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ICSR Report: Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus


This ICSR report is a groundbreaking study on European jihadists and the increasing convergence between criminal and jihadist milieus. It challenges long-held assumptions about radicalization, recruitment, and how to counter terrorism. 

The full report is available here.

  • The presence of former criminals in terrorist groups is neither new nor unprecedented. But with Islamic State and the ongoing mobilisation of European jihadists, the phenomenon has become more pronounced, more visible, and more relevant to the ways in which jihadist groups operate. In many European countries, the majority of jihadist foreign fighters are former criminals.
  • The purpose of this new report is to describe the nature and dynamics of the crime-terror nexus, and understand what it means. To do so, a multi-lingual team of ICSR researchers compiled a database containing the profiles of 79 recent European jihadists with criminal pasts.
  • What we have found is not the merging of criminals and terrorists as organisations but of their social networks, environments, or milieus. Criminal and terrorist groups have come to recruit from the same pool of people, creating (often unintended) synergies and overlaps that have consequences for how individuals radicalise and operate. This is what we call the new crime-terror nexus.

Radicalisation and Recruitment

  • The profiles and pathways in our database suggest that the jihadist narrative – as articulated by the Islamic State – is surprisingly well-aligned with the personal needs and desires of criminals, and that it can be used to condone as well as curtail the continued involvement in crime.
  • For up to ten of the individuals in our database, we found evidence for what we termed the ‘redemption narrative’: jihadism offered redemption for crime while satisfying the personal needs and desires that led them to become involved in it, making the ‘jump’ from criminality to terrorism smaller than is commonly perceived.


  • Fifty-seven per cent of the individuals in our database (45 out of 79 profiles) had been incarcerated prior to their radicalisation, with sentences ranging from one month to over ten years, for various offences from petty to violent crime. More significantly, at least 27 per cent of those who spent time in prison (12 out of 45 profiles) radicalised there, although the process often continued and intensified after their release.
  • Our database highlights different ways in which prisons matter: (1) they are places of vulnerability in which extremists can find plenty of ‘angry young men’ who are ‘ripe’ for radicalisation; (2) they bring together criminals and terrorists, and therefore create opportunities for networking and ‘skills transfers’; and (3) they often leave inmates with few opportunities to re-integrate into society.

‘Skills Transfers’

  • There are many ‘skills’ that terrorists with criminal pasts may have developed. In particular: (1) individuals with a criminal past tend to have easier access to weapons; (2) they are adept at staying ‘under the radar’ and planning discreet logistics; and (3) their familiarity with violence lowers their (psychological) threshold for becoming involved in terrorist acts.


  • Jihadists not only condone the use of ‘ordinary’ criminality to raise funds, they have argued that doing so is the ideologically correct way of waging ‘jihad’ in the ‘lands of war’. Combined with large numbers of former criminals in their ranks, this will make financing attacks through crime not only possible and legitimate but, increasingly, their first choice.
  • Already, up to 40 per cent of terrorist plots in Europe are at least part-financed through ‘petty crime’, especially drug-dealing, theft, robberies, the sale of counterfeit goods, loan fraud, and burglaries. Based on our database, jihadists tend to continue doing what they are familiar with, which means that terrorist financing by criminal means will become more important as the number of former criminals is increasing.


  • Re-thinking radicalisation: The emergence of the new crime-terror nexus and its associated dynamics should compel researchers, analysts, and policymakers to re-think long-held ideas about how terror, crime, and radicalisation have to be understood. Being pious is no guarantee that criminal behaviour has stopped, while acting like a ‘gangster’ does not preclude involvement in terrorism.
  • Targeting ALL streams of financing: Countering terrorist finance needs to be broadened beyond the banking system to counter all sources of funding, including small-scale and ‘petty crime’, such as drug dealing, theft, robberies, and the trade in counterfeit goods. Not only will doing so help to counter terrorist funding, but also reduce ‘ordinary’ crimes and enable law enforcement agencies to operate a so-called ‘Al Capone approach’.
  • Data sharing: Just like the lines between crime and terrorism have become blurred, relevant agencies need to break down institutional silos and become more effective at sharing relevant information across departments and ‘disciplines’. Counter-terrorism, customs, intelligence services, criminal police, and even outside actors need to share information, conduct joint training, and participate in early warning systems.
  • New partnerships: More important than before are relationships with civil society and local authorities who know more about communities, local dynamics and relationships, than law enforcement and the intelligence agencies. Another potentially valuable tool are public-private partnerships, because businesses are affected by many of the crimes described in this report, and – in addition to wanting to be seen as good ‘citizens’ – they typically have a commercial interest in countering smuggling, fraud, or the trade in counterfeit goods.