Abaaoud’s and professed himself “happy” when he heard about the Paris attacks.
The son of Moroccan immigrants, Farid, who would not give his last name to avoid being identified by police, said he had been in and out of jail since his teenage years. During a conversation in a smoky cafe in the Molenbeek district, he had the outline of what he called a handgun in his pocket and produced a thick wad of euros from what he described as illicit activity.
He described the life of young Muslims in the district as hopeless, with many feeling stateless and confronting unemployment rates well above the national average. Most of his friends, he said, had done jail time.
He and other young men he knows, he said, want to go to Syria to join the Islamic State. The group appeals to them because it is establishing a place where Muslims like him can finally feel at home, he said.
“We are revolting against this state and this society that never accepted us as Belgian. We are revolting against our parents and also their countries of origin,” he said. “I don’t feel Belgian. I don’t feel Moroccan. I think of myself as a Muslim, and that’s how Abdelhamid saw himself.”
Michael Birnbaum, Loveday Morris and Annabell Van den Berghe in Brussels, Virgile Demoustier in Paris and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.