The study by the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based research institution, looked at the al-Qaida-linked terror networks in Europe in the early 2000s, around the time of the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the current networks linked to Islamic State that were responsible for the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. Time and again, the same names appeared.
'Training and grooming'
“The recidivism of those individuals who had originally been convicted of al-Qaida activism, almost training and grooming those individuals who would go on to be involved in the Paris and Brussels attacks,” said Rupert Sutton, co-author of the report.
Those individuals included Abdelhamid Abaaoud, chief coordinator of the Paris attacks in November 2015, and Najeem Laachraoui, one of the network's chief bomb makers, who detonated a suicide bomb at Brussels airport in March.
“They were connected to a number of individuals with previous convictions for al-Qaida activity, and to a cleric called Khalid Zerkani, who acted almost as a father figure to a number of these individuals. He was actually known as 'Papa Noel' [Father Christmas] because he used the proceeds of his petty crime to shower them with gifts and look after them at the same time as radicalizing them,” Sutton said.
Many of the elder members of former al-Qaida networks had traveled to fight in Afghanistan the previous decade, and passed on their knowledge to embryonic terror cells in Europe as the Syrian civil war became a rallying call for jihadist fighters.
“Providing them with expertise on bomb-making or network formation, but also providing them with advice on perhaps how to travel to a conflict zone to gain training, how to gain combat experience and how to use those conflict zones as areas in which you can formulate your own ideas and formulate your own attacks," Sutton said.
He added combat experience appears key, as the most serious Islamic State-linked terror plots in Europe have been planned by European citizens returning from the Syrian frontline, however, those individuals are often beneath intelligence radars.
“Often these individuals perhaps haven't come into contact with the authorities in the past. So whilst there are direct connections between the two networks, the individuals that are recruited by those veterans perhaps have only come into contact with the police through a record of petty crime," he said.
Sutton said former al-Qaida operatives also passed on expertise in how to evade detection on their return to Europe. “Perhaps one of the most worrying factors is that a number of these individuals were stopped by police on their returns, showed fake identities and gave fake names, and were able to continue on their journey.”
The report's authors say the links show the need to improve efforts to challenge radicalization in prisons and develop better ways of preventing offenders from being drawn into terrorism.