Islamization Of Crime: How ISIS Recruits Seasoned Criminals

Even as ISIS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, its jihadists are bringing the war to Europe’s capitals in minutely planned terror attacks. It is a scenario driven by a new kind of criminal profile.

The arrest in Brussels of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam
The arrest in Brussels of Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam
Amateur video screenshot
Florian Flade and Alfred Hackensberger

BERLIN â€" A dangerous game of hide and seek between ISIS and European intelligence and security agencies has begun, and the latter have so far been foiled. More than 160 dead and over 700 wounded in ISIS terror attacks in Europe since Nov. 13. The jihadists have quite successfully brought scenes of war to the democratic cities of the Old Continent.

The terror attacks were not only planned long in advance but had also been announced to the world. European intelligence services hadn't been very concerned when ISIS started its lethal campaign in Syria and Iraq more than two years ago. Its agenda was confined to "regional … conquest of more territory," to "gain more area in which to exert their influence." Al-Qaeda, so intelligence officials surmised, was still a much more dangerous and better organized adversary than ISIS.

But this turned out to be wishful thinking. ISIS has in fact recruited thousands of fighters from the West and trained them in their camps, taught them how to assemble bombs, handle assault rifles and how to apply commando tactics. They successfully established sleeper cells across Europe with attendant logistics and helpers on stand-by. They have created a terrorist infrastructure that now enables them to attack, and ruthlessly so. And the timing isn't arbitrary either.

"The so-called Islamic State's position in Syria and Iraq has been weakened," Holger Münch, president of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), said this week. "This puts the terrorist group under pressure and necessitates spectacular terrorist attacks to gain attention and demonstrate power."

ISIS has indeed lost up to 40% of its territory in Iraq and nearly 20% in Syria. More than 10,000 of its troops have been killed, according to U.S. officials. All of this has delivered a moral blow within the terror group, ISIS deserters say.

A year ago, it wanted to conquer the world, and now its finds itself on the defensive. Palmyra was retaken by government forces on Saturday, and Raqqa will be next. But while it may be losing ground in the Middle East, it is still very much capable of executing terror attacks in the West, probably more so now than ever before. The U.S. magazine Foreign Policy wrote a few days ago that "a wounded ISIS is a dangerous ISIS."

Criminals come trained

The professional style of ISIS with regard to its attack planning, logistics and number of supporters within Europe has taken investigators by surprise. Up until now, they presumed that the jihadists were making use of individual terrorists, the "lone wolf" strategy. ISIS propaganda has always called for such amateur attacks to kill so-called infidels. The planning of such attacks "should not be too complicated," according to ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq. Otherwise, they may fail or be discovered prematurely.

But as has been demonstrated recently, the planning of terror has become sophisticated. The group has mostly recruited French and Belgian nationals, some of whom were issued fake Syrian passports and then smuggled into Europe disguised as refugees â€" something else the intelligence services didn't anticipate.

Suspects in the Brussels airport attack

But what truly worries European intelligence services isn't the advanced competency in planning but also the emergence of a new terrorist profile. Analyzing the Belgian-French terrorist cells demonstrates that many of the jihadists are already criminals, young men who came into conflict with the law starting at an early age.

Examples include the brothers Khalid und Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who launched suicide attacks in Brussels, at the airport and on the subway, respectively. Both had been in court several times and even received long prison sentences. Khalid had robbed a currency exchange office and attacked responding police with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, while his brother was better known for stealing cars.

"We are dealing with a new generation of jihadists," says a German security agency civil servant who doesn't want to be named. "These people were more or less successful criminals, and they are now successful terrorists." He describes this evolution as a fast growing "Islaminization of crime."

It gives ISIS the advantage of new recruits having contacts to the criminal underworld, of which they themselves are a part. The perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks were easily able to obtain fake passports and could rely on supporters to provide them with safe places to hide.

It was second nature to these new recruits to know how to evade the police and legal authorities. Their form of communication was clandestine, using dozens of SIM cards and several mobile phones, each of which just for a single day. What may seem like extravagant terrorist training is daily routine for these criminals, who are drug dealers or petty criminals. In a nutshell, the Paris and Brussels killers didn't have to alter their behavioral patterns too much to plan and execute these attacks.

"This connection to the criminal underworld did not exist with Osama bin Laden,” says Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohammedou of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Al-Qaeda's motivations were based on pure fundamentalist convictions whereas ISIS terrorists are not as steeped in ideological or religious motivations. But they are, nonetheless, just as determined.

And that's precisely what worries security services most. "It demonstrates how dangerous a people we are dealing with," notes one official at Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. "Even mere supporters are now willing to become perpetrators and blow themselves up."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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