Australian civil-military think tank Info Ops HQ recently published its inaugural report from its open-source investigation into Australian Foreign Fighters and Domestic Actors. What it found was local evidence supporting the global trend of criminal and antisocial behaviour being observed as one of the many precursors to radicalisation.
Criminal First, Jihadi Second
2013 – Woolwich, London. British Army Fusilier Lee Rigby was attacked and killed while off duty near his barracks. Attackers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were both known to British security services. Adebolajo had previously been arrested on false documentation in Kenya suspected of intending to train with Al-Shabaab.
2014 – Parliament Hill, Ottawa. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot dead Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was on ceremonial sentry duty, before seeking out political targets in nearby parliamentary buildings. Zehaf-Bibeau was well known to authorities, with an extensive criminal record including fraud, narcotics offences and robbery (later downgraded to making threats).
2015 – Endeavour Hills, Melbourne. Abdul Numan Haider stabbed two police officers at a meeting near a suburban police station. Haider was known to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation who held concerns about his extreme beliefs. Haider had also come to local police attention for arguing about martyrdom and jihad in a shopping centre and carrying an Islamic State flag.
2016 – Orlando, Florida. Omar Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub. Mateen had previously been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in relation to connections to terrorism.
From Melbourne agitprop poster boy Neil Prakash’s former life as a gang member to Sydney man Khaled Sharrouf’s conviction in the Operation Pendennis terror cell investigation of 2005 – in Australia alone, over 21 percent of the 186 individuals identified during the Info Ops HQ investigation as having links to Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are known to have criminal histories.
With recorded convictions amongst those investigated ranging from terrorism, fraud, assault, narcotics offences, murder and breaches of weapon prohibition orders, it is clear a trend in pre-radicalisation antisocial behaviour and sentiments exists.
Similar criminality toward jihadism trajectories have been observed in Europe. Two thirds of German foreign fighters were known to police, while one third had criminal convictions. In Norway and the Netherlands, at least 60 percent of foreign fighters are known to have been involved in crime. In Belgium, authorities report that half of all foreign fighters have criminal records (International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence [ICSR], 2016).
Compounding factors on the path to radicalisation in Australia have included mental illness, narcotic addiction, socio-economic challenges and peer-to-peer and/or family network clusters centring around often controversial, firebrand clerics.
Adding yet another layer to this nexus is the selection of plot or attack targets. Bias-based target selection is not a new phenomenon or one that is unique to Daesh, but it is distinct. In Australia, evidence of plot and attack targets being selected based on their connection to police and the armed forces has already been seen. Combined with the bias-based targeting that is occurring overseas, it is clear that far greater attention must be paid to the criminal and antisocial behaviours of local at-risk individuals and those found to be on the path to radicalisation.
Understanding the Crime-Terror Nexus in the Age of Information Democratisation
At first glance, criminality and Islamic extremism appear to be fundamentally incompatible. Indeed, Islam – along will all other religious traditions – actively promotes a law-abiding way of life. Daesh, of course, has taken a divergent theological approach. In establishing jihad as a redemptive path for those who seek to atone for their criminal sins, it has broadened its recruitment pool to include criminals and the nefarious networks it is part of. In doing so, the convergence of criminality and jihad has evolved into transformative alliances.
In its 2016 report Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures, ICSR explains: “What we have observed in the case of jihadist recruits in Europe is not the convergence of criminals and terrorists as organisations, but of their social networks, environments, or milieus. In other words: rather than being one or the other, 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.”
This phenomenon is not at all new. Rewind to 2004 and Tamara Makarenko, then research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, wrote a paper entitled The Crime-Terror Continuum: Tracing the Interplay between Transnational Organised Crime and Terrorism. Surmising that the distinction between politically and criminally motivated violence is often blurred, Makarenko’s identification of Al-Qaeda as an emergent example of this type of organisational alliance – at perhaps the beginning of the age of information democratisation – was keenly astute.
At a time when the Internet began to speed up and online social networking was in its formative years, previously closed borders began to open and a globalised movement of people and money evolved, with both criminal and terrorist organisations independently seeking opportunities to exploit the burgeoning information age. Fast forward to 2014 when Daesh was terrorising the world via social media and this information era appears almost cyclically complete, until the next evolution is taken into consideration – the assimilation of encrypted communications, which heralded in a ‘mark II’ of the age of information.
From closed to open information ecosystems and now back to closed (encrypted) but still democratised information conduits, the way in which Daesh recruits has followed a similar trajectory. Previously closed cells became more accessible for a period of time, particularly online, before once again hiding in plain sight using commercial off-the-shelf encrypted technology.
Redemption: Jihad as Purification
“Sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures.” – Rayat al-Tawheed propaganda poster, Facebook.
Central to the redemptive narrative used by Daesh recruiters to absolve the sins of crime to potential recruits is Ghanimah, an Arabic word meaning spoils of war. In the case of Ghanimah, Daesh has proclaimed that stealing from infidels is entirely permitted by Allah. In fact, it is broadly encouraged and seen as preferable to seeking a regular salary that would involve paying taxes to the kuffir (infidels). Further, Daesh presents Ghanimah to those with ‘the worst pasts’ as fulfilling a duty rather than as a sin. Infused alongside a broader narrative which sanctions methods of deception and force as permissible as long as these spoils of war are derived from kuffir, Daesh creates a temporal ecosystem where criminals can absolve themselves of the sins of their past by waging a Daesh-sanctioned jihad (ICSR, 2016).
This is a rather convenient outcome for all involved. The newly religious criminal need not change his behaviour and Daesh reaps the benefits of another recruit with ill-gotten skills and networks that can be assimilated into its broader organisation.
Fighting Lies with Truth
In establishing itself as an effective content marketer early in its efforts to terrorise the world, Daesh will return to the information battlespace as its dominance in the physical area of operation crumbles and the continuance of its conflict relies on radical networks located in countries of the near and far enemy.
Only this time, instead of allowing an information vacuum to form and dominate the social media battlespace, which has since evolved to adopt encrypted and dark web infrastructure, Australia need to approach this challenge at its source rather than at its conclusion. With only two percent of the 186 Australians identified as part of Info Ops HQ’s investigation being categorised as self-radicalising, social media is neither the problem nor the solution. It is, however, the conduit. Social media continues to promulgate a wider perception of ‘oppression’ throughout clustered peer-to-peer and family centric networks, creating demagogues that exploit international and domestic grievances.
However, this is not, nor should it be, a tweet for tat battle. Australia must focus its efforts at the very core of its communities and develop in youth a robust understanding of what it is to be a good Australian, a moderate Muslim, Christian (not forgetting the far right in this equation) or follower of any moderate religion (atheist or agnostic) and building resilience against extremism at every level.
Preventing violent extremism begins at home, at school, in the street, on the bus, in line at the supermarket. Developing a broad urban resilience, mutual respect and tolerance for one another that values diversity and fosters social cohesion is critical to ensuring at-risk youth and offenders within the prison ecosystem are provided with clear alternate choices, rather than one-sided, band aid solutions. Only by facing the challenges of extremist ideology at the causal level can the outcomes of the future be positively changed.