“Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures,” reads the slogan, emblazoned on an image of a masked fighter wielding a Kalashnikov, walking into blinding light.
The poster was shared on Facebook by Rayat al-Tawheed, a London-based group of jihadist militants calling themselves the “Banner of God” in October of 2016.
For all of its professed piousness, new research shows that the majority of terrorist recruits have criminal histories – an unprecedented figure for an Islamic movements emphasizing purity and scholarly knowledge.
A report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) shows that criminal and terrorist networks across Europe are merging to create a dangerous brand of jihadi for whom violence is not just a holy pursuit, but a way of life.
Professor Peter Neumann, director of the ICSR at King’s College London, said the new “crime-terror nexus” was making radicalization harder to spot for European security services.
According to Neumann, of the jihadis examined for their study, two thirds had not just a criminal history but a violent history. In European countries where the figure is known, more than half of the individuals who fled Europe to fight for ISIS were previously known to the police.
“It gives criminals a moral justification for doing what they have always been doing – only now they will go to heaven,” Neumann added.
The terror group also aims to portray membership as a route to action, adventure, power and the sense of brotherhood desired by vulnerable recruits searching for purpose and belonging.
Alain Grignard, a senior member of Belgium’s counter-terror agency, said that joining a terrorist cell can be seen as an extension of inner-city crime for many European members.
“Young Muslim men with a history of social and criminal delinquency are pledging allegiance to the Islamic State as part of a ‘super-gang’,” he told the Combatting Terrorism Center.
“Previously we were mostly dealing with ‘radical Islamists’ – individuals radicalized toward violence by an extremist interpretation of Islam – but now we’re increasingly dealing with what are best described as ‘Islamicized radicals’.”
This method of recruitment is seeing radicalization speed up, with the process commonly happening in weeks or months for the vast majority of jihadists, compared to months or even years for groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
“In many cases in the past, someone might become a student activist and start supporting the jihadi ideology but then it would be a huge hurdle to convince that person to carry out a violent attack and kill somebody,” Neumann said.
“But with these criminals they are already used to violence, so for the jump from being an extremist to being a violent extremist is much smaller.”
As ISIS fighters in Syria suffer major loss of territory fewer radicals will travel to the caliphate to wage jihad. This presents Europe with a growing problem. As criminals who have been converted to the cause are released from prison, they will be ready and willing to inflict death right where they are, relying on their skills and criminal network already in place.