Mujahid and the Mob? Overlap Between Terrorism, Organized Crime Offers Counterterror Opportunity

  • All terrorist organizations need money and expertise, and many have turned to organized crime to get it
  • If they are too successful, this may undermine their image among their supporters
  • This may be a great opportunity for counterterrorism to exploit a vulnerability `

The overlap between terrorism and organized crime creates opportunities for counterterrorism agencies, according to Martin Gallagher, a senior police commander in Scotland as well as a researcher and writer on the nexus between terrorism and organized crime, lone-actor terrorism, and police leadership.

Gallagher notes that the overlap initially might seem problematic. Aren’t many of the terrorists idealists, committed to a cause bigger than themselves, for which they may even be prepared to sacrifice themselves? What does that have in common with a crime syndicate seeking personal enrichment?

The big change began during the 1990s, he wrote. Before then, many international terrorist groups received financial and training support from the USSR or proxies, and their local cause was recruited, with greater or lesser commitment, into the wider Cold War conflict.

Then religious terrorism added an international dynamic that the mostly regionally based nationalist causes never had, he continued. Needing financial resources and expertise in operating illegally but effectively, it is not difficult to see why terrorist groups ranging from Colombia’s FARC, various incarnations of the IRA in Ireland, and the new wave of Islamic terrorism began interacting with organized crime.

Gallagher looked at the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and found that all of the 67 listed and 12 delisted organizations identified in this category since 1997 rely on illegally sourced funding.

The connections can be varied and complex. Gallagher quotes a well-known 2004 report by Tamara Makarenko showing the Crime Terror Continuum, and the various stages of cooperation that can arise. Both entities learn from each other, exchange skills, and work together to exploit criminal commercial opportunities.

Sometimes, the high-profile political violence of the terrorist organization benefits its criminal enterprises, as it sends a signal about its power and ruthlessness back down the network.

But Gallagher points out that there is a downside: the more that a terrorist organization becomes known for explicit, wide-ranging and clearly criminal actions, the harder it can be to retain legitimacy in the eyes of their followers, and especially the support base within which they function. When that base starts to doubt, everything gets harder as things like safe housing and movement become increasingly difficult.

Gallagher notes various responses to this – some organizations such as, arguably, FARC and even some current IRA offshoots, are nowadays primarily committed to pursuing criminal profit, with only a facade of idealism. Others have cultivated their legitimacy through provision of services to the support base and are as a result noticeably less likely to participate in violent crime.

In Gallagher’s view, this is the opportunity for a counterterrorism response to “follow the money” and point out to supporters where it is coming from. This is the Achilles’ heel, he argues, particularly of terrorist organizations not benefiting from direct state sponsorship.

“Terrorism’s fundamental necessity to secure funding, and retain legitimacy while it does so, may prove a largely untapped means of counter-narrative programming available to many governing bodies,” Gallagher said.

These days governments – and journalists – are getting more sophisticated at identifying and tracking criminal financial flows. This may be a chink in the ideological armor of some of the powerful terrorism operators, and a crucial part of winning the battle of “hearts and minds.”

Read the full paper

Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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