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ISIS and the Crime-Terror Nexus in America: A Counterpoint to Europe

This study explores the nexus between crime and terrorism in America within the context of the Islamic State (ISIS). In the aftermath of the wave of ISIS attacks in Europe over the last five years, it was revealed that the perpetrators often had prior criminal records and frequently served time in prison where they acquired relevant skills or developed relationships of utility for the future attack. Criminal activity was an integral part of the funding and logistics of devastating attacks such as the November 2015 Paris attack and the March 2016 attack in Brussels, and criminal gangs helped with recruitment, and in some cases, provided operational support for the attack.

Do America’s ISIS defendants have a prior criminal record, and is there diagnostic relevancy for counterterrorism practitioners in the nature of the criminal history? What types of crimes were most prevalent? Was criminal activity integral to the funding or logistics of any ISIS-inspired plots or activity in the U.S.? What role do gangs and prisons play on the radicalization process and mobilization to violence of America’s ISIS defendants? This study tackles these questions. It does so by systematically examining every individual arrested on federal terrorism charges related to ISIS in the United States, as well as those killed perpetrating ISIS attacks, from the first case prosecuted by the US Department of Justice in March 2014 to June 1, 2020. In sum, 210 defendants or perpetrators are included in this dataset.

Law enforcement frequently assess the propensity for violence and threat posed by an individual exhibiting various signs of extremism. While prior arrests do not directly predict a subject’s risk, criminal history can be a valuable diagnostic tool and source of information that sheds light on past violent behavior and other indicators of concern. Criminal history can demonstrate an individual’s inclination for violence and may inform assessments of an individual’s likelihood of mobilization to violence, especially when observed in combination with other suspicious behaviors or signs of radicalization. While the crime-terror nexus in America is less pronounced than in Europe, a number of subtle but potentially important trends are evident.

Read the Center on National Security report

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