COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) – The shooting spree in Copenhagen by a radicalised former gang member has highlighted an overlap between extremists and the criminal underworld.
Danish police say gang members with Muslim backgrounds are being radicalised both in prison and outside, and some have joined the ranks of foreign fighters in Syria.
“We know that some of the extremist groups are fishing in that pond,” said Michael Ask, head of Denmark’s National Center of Investigation.
“Because they know that they have some young people who are vulnerable and rootless, who lack a sense of belonging, a community.”
Born in Denmark to Palestinian parents, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein had a long history of violence and crime before he went on a rampage last weekend, killing two people and wounding five in attacks on a free-speech event and a synagogue.
The 22-year-old, who was killed in a shootout with police, had been member of “Brothas”, an inner-city immigrant gang in Copenhagen, but was reportedly kicked out because of his temper.
“He got into fights with members of other gangs. So when they wanted to make peace agreements with other gangs, they threw him out,” said Aydin Soei, a social worker who’s been researching Denmark’s gang scene and who met El-Hussein in 2011.
Where and when El-Hussein was radicalised remains unclear.
Prison authorities alerted the Danish domestic intelligence service, PET, last year while he was serving time for a stabbing, but the latter said there was no reason to believe he was plotting an attack.
Already before the shootings, Danish authorities were concerned about gang members crossing over to extremism.
In July last year, police informed lawmakers that among the scores of people who have left Denmark to become foreign fighters in Syria were at least five known gang members, and several others with a “peripheral relation” to street gangs.
“Some of them use it as an exit strategy,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College.
“They leave criminal gangs for a new belonging, a new identity.”
Others are tempted by violence more than religion or ideology, said Ask, of the National Center of Investigation.
“It is some kind of test of manhood. You get credit in the criminal world when you can say that you have been in some kind of war zone,” he said.
Ahmed Samsam, a member of a gang in the city of Odense, travelled to Syria in 2012 and posted pictures on social media of himself posing with automatic weapons.
Abderrozak Benarabe, a Copenhagen gang leader, went to Syria with a Danish documentary crew in tow. He joined Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative rebel group. Both are back in Denmark and have never been charged for their Syria trips.
The link between organised crime and extremists is not new in Europe. In the mid-1990s, French police uncovered an extremist network by going after what they thought was a gang carrying out violent robberies in France’s northern Roubaix region.
Members of the gang, dismantled in a deadly 1996 shootout, allegedly tried to bomb a police station in Lille ahead of a G-7 summit meeting there.
The link between gang members and international terrorism strengthened after al-Qaeda shifted tactics from large-scale attacks by well-trained terrorists to smaller strikes by home-grown militants, said Frank Jensen, former operative chief of PET. For those attacks, gang members seem like the perfect foot soldiers: angry, aggressive young men who know where to find weapons.
Extremist recruitment networks have long targeted poorly integrated Muslim youth who feel marginalised and discriminated against in the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere in Europe.
However, Swedish and Norwegian security officials said they hadn’t seen any significant numbers of gang members being recruited for extremism.
“We see everything from people with a background in petty crime to well-established young men who have found a place in society,” said Sirpa Franzen, spokeswoman of the Swedish security police, SAPO.