Terrorism, crime and trafficking

The relationship between the organised crime and what is understood as terrorism has been a topic of discussion in expert circles for the past 30 years. The focus of academic discourse has been on the extent to which organised criminal groups become intertwined in terrorism and vice versa.

There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between the two phenomena. Criminal groups use forms of violence and tactics associated with terrorism, such as kidnapping or bombings to achieve a particular political goal, encompassing the motivational aspect associated with terrorism. Similarly, some terrorist groups engage in what might be seen as forms of transnational organised crime, such as trafficking of narcotics or weapons to secure their finances.

The third aspect of this crime-terror nexus is the co-operation between those two groups for their reciprocal benefit. This can be formally established and structured, or develop organically over time - for instance, when radicalisation in Western countries takes place in prisons. Or this behaviour can be purely temporary - such as when the need arises to obtain weapons to commit a lone wolf terrorist attack.

Lately, the issue has been gaining attention as the activities of the so-called Islamic State (particularly in its pursuit of financing sources), and the acts of individuals inspired by its ideology, blur the boundaries between crime and terror. This has been recognised, for example, in the incorporation of terrorism prevention within UNODC, now known as The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Terrorism Prevention; or in events such as the OSCE-wide “Conference on the Nexus between Illicit Drugs, Organized Crime and Terrorism”.

Regional bodies are also being established, such as the recent Permanent Conference of Organised Crime Prosecutors, bringing together the Balkan countries and Italy to work closely in the prosecution and combating of organised crime and terrorism.

However, any discussion of linkages or similarities between organised criminal groups and terrorist ones needs to be rooted in an understanding of the differences. Commonly, in academic literature the focus is on the motivation of the crime, primarily whether it has political goals (terrorism) or financial benefits (organised crime). Yet an international, common definition of terrorism continues to be lacking, and the complexities and levels of interaction are poorly understood. This poses challenges when it comes to attempting to formulate strategies.

Author: Thyra-Valeska Von dem Bussche