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Individuals with known criminal histories are a surprisingly common feature of the current Syrian battlefield. While their motives may be a combination of redemption and opportunism, returnees in this mode pose a complicated threat picture for security services to process if they return.
By Raffaello Pantucci and Laura Dawson
Since the conflict began in 2011, Syria has become a magnet for European foreign fighters. Determining exact numbers is an imprecise science, but the most recent alarming figure to emerge in the UK is the anonymous government claim that some 250 British fighters are now back on UK shores having experienced the battlefield.
Although there is no single profile of those who decide to leave their homes to join the fighting in Syria, an interesting feature is the seemingly high proportion of individuals with criminal pasts who are appearing on the battlefield. This is an aspect of particular concern to security services since it gives them access to criminal networks for whom weapons are easier to obtain, helping them climb over a crucial hurdle when putting together a terrorist plot.
Hardened Criminals and Low Level Jihadists
There are three broad criminal profiles seen among those travelling to Syria: those with a history of petty crime; those who have been incarcerated for extremist Islamist behaviour; and career criminals.
Petty criminals are amongst the most common feature of the battlefield in Syria. 23-year-old Ali Almanasfi was born into a Syrian family in West London and had a troubled childhood involving gangs, theft, drug and alcohol abuse. His father – a bus driver originally from Syria – had sent Almanasfi back to Syria in an attempt to change his behaviour.
In 2009, however, Almanasfi was arrested and sentenced to prison after he attacked an older man while drunk. He was initially sent to Feltham Young Offenders institution, a prison that has had the leader of the 21/7 London bomb plot cell, Muktar Said Ibrahim and Shoe Bomber Richard Reid pass through its gates. It is believed that it was in prison that he grew religious, and in January 2013, he left for Syria.
Falsely believed to have died in May after Syrian security services showed images of a mangled body and his (previously lost) passport, Almanasfi was last heard from in June when he confirmed he had fought with the Ahrar Shaam brigade of fighters under the Islamic Front umbrella organisation.
Others draw on their criminal pasts to fund their travel to Syria. Last September, five Frenchmen – including one who claimed to have recently returned from Syria – stole €2500 from a fast-food restaurant in Paris to fund their travel to Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a 22-year-old Londoner was alleged to have funded his travels to Syria by mugging people in London’s affluent Belgravia with a taser-style gun. His fellow mugger, 21-year-old Mohamed ElyasseTaleouine, is currently serving a ten-year sentence in part for possession of a converted 9mm machine gun and 24 rounds of live ammunition. Ellekhlifi was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison but escaped to Syria when on bail. He went on to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and was eventually killed in an August 2013 battle against pro-Assad forces.
In addition to petty criminals, Europeans with Islamist-related arrests have also appeared in Syria. The 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj (who trained in Syria alongside Choukri Ellekhlifi) from Notting Hill was the second Briton confirmed dead in Syria in mid-August last year. A mechanical engineering student, el-Araj served 18 months of a two-year sentence in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009. Others arrested alongside him at the protest later died in Somalia alongside al Shabaab.
In some ways most alarming, however, is the presence of hardened criminals on the battlefield. Danish Abderrozak Benarabe was the leader of the recently disbanded, notorious Blågårdsgade gang, commonly known as ‘Big A’. In 2006 he was acquitted of hiring two hit men to kill five others and instead charged with aggravated assault and blackmail, serving four and a half years in prison. After his release, he traveled to Syria accompanied by a journalist to apply his skills in a war setting before returning again to Denmark. He is currently in custody on more recent charges of assault and robbery.
Some of these fighters will die in battle in Syria,or stay out in the region. Hundreds, however, are returning home where in some cases they are returning to criminal activity. Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession. A number of other, less public, cases have emerged in the UK of fighters in Syria with already strong connections to hardened criminals who have already flirted with radical ideas and had access to weaponry, though so far it is unclear whether these have translated into plots. In some cases, there is evidence thatthese connections providing useful logistical support for those trying to leave. The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.
The terror-crime nexus is not a new one. People with criminal pasts are often drawn to extremist ideologies as a way of atoning for past sins, though often they donot leave their pasts completely behind. But the high instance of people going to Syria with criminal pasts of every sort adds a further worrying dimension to the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Syria.
RUSI is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in its work on foreign fighters and Syria.