Over the years, terrorist organisations – including Islamic State – have concentrated their efforts on recruiting members from criminal groups in Europe.
Propaganda has claimed, for example, that by joining Islamic State, prospective members will receive redemption for their sins. The terror group also encourages fundraising through criminal activities, and promotes this as a divinely sanctioned method of raising money for jihad when operating in the Dar al-Harb (Lands of War).
Lorenzo Vidino found that over half (57%) of perpetrators in terrorist attacks in Europe and North America between June 2014 and June 2017 had been involved in criminal activity unrelated to terrorism prior to carrying out their attacks.
In recent years, the convergence of criminal and terrorist networks has become more pronounced. It is common practice for terrorists to engage in a myriad of organised criminal activities such as prostitution, the sale of human organs, weapons, antiquities, the taxation of drugs and people smuggling routes, kidnap for ransom, and money laundering to raise funds for terror-related activities.
The relationship between drug traffickers and jihadists in North Africa is an important example of the intertwined nature of crime and terror. Since 2014, Islamic State in Libya has profited from taxing the passage of illicit drugs through newly established drug routes stretching from Morocco to Libya, and then onward to Europe. Drug traffickers have used the weak state structure in Libya to collaborate with Islamic State and enable illicit drugs to pass through Islamic State-controlled areas in Libya, where the group is able to exact a tax in return for passage.
Since 2015, Islamic State has partnered with members of Italian organised crime groups to smuggle cannabis resin, also known as North African hash, from Morocco through Algeria, then Tunisia, to the east of Libya, and then into Europe. Islamic State has a strong power base along the drug route in the city of Sirte, where it controls ports enabling drug transfers through Libya to the Mediterranean Sea. This symbiotic partnership between Islamic State and Italian organised crime groups has enabled Islamic State to benefit from the illegal drug trade, which yields profits of $36 billion.
Kidnap for Ransom
Though the majority of financing for Islamic State is derived from extortion and oil within its territories, these income streams were supplemented by a kidnap business that targeted foreign journalists and aid workers, earning the terror group between $20-45 million in 2014 alone.
In West Africa, too, kidnap for ransom provided Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb with a sizeable portion of its funding. From 2003 to 2012, the group reportedly accrued between $1-4 million per western hostage, buttressing terror activities in the region.
Due to the close-knit and secretive nature of terrorist financing, it is difficult to ascertain how money obtained from kidnap for ransom is utilized. However, small portions of these profits may be transferred through various financial conduit systems including bitcoin and hawala systems.
Several sites on the Darknet provide access to fraudulent travel documents for customers. Alphabay was among the largest of these, with over 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors prior to its take down by the FBI and global law enforcement partners in July 2017. While still active, the site was reported to have hosted over 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent documents, as well as other counterfeit goods.
A preliminary search on Dream Market on the 16th of January 2018, for example, yielded 373 pages of results for fraudulent UK passports, some of which came with bills, bank statements, and driving licenses as proof of identity. A 2016 study conducted by the University of East London reported that the sale of forged documents including passports, driving licenses, and utility bills aids in the movement of terrorists to the UK.
Some evidence indicates that terrorists have used falsified travel documents to travel within Europe. Following the 2016 Berlin Christmas Market Terror attack that killed 12 people and injured 56, German authorities reported that the perpetrator, identified as Anis Amri, was a rejected Tunisian asylum refugee seeker with links Islamic State. When his request for asylum was rejected, the suspect used different identity documents under various aliases to travel through Europe, eventually committing a terror attack in Berlin. It was also reported that the perpetrators responsible for the Bataclan and Stade de France terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 had traveled to Syria earlier that year, where they plotted multiple attacks in Paris, and travelled back to Europe on fake passports to carry out the deadly plot.
While it is unclear how the perpetrators of the Berlin Christmas Market attack and the Bataclan and Stade de France attacks obtained their fake travel documents (on the Darknet or through other means), it is important to note that the availability of falsified travel documents on the Darknet has, and may continue to, facilitate the illegal migration of people involved in various illicit activities, including terrorism.