ISIS and Local Street Gangs is a series discussing traditional local street gangs and their adopting of the ISIS brand and message as has become an emerging threat in certain communities. During the series, examples of this activity and solutions for law enforcement officers will be showcased and highlighted. You can read Part 1: Is Your Local Street Gang Part of ISIS here.
Crime – Terror Nexus
There has always been an association between crime and terrorism, but most observers acknowledge the connection concerning these dual dangers among ISIS members is much more intimate. This is especially true in Europe as many in the ranks of ISIS have been drawn from local criminals and street gang members. When these individuals were heading to Syria to join ISIS, some European authorities believed this was taking many harden criminals away from local neighborhoods to become somebody else’s problem. But some did speculate that ISIS was readying its European followers to create a wave of attacks when they returned home. Other experts believed ISIS was more focused on building the land it declared its own in the heart of the Middle East. The Paris attack changed the calculus.
After the ISIS complex attack on Paris in November 2015, there became more urgency on learning about the large European contingent of ISIS followers. Because of the continent’s proximity to Syria, thousands of disaffected young men and woman from Europe traveled to the ISIS so-called “caliphate” territory over multiple years. The attacks by ISIS members on European communities as well as the proliferation of deadly ideology in neighborhoods steadily grew as a severe security challenge for the continent.
In December 2015, the Washington Post published a story titled “The Islamic State creates a new type of jihadist: Part terrorist, Part gangster.” This article provides important information about the makeup of ISIS membership in Europe as a dual criminal and terrorist threat. Different from Al-Qaeda’s recruitment of what it perceived as “pious” followers and a focus on receiving funding from wealthy sponsors, ISIS loyalists use their street “talents” to finance different types of terrorist-related activity. An example provided in this article includes a string of church and business robberies in Cologne Germany connected to individuals related to ISIS. The ongoing criminal network connections of ISIS terrorists in Europe provides these members more access to weapons and cash.
Different from Al-Qaeda’s recruitment of what it perceived as “pious” followers
and a focus on receiving funding from wealthy sponsors,
ISIS loyalists use their street “talents” to finance different types of terrorist-related activity.
One organization that has done extensive research on the ISIS terror – crime nexus is the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). One compelling ICSR report with important statistics is titled “Criminal Pasts, Terrorists Future: European Jihadists and the new Crime-Terror Nexus.” As highlighted in this report, within many European countries the majority of jihadist foreign fighters were former criminals. The ICSR compiled and researched a database of 79 recent European jihadist with a criminal past. What was found is that criminal and terrorist organizations were not merging but their social networks, environments or milieus were coming together. Criminal and Terrorists are recruiting from the same pool of people, which creates overlap.
In the ICSR study, 57% of individuals in the database served time in prison prior to their radicalization. Prison was found to matter as:
“(1) They are a place of vulnerability in which extremists can find plenty of ‘angry young men’ who are ripe for radicalization;
(2) They bring together criminals and terrorists, and therefore create opportunity for networking and ‘skills transfer’; and
(3) they often leave inmates with few opportunities to re-integrate into society.”
In reference to “skills transfer,” it was noted in the study that criminals have experience dealing with law enforcement including the ability to control nerves and handle pressure. Individuals with criminal pasts have easier access to weapons in Europe as well as understanding how to stay “under the radar screen.” The criminal familiarity with violence lowers the threshold for becoming involved in terrorist’s acts.
A prominent ISIS propaganda poster is the drawing of an ISIS fighter with his back turned to the viewer, dressed in all black and holding an AK-47 on his right shoulder. He is standing in a hallway facing a light ahead appearing above several steps along his path. The caption reads “Sometimes People with the Worst Pasts Create the Best Futures.” As the ISIS so-called “caliphate” is steadily shrinking and the “movement” again goes underground, the radicalization of former criminals, especially in prison, will be an important component in the continuation of a global “virtual caliphate” as an enduring threat.
The ICSR compiled and researched a database of 79 recent European jihadist with a criminal past.
What was found is that criminal and terrorist organizations were not merging but their social networks,
environments or milieus were coming together.
Criminal and Terrorists are recruiting from the same pool of people, which creates overlap.
U.S. Prison Radicalization and Gangs
As law enforcement professionals understand, prison gang radicalization and recruitment has a direct impact on the streets of the communities’ members are from. An example in the U.S. is the Vice Lords. This gang was officially born in St. Charles (Illinois) reformatory but as members were released, it similarly grew on the Westside of Chicago. There are more examples of this type gang development around the U.S.
In the U.S. federal prison system, there has been over 250 individuals convicted of homegrown violent jihadists’ plots with a significant percentage ISIS related. In the next 5 years, over 100 Federal terrorism inmates are scheduled to be released. It is extremely important that information is developed and disseminated to law enforcement on group affiliations of these individuals. Have these individuals covertly networked with other inmates creating ISIS prison gangs? These type groups will eventually impact jurisdictions if some former inmates return to join in the recruiting and radicalizing of locals to the ISIS ideology.
In 2017, an example of state prison radicalization occurred in Virginia. An individual spent seven years confined for abduction before his release and now faces federal charges for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He acquired a weapon after his release from state custody. Federal prosecutors stated while incarcerated, the suspect “expressed a desire to commit violence, swore a pledge of loyalty to the leader of ISIS and obtained a tattoo of the ISIS flag.” An important question is how was he recruited and did he belong to a gang or group inside and outside prison that may have others supporting ISIS? How many similar radicalization cases are occurring in other prisons in all 50 U.S. states?
- Terrorist radicalization in prison and connections to gangs remains a current and future severe security challenge for jurisdictions in the U.S. and worldwide.
- It is important for local officers to become aware and learn about the diversity of global gang trends that may eventually impact the jurisdiction they protect and serve.
What can I do to protect my jurisdiction?
- Be aware of these ISIS gang trends during every day duties in the community. Take note and report actions observed and information received through your chain of command to State Fusion centers and other similar local organizations.
- It is important that local police and state corrections officials are communicating about prison radicalization as related to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Information about ISIS Gangs that develop in prison, should be disseminated to jurisdiction in which the inmates lived before incarceration.
In this blog article series, we continue to explore and discuss several aspects of emerging ISIS gang activity, including as a possible future growing threat in US jurisdictions. Our investigation will look at the crime-terror nexus as a very important component of ISIS and its recruitment of members. We will also discuss ongoing deadly ISIS street gang activity and its roots in a nation close in proximity and cultural ties to the U.S. Most importantly, we will discuss ways this phenomenon may impact communities in the United States and key trends for law enforcement to consider in identifying and protecting jurisdiction from this emerging trend.
Coming Soon Part 3: ISIS and Local Street Gangs