Islamist criminal and terrorist networks overlap for a simple reason: both involve the same sort of individuals doing the same sort of things. European governments know this, because they operate in the common ground between crime and Jihad. Declarations by European officials to the effect that Jihadi terrorists are really violent criminals in search of a pretext are a particularly revolting sort of hypocrisy. Possibly the most disgusting thing I have read in a publication that purports to be mainstream is Andrew Higgins’ Copenhagen dispatch in the New York Times.
[Copenhagen terrorist Omar Abdel Hamid] Hussein’s journey from drug-addled street thug to self-proclaimed jihadist declaring loyalty to theIslamic State has stirred soul-searching in liberal-minded Denmark over whether Islam, in fact, was really a prime motivator for his violence, or merely served as a justifying cover for violent criminality.“This is a very difficult question to answer,” said Manu Sareen, the minister for integration and social affairs, who shortly before the attacks began a program to combat radicalization through outreach to parents, schools and other efforts.….
Often the attackers invoke Islam. But just as often, well before they had found religion, the professed jihadists built up long track records as violent criminals. Though many have become radicalized in prisons, they often seem determined to find an outlet for their violence.
Amedy Coulibaly, one of a trio of gunmen responsible for the killing rampage that terrorized Paris in January, similarly fit the bill, chalking up at least six arrests before his embrace of anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism led him to storm a kosher supermarket and kill four people.
“This is classic trajectory into jihadist terrorism in Europe,” said Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadist movements at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “There is not a single pathway, but this one is very worrying. They are misfits who find a solution to their problems in radical Islam.”
In embracing violence in the name of Islam, Mr. Hussein, a former member of a Copenhagen criminal gang called the Brothas, “substituted one subculture for another,” Mr. Hegghammer said, adding, “The easier it is for someone to plug into this radical Islamic subculture, the more radicalized misfits you are going to have. At the moment, it is very easy.”
Insulting and absurd as such statements are at face value, they represent a far more insidious form of hypocrisy. As every European government knows, petty criminals become enmeshed in Jihadist networks because they are the eyes and ears of European counter-terror agencies. Turning petty criminals into political informants is the oldest police procedure in the world. Writing in Asia Times Jan. 12, a European security official explained:
The practice of intelligence agencies through most of history has relied on the vulnerability of criminals in order to monitor threats to the state. Intelligence services rely on informants for information. It is more common in the cinema than in real life for security services to sucessfully infiltrate undercover operatives into terrorist organizations.
The security services tolerate a certain level of criminal operations in return for information on graver threats. That is not only the case in state security matters; consider the relationship of the FBI, for example, to the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger over many years.
Without revealing any sensitive information about sources and methods, it is possible to shed light on the events of the past week by reference to the John Le Carre novel A Most Wanted Man, released last year in a cinematic version.
The German counterterrorism authorities use a young Chechnyan refugee whose relationship to terrorism is ambiguous in order to entrap much larger prey. The debate between the Europeans and the CIA (portrayed cartoonishly by the anti-American Mr Le Carre) centers on whether to entrap a prominent Muslim religious figure with relationships to terrorist organizations and turn him to state service, or whether to neutralize him immediately.
A delicate balance between handlers and informants has kept Europe relatively safe for the past decade. The likes of the brothers Kouachi, the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are typical of this delicate balance. They began as petty criminals and graduated to jihadist training in Yemen, all well known to the French authorities.
I do not know the specifics of the Kouachi case, but it is highly probable that Said and Cherif Kouachi were subject to regular monitoring by informants of the French government. The security services do not have powers of preemptive arrest. Unlike the security services of most Arab countries, they cannot indefinitely detain individuals who constitute a risk of future terrorist activity in advance of such activity.
Under the circumstances, the security services rely on networks of informants drawn in many cases from the criminal milieu. This has enabled French intelligence to preempt a number of terrorist attacks in the past. The disintegration of Syria and parts of Iraq during the past two years has overwhelmed the means by which intelligence services have coped with such threats in the past.
There’s more: Islamist terror and criminal networks overlap, for obvious reasons long known to every police official in Europe. Human trafficking and smuggling require the same infrastructure and personnel whether the contraband is refugees, prostitutes or terrorists, or drugs or explosives. Proceeds from criminal activity finance terrorism. As I wrote in Asia Times back in 2006 (“Jihadis and Whores”):
Islamist radicals (like the penny-a-marriage mullahs of Iran) are the world’s most prolific pimps. The same networks that move female flesh across borders also provide illegal passage for jihadis, and the proceeds of human trafficking often support Islamist terrorists. From Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur to Sarajevo to Tirana, the criminals who trade in women overlap with jihadist networks. Prostitutes serve the terror network in a number of capacities, including suicide bombing. The going rate for a Muslim woman who can pass for a European to carry a suicide bomb currently is more than US$100,000. The Persian prostitute is the camp follower of the jihadi, joined to him in a pact of national suicide.
The Europeans know all of this. It’s the stock in trade of their security services. In some cases, European police agencies may have “politicized” petty criminals by injecting them into Jihadist networks as informants. I will leave such matters to the novelists. But it is unlikely that intelligence blowback explains any of the recent terrorist operations, for the simple reason that Muslim criminals typically do not require the ministrations of the police to become politicized. The criminals and the terrorists share the same milieu, the same methods, the same personnel, and usually the same goals.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with blackmailing criminals to act as police informants. It is quicker and more effective than training undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist networks. But the radicalization of the Middle East in the wake of state failures in a half-dozen countries has overwhelmed European security agencies. Once-cooperative police informants are electing to sacrifice themselves in Jihad. The first response of European governments is to lie, cover up, and deny that they knew anything about such things. If pressed, they will fall back on the secrecy of sources and methods. Investigative journalists: There’s a gold mine here.