An Enduring Threat: Europe’s Islamist Terror Networks Then and Now

By Emma Webb and Rupert Sutton

The Henry Jackson Society’s new study demonstrates clear continuity between old al-Qaeda networks and current Islamic State cells, with overlapping personnel and similar backgrounds. It raises questions about whether such similarities could have helped identify the development of the new networks behind the Brussels and Paris attacks.

The Henry Jackson Society’s new report, An Enduring Threat: Europe’s Islamist Terror Networks Then and Now, launched today in Parliament, is the first major comparison between al-Qaeda’s European terrorist networks in the early 2000s and the modern-day IS networks which struck Paris and Brussels between November 2015 and March 2016.

The findings have particular relevance given recent Islamic State-linked arrests in France, which have highlighted the continuing importance of both prior connections to extremist networks and contact with overseas based/trained European terrorist operatives.

Comprehensively profiling those behind the two networks, the report compares the backgrounds of those involved and identifies a number of similarities between the two networks, highlighting the implications for challenging such networks in future.

Direct connections that demonstrated unmistakable continuity between the networks were a particularly striking finding. Several al-Qaeda-linked European terrorists were later convicted of involvement in a recruitment network which involved the coordinator of the Paris attacks and a suicide bomber who struck Brussels airport, Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Najim Laachraoui respectively.

Meanwhile, a network connected to the convicted al-Qaeda recruiter, Djamel Beghal, included Salim Benghalem, who would go onto become an IS theatre commander for Europe and allegedly play a role in the Paris attacks.

One similarity identified was that many members of both networks had received training or combat experience from jihadist groups overseas. Despite data showing that individuals with such experience have been disproportionately involved in successful Islamist attacks, the development of new recruitment networks was not challenged swiftly enough in both France and Belgium.

Finally, the report also shows a history of petty crime and drug use among network members, both prior to radicalisation and to fund terrorist activity, to be a common factor across both networks. This provides yet more evidence of the vulnerability of petty criminals to recruitment by terrorist groups, and highlights the importance of improving efforts to challenge radicalisation in prisons and developing more effective policy to prevent offenders being drawn into terrorism.

To read the full report, click here.


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