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TERRORISM VS ORGANIZED CRIME — It is no secret that after the fall of the “Iron Curtain”,  the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of the borders, radical changes were brought about in all aspects of social life.

It was around that time that the boundaries between terrorism and organized crime became problematically indiscernible. Years before terrorism had its “golden age”, organized crime was on a pedestal, flourishing and expanding at an unprecedented pace. It was the most profitable business thanks to its transnationality, manifold nature and globalized marketplace.

Organized crime includes -but is not limited to- drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, arms trafficking, counterfeit goods etc. While Europol’s 2007 Organized Crime Threat Assessment stresses that organized crime does not pose a substantial security threat to EU Member-States, when it is linked to transnational terrorist groups, the threat assessment changes dramatically, since the synergy of the two can bring dire consequences.


It is widely accepted that certain terrorist organizations and organized crime groups both constitute ‘transnational criminal groups” in reality. The common denominator in all these groups is that their field of activities is not limited to a specific region or state; they rather have expansionary aspirations and a vast development agenda. The decisive factor that has overwhelmingly benefited the growth of such groups and made their trans-nationality feasible is globalization.

Major technological advances, loosely controlled borders (especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the European Union), communication innovations, privatization initiatives, transport and trade facilitation, allowed these groups to be active in the international arena. The decline in state sponsorship in the 1990s is another essential factor that forced these groups to seek alternative means of funding and security, while the socially and financially unstable situation that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, provided a breeding ground for all kinds of illegal activities.

All transnational criminal groups share a lot of structural similarities but -more often than not- they tend to have different motives. The war on terror (following the 9/11 attacks) and the subsequent crackdown on terrorist groups and organized crime has hindered these groups’ ability to operate as they used to. According to numerous experts, globalization and increased law enforcement initiatives have led to the convergence of these two types of groups, the so called “crime-terror nexus” or “influence cooperation or transformation”.

Organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations regularly engage in strategic alliances to provide goods and services, taking advantage of the shift in the international security environment established in recent years. These groups have a plethora of reasons to form an “alliance”; aside from similarities in their structural aspect, they also occasionally engage in parallel types of illegal activity, they share the same confidentiality requirements, a need for advanced technological and security measures as well as operational bases and transit routes.

a) Organizational similarities

Due to their common unconventional nature, these groups share a number of structural and organizational similarities. With the Sicilian mafia being the most widely studied example of a prototypical, canonically-structured criminal syndicate, many tend to believe that all organized crime groups function similarly and have the same organizational apparatus. Certain experts in the field tend to refute this argument as a faulty assumption, since the strict command structure of the Sicilian mafia is -by no means- typical to all organized crime syndicates.

A majority of the “prominent” organized crime groups have adopted a looser cell structure that guarantees them a degree of autonomy, while responding to superordinate bodies, thus respecting a certain type of hierarchy. The loose cell structure provides independence, adaptability and operational security; even if a cell is exposed, the others can still continue to operate. In most cases, cell operatives do not have any information about other cells’ activities or members and it is not uncommon for a cell operative to not know the identity of the organization’s leadership.

The adoption of the cell-structure has yielded results and both terrorist organizations and organized crime groups have become increasingly decentralized. However, it is well known that the cell-structure does not guarantee sustainability and many individual cells have sought to form alliances with major criminal syndicates, in order to ensure their viability. Once this nexus is formed, it becomes progressively more difficult to obliterate it.

b) Operational Tactics

Structural similarities are not the only point of convergence between criminal and terrorist networks. Their operational tactics are largely the same, which is also an important determinant of their convergence as well. More specifically, due to the nature of their operations, they often need to use fraudulent documentation (passports, I.D. cards. visas, birth certificates) or illegally obtained immigration documents. It is not uncommon for criminal groups to have established relations with corrupt officials (e.g. for cross-border transportation, illegal trafficking etc.); terrorist organizations often take advantage of this scheme and turn to transnational criminal groups for assistance.

c) Information & Communications Technology

Information and Communications Technology is of paramount importance to the activities of both groups, mainly because its skillful use helps them minimize their electronic communication footprint, thus avoiding detection. It is no secret that both types of entities employ advanced counter surveillance techniques to ensure secrecy and operational security. Internet is their basic tool of communication and they frequently require the assistance of ICT experts in order to get wind of law enforcement’s data, checkpoints, raids, sting operations etc., as a means to avoid tracking.

In that regard, due to the fact that they need to conceal their financial dealings from the authorities, money laundering is a vital operational mechanism and it is inextricably linked to I.T. expertise (as they need to know when and how to send and retrieve funds from tax havens or offshore accounts, without being tracked by law enforcement agencies); therefore, both groups are obliged to rely on terrorist facilitators, I.T. experts and hackers. As this type of “customer-service provider” is scarce, both criminal and terrorist groups are obliged to cooperate in a cost-effective manner or work with the very same I.T. experts, something that inevitably increases their interchangeability on various levels.

d) Territory

Another substantial point of convergence is the “operational territory”.  A distinct form of service-provider arrangement is created when one group controls territory which is of strategic value for the operational goals of the other; in this case, provision of protection or transport for a share of the profits is standard practice coupled with the taxing of revenue streams.

Since both groups need sanctuaries and safe havens (ungoverned areas with weak border control and/or law enforcement, war-torn areas, failed states, countries that tolerate and/or sponsor terrorist presence and illicit activities), as well as locations with adequate infrastructure, easy access and profitability, it is highly common for numerous groups to be active in the same areas for an indefinite period of time, making an eventual synergy almost inevitable, (especially when it comes to sharing the same smuggling routes).

It should be mentioned, however, that the simultaneous presence of both criminal and terrorist networks intensifies the threat of instability and turmoil, since these groups have a common interest in maintaining the favorable characteristics of the environment they operate in, even if they act independently.

 e) Financial Resources / Narcoterrorism

Following the end of the Cold War and the decline in state sponsorship for terrorism and organized crime, a search for alternate means of funding became a cardinal priority and both criminal and terrorist networks engaged in lucrative illicit activities, most predominantly the illegal drug trade. Due to its privileged status in ensuring profitability, drug trafficking has been a major source of revenue for criminal and terrorist organizations since the 1970s, primarily in Latin America.

Although the term “narco terrorism” as it is known, dates back to the 11th century, it became popular in the 1980’s in Latin America and it was initially used to describe the political aspirations of guerrilla groups and –progressively- any terrorist activity linked to drug trafficking, mainly in Colombia and Peru. Originally, the term narco terrorism was coined by former Peruvian president Fernando Belaúnde Terry in 1983; it was understood to mean all violent, terrorist-type attacks against Peru’s antinarcotics police by the ”Sendero Luminoso”, a guerilla insurgent organization.

Similarly, the term was increasingly used to refer to any attempts (by narco traffickers) to reap a benefit, influence policies or gain leverage through violence and intimidation tactics (Pablo Escobar’s tactics being a striking example). Nowadays, the term refers to all terrorist/rebel groups that use drug trafficking activities as a source of finance in order to fund their operations and gain recruits and/or expertise. Notable terrorist organizations engaging in drug trade include ELN, FARC, Hamas, Taliban. The illegal drug trade is the biggest source of funding for both organized criminal and terrorist groups and it represents the strongest link between the two.

Nevertheless, the crime-terror nexus for fundraising purposes is not exclusively limited to the illegal drug trade; both groups have been involved in prostitution, human smuggling and trafficking, counterfeit goods, the diamond trade in Africa, logistical support crime etc.


Organized criminal and terrorist groups have inherent differences regarding ideological and political motivations. Terrorist organizations (including guerilla, rebel groups) have a clear political orientation and their primary aim is to address perceived injustices through violence and intimidation tactics, while organized crime groups seek profit maximization and are rarely interested in changing the political status quo, unless it directly threatens their activities. While profit maximization is the primary incentive for organized criminals, for terrorist groups it is simply a means to an end.

Terrorist groups usually revel in attention and they often use social media to spread their message and attract popular support. Publicity, on the other hand, can be irremediably detrimental to organized crime networks. Furthermore, the ideological and religious axes of these groups can be radically different. It is well known that terrorism could be motivated by a religious imperative; in this case, there is a huge ideological schism between e.g. an Islamist Jihadist group and a Catholic mafia. Consequently, ideology and legitimacy reasons have prompted terrorist organizations to disassociate from organized crime groups. Due to their fundamentally different world views, most analysts agree that long-term strategic alliances between these two types of groups are highly unlikely; where cooperation exists it is more likely to be short-term, ad-hoc, and focused on specific operational requirements.

Nonetheless, organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations make a conscious decision to cooperate occasionally, mostly when the benefit clearly outweighs the risk. They both realize that without means their goals are oneiric and unattainable. Generally speaking, terrorists and organized criminals are considered rational actors; as rational actors they acknowledge that achieving their purposes is more important than any ideological rift.

Several experts in the field argue that organized crime groups and terrorist organizations can form a nexus in three separate ways: influence, cooperation, transformation. Occasionally, these groups coexist in the same environment for a number of reasons and even though they do not always work together, they are still able to exchange ideas, moda operandi, operational mechanisms etc., which is Influence. Cooperation is the strategic alliance that these groups form to reap a greater benefit, either for a short-period of time or indefinitely (depending on the desideratum and the time frame). Transformation occurs when the two types of groups work together and they gradually turn into one entity, espousing the other group’s tactics, methods and even ulterior intents.

Transformation, a term originally coined by Chris Dishman, is used to describe the phenomenon observed when the two types of groups form a nexus and eventually one of the groups transforms into the other type. For instance, when a terrorist group ceases to reap benefits from its ideological/political motives and if their illegal, profit-making activities (through which “they generate revenue for their financial needs”) provide a sizeable source of funding, they might abandon their ideologically-driven structure for a profit-making agenda. Relatedly, organized crime networks tend to use terror/violence tactics to safeguard their financial interests and they do not hesitate to adopt a more political/ideological orientation if it serves their operational purposes better.

a) Cooperation

Empirical evidence suggests that cooperation is the strongest link between organized crime and terrorist groups. Being rational actors, both types of groups engage in strategic partnerships when it is deemed mutually beneficial e.g. service-provider arrangements. This type of relationship is based on reciprocity and it can also be a way for these groups to facilitate their operations or to generate multiple benefits for economic growth, expansion and/or development, either temporarily or over a protracted period of time.

It is safe to say that new kinds of arrangements are slowly emerging and the existing categorizations do not fully capture the evolution and the highly complex dynamics between terrorist organizations and organized crime networks. A good example of this market- based business relationship involves Al Qaeda, which has been providing protection for Latin America’s drug shipments in the Islamic Maghreb. Those shipments pass through West Africa and ultimately end up in Europe via Sahel.

It should be made clear though, that this arrangement is barely a form of cooperation. The term “protection”, in this instance, is mostly a euphemism since the traffickers are essentially obliged to accept the “protection” as a tax imposed on them by a big terrorist organization operating in the territory, through which the drugs are moved.

b) Influence

On various occasions, terrorist organizations and organized crime networks can form a nexus, without actual interaction This process is regularly described as “activity appropriation”, as in the two types of entities are adopting each other’s tactics and methods. The use of organized crime activities by terrorists (predominantly radical Islamic) has become “standard practice” in recent years, particularly since 9/11 and the crackdown on terrorist financing (including donations, Muslim diaspora charities etc.).

Terrorists have repeatedly resorted to criminal activities for fundraising purposes; such activities include kidnapping for ransom, extortion, looting of cultural property and natural resources e.g. oil in Iraq and Syria, counterfeiting, the trafficking of drugs, weapons, etc. Those activities are extremely lucrative and relatively low-risk, as terrorist groups mostly operate in ungoverned areas with weak to in-existent State structure, with great laxity and impunity.

Organized crime networks have taken ideas from terrorist groups as well; the mafia bombing of the Uffizi museum in Florence (1993), being a striking example. Italian authorities were cracking down on organized crime groups and the mafia opted for the tactic of terrorism in order to instill fear and regain momentum. They were -most certainly- not transformed into a terrorist organization overnight, but their actions were largely influenced by terrorism, although there was not direct cooperation between the two groups in this instance.


What is even more worrisome than influence, cooperation and transformation (between these two types of groups) is the emergence of “hybrid” organizations that share characteristics and attributes of both terrorist organizations and organized criminal groups. Existing typologies and traditional categorizations cannot adequately encompass the complexity of the new organizations formed.

The term “hybrid” essentially describes the particular category of organizations that combine a clear political orientation -often pursued through violence- with an explicit profit-making agenda that goes beyond the fundraising needs of the organization. With characteristics of both transnational criminal networks and terrorist organizations, this particular type is -according to experts- more dangerous and problematic than its “conventional” counterparts, because hybrid organizations have demonstrated greater motivation and operational abilities.

Examples of “hybrid” groups can be found in South Asia and Latin America; Dawood Company and the Haqqani network being the most prevalent ones. Some argue that FARC could be easily classified as a “hybrid” organization, since it has transformed from terrorist to criminal…to (as of late) a political movement.


There is little doubt that the nexus formed between organized crime networks and terrorist organizations is a profoundly unsettling phenomenon, mainly because mutual operational, financial and logistical support reduces the possibility of destroying their financial and operational foundation and -more importantly- it strengthens their infrastructure and bolsters their overall capabilities. This new, amalgamated nature of threat is serious and cannot be ignored.

However, it may actually provide opportunities for vulnerabilities to be exploited. Such collaborations are fraught with major risks to both types of groups. For terrorists, cooperation inherently raises issues of distrust and questions of loyalty since the majority of criminals do not have a substantial affinity for the terrorists’ cause. Additionally, it can also result in increased attention by law enforcement agencies and maximize the chances of infiltration.

Similarly, close association and affiliation with organized criminal groups could undermine and compromise the terrorist group’s credibility and popular support. Moreover, it can be detrimental to the unity of the group, as it can cause distraction from political goals and put an emphasis on the profit-making aspect. These weaknesses could be used by law enforcement to develop a common response framework in order to tarnish the image and discredit the ideological narrative of prosperous terrorist networks by openly associating them with common criminals. Therefore, instead of a heightened security threat, this nexus could be perceived as a boon for better detection of both types of groups.


  • Gabriel Eberhardt
    Posted 21/07/2018 05:11 0Likes

    Ms. Antonoglou,

    As an intelligence analyst working in the Middle East, I found your article to provide excellent insight differentiating terrorism and criminal activity. This is a difficult and evolving issue, and I appreciate this well written and concise article on the topic. Writing well is not easy, it takes continual practice, and serious attention to detail. This article was a pleasure to read, thank you for applying the time and effort to make is so.

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