The ideological value of jihadi networks is often regarded as one of the key factors that attract new individuals. The pragmatic value of these networks on the other hand is often ignored or at least receives little attention. In a recent publication, we wonder whether vulnerable individuals, such as irregular immigrants, are attracted by one or the other.
Practical needs and a search for meaning
We have analyzed 12 voluminous police files that investigated the alleged terrorist activities of six jihadi networks between 2001 and 2005, including 113 subjects of which 44 illegally resided in the Netherlands. We also interviewed 10 imams who work for the Custodial Institutions Agency and 13 additional staff members from Detention and Asylum Centres. According to these respondents, most irregular immigrants and asylum seekers were relatively deprived due to a lack of finance, type of accommodation, limited facilities and dead-end asylum procedures. This consequently led to isolation, mental problems and a search for meaning and security. The respondents also stated that comfort was sometimes found in religion or in companionship with fellow immigrants.
Based on the criminal investigations, we found that jihadi networks offered practical solutions for the needs of irregular immigrants. For instance, accommodation was offered to members of the network and several irregular immigrants executed assignments in exchange for maintenance. More importantly, criminal activities were conducted by members of the network that satisfied particular needs of irregular immigrants. Drug transportations, human smuggling, but foremost passport theft and passport fraud were lucrative activities. Stolen or forged passports were also very instrumental products, because they offered irregular immigrants a semi-legal existence, but also access to social services and job opportunities.
Moderate ideological involvement
Besides the practical solutions, the jihadi networks were also able to answer the migrants’ search for meaning. The networks offered a welcoming environment to new like-minded people and the religious group identity offered a sense of belonging. However, the activities of most irregular immigrants in these networks were not entirely characterized by the Jihadi-Salafi ideology. Some irregular immigrants were less focused on the ideological goals of the movement, less devout than others and their core activities had a facilitating nature, such as burglaries, theft, credit card fraud and passport fraud. These criminal activities were not only beneficial to the movement, but also to the irregular immigrants themselves due to the nature of the stolen goods and the opportunities provided by stolen and forged passports. Some of the irregular immigrants therefore appeared to be predominantly focused on financial and material gain and did not seem to be primarily attracted by the ideological value of the network.
Our findings suggest that the attractiveness of a jihadi movement for vulnerable migrants is not necessarily determined by ideology. We rather observe a combination of utility and a need for meaning and security. As a result, the pragmatic value seems to be more important than is often assumed. Crime is therefore not only beneficial to fund terrorism and facilitate the pursuit of ideological goals, but can also attract vulnerable new members.