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Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime: Implications of Convergence

by Neal A. Pollard, Director, Terrorism Research Center, June 1998

Since the end of the Cold War, the US national security community has been concerned about, among other things, four particular security issues—proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), terrorism, transnational organized crime, and international narcotics trafficking. The past decade has clearly seen profound geopolitical, economic, social, and technological changes. The concern is based on the possibility that, while the particular security issues have always been present, they have leveraged these global changes to support operations now widespread and unchecked enough, with sufficient technological and economic power, to pose a strategic threat to the interests of the United States. There is even speculation these phenomena will eventually converge organizationally into a global Hydra, operating as a virtual political entity in its own right and challenging the US at the strategic level.

For the foreseeable future there will probably remain significant differences between terrorist and other “common” (i.e., motivated by greed) criminal groups in objectives and methods. After all, terrorism is a political crime, and by definition differs from other crimes in that the beneficiary and the perpetrator are frequently different people. In addition, terrorist groups organize quite differently —in operations and logistics—than organized crime syndicates. However, there may be connections of efficacy that have a profound evolutionary effect on the way both terrorist groups and other criminal syndicates organize to do business. Such an evolution holds implications for governments constructing strategies to counter these phenomena.

Terrorist groups are currently interacting with transnational organized crime syndicates, especially narcotics cartels. Peruvian Shining Path and Colombian FARC guerrillas have provided mercenary security support for narcotics production and trafficking lines in South America, and there is strong evidence that the Palestinian PFLP-GC has been using infrastructure in Lebanon to support drug trafficking. In return, these terrorist groups receive enormous amounts of money, more so than in “traditional” fund-raising operations such as kidnapping and bank robbery—operations that are far riskier than supporting narcotics trafficking. Furthermore, this interaction offers smuggling routes long established and tested by crime syndicates for drug and arms running, potentially providing terrorists with logistical infrastructure to clandestinely move people, arms and materiel.

Taken to its logical end, there might be a natural partnership between some terrorist groups and transnational organized crime syndicates. Organized crime syndicates frequently have access to and influence with political leaders, making such syndicates beneficial to terrorist groups that would seek to influence and intimidate, rather than destroy, a government. In return, organized crime syndicates can exploit terrorist campaigns, for the power vacuum present in regional instability, as a paramilitary wing of the syndicate, or to further coerce a weak government to “look the other way.” As offshore banks and inner city laundromats were once notorious mob fronts, so may terrorist campaigns become operational fronts for organized crime. Such a trend would find a welcome home in many former Soviet republics whose governments are fertile grounds for corruption and organized crime—regimes which once depended upon the backing of the military for “legitimacy” and political survival will find themselves relying on warlords or crime lords for the same. Indeed, we may see the rise of superficial terrorist campaigns serving as “fronts” for regional organized crime syndicates, campaigns which do not truly seek a political objective save that of creating a climate of anarchy and fear in which it is impossible for local law enforcement to prosecute or even hinder organized crime operations.

Currently, however, the objectives and methods of terrorist groups remain significantly different that those of transnational organized crime syndicates. Terrorist groups generally seek an overthrow of the status quo, using spectacular operations that seek to attract the attention of the world. Transnational criminal organizations derive their power through a low profile, working within the existing structure, seeking not to attract the attention of “legitimate” powers. However, criminal syndicates do work for money, and there is no clear reason, given the right price, that such syndicates would not lend their logistical, communications, and transportation infrastructures to support terrorist operations.

This holds two important implications for US counter-terrorism strategy. Firstly, if terrorist groups increasingly interact with organized crime syndicates, they may evolve organizationally, to adapt to such interaction. Such an organizational evolution would require a re-thinking of infiltration and targeting strategies as terrorist organizations come to resemble more closely, for example, the narcotics cartels in South America.

Secondly, there is a trend of increasing lethality of terrorist attacks. The logical end of this trend is, of course, terrorist use of WMD. If terrorist interaction with transnational crime syndicates is successful enough—especially with narcotics traffickers—the infrastructures of these interactions might be robust enough to provide terrorists with real opportunities for WMD proliferation, including the introduction of a weapon of mass destruction into the United States. The implications of such an infrastructure are obvious. At that point, again, counter-terrorism strategy would require re-thinking. The FBI and other law enforcement currently orient counter-terrorism strategy with a focus on the perpetrator or terrorist group. WMD terrorism (like all terrorism, I would argue) is a concern not only of law enforcement, but also of the military and intelligence community. However, the military is concerned with capabilities, which might be a valid focus in the case of countering WMD terrorism. Unfortunately, there is no current national counter-terrorism strategy that balances focus between group and capability, or that recognizes terrorism as a diffuse, adaptable, networked phenomenon that requires a networked response. If funding does indeed drive policy, a start toward such a strategy might be a specific counter-terrorism budget that coordinates respective departments’ current budgets and capabilities.

OODA Analyst

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