Terrorism, Organised Crime, and Necessity

Martin Gallagher 19 Jun 2019


In recent years, there has been much debate over the role organised crime plays in the commission of terrorism, and vice versa. In this Perspective, I explore the dichotomy that exists between the contention that organised criminals and terrorists are exceptionally similar, against the counterargument that their strategic aims (that is, profit versus political change) make them wholly distinct. Based on my 25 year career as a police officer, and my ongoing research on the nexus between terrorism and organised crime, I believe that the often-overlooked element of necessity should receive far greater attention. The interdependence of the tactics of terrorism and those of organised crime, when either group faces financial pressure, demonstrates that both phenomena should be conceptualised in far more similar terms. Consequently, practitioners should look to exploit the weaknesses that such a closer relationship can expose.

Recent work has demonstrated that terrorist and organised crime groups can function in very similar ways, for instance, by drawing members from the same social groups. Some authors have also contended that a terrorist group’s (incidental) use of organised crime goes far beyond a mere pragmatic means to achieve funds, but is instead indicative of a metamorphic scale that exists between the two phenomena. Other experts, however, have been keen to point out that a ‘hard’ philosophical gulf exists between terrorism and organised crime, with terrorists seeking political change through (the threat of) violence, while the criminal, simply put, only seeks to make money.

Definitional Issues

Definitional issues continue to plague the field of terrorism studies, not to mention the policy and practice of counter-terrorism. A definition that can count on broad international support still seems a far way off. To my mind, the one proposed by the United Nations comes closest. The 2004 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1566 describes terrorist attacks as:

‘criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.’

By contrast, the definition of organised crime is not as hotly debated. The widely-accepted modern definition arose in the 1970’s through the work of Albini: ‘a criminal syndicate consists of a system of loosely structured relationships functioning primarily because each participant is interested in furthering his own welfare.

The gulf between terrorism and organised crime may at first glance seem obvious, but this is far from the truth. I contend that, in fact, terrorism is unlikely to be able to manifest itself without a dependency, albeit to varying degrees, on some form of organised crime.

The United States of America’s Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations proves to be a good spring board to explore this contention. It contains the names of the 67 listed and 12 delisted foreign organisations identified by the US Secretary of State as terrorist organisations since 1997. The views of the United States on this designation aside, the organisations listed have an interesting commonality. Although their causes disparate, from the territorial to the religious, they have one common factor – they all function through illegally-sourced funding, be that from the provision of money by a state acting against the interests of another, to out and out criminality, such as drug dealing or extortion.

Terrorism and the Need for Funding

In Rapoport’s well-known overview of the development of modern terrorism, the period from the 1960s to the early 1990s is called the third or ‘New Left’ wave of terrorism. It is characterized by many leftist terrorist groups operating across the world, several of which received support from the Soviet Union and its client states as part of a larger ‘proxy war’ against the West. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and consequently its interdependent satellites, also saw the collapse of this funding.  In addition, the broader ideological underpinnings of third wave terrorism also dissipated, and many of these groups subsequently rapidly disappeared. However, some survived and in a perverse sense, thrived; for example, FARC. FARC achieved this by moving into organised crime, specifically, the cocaine trade. In parallel, Colombian drug cartels began to embrace terrorist tactics in an attempt to subvert government and retain their position of power. These twin developments saw the coining of the term Narco Terrorism’. It is estimated that by the first decade of the 21st century, nearly 60% of all cocaine and 90% of the world’s opium originated from areas controlled by insurgent groups.

What we need to consider is not just the fact that groups such as FARC turned to drug trafficking to fund their struggle, but also why? It is my contention that the answer to this question is, simply put, necessity – the mother of all invention. This is effectively captured in the following reflection on South Asian terrorist group Lashkar-e Tayyiba (LeT), who used a network of direct supporters and associates to raise money via private finance, religious charities, legitimate businesses and organised crime, in addition to alleged state funds, to maintain social welfare and terrorist activities.

The essence of this description is not limited in its applicability to just LeT, but reflects a reality that affects most, if not all, of the groups on the US State Department’s list. Albeit to varying degrees, the necessity of acquiring sufficient funding for terrorist activities is an operational reality for all organisations operating in this space. Some may be able to rely on state-sponsors or donations received from supporters both at home and among diaspora communities worldwide. Where such support is unavailable or insufficient, criminal enterprises often present themselves as the only route to ensuring longer-term viability of the movement.

Balancing Criminal Enterprises and Ideological Legitimacy

However pragmatic the reasoning for engaging in organised crime may be, the necessity argument works two ways. It is also necessary for terrorist organisations to retain sufficient engagement with the cause for which they are fighting in order to retain legitimacy in the eyes of their supporters. Those supporters may not be so easily swayed by the argument that the fulfillment of the terrorist group’s ‘ideals’ requires engaging in common thievery, extortion, protection rackets, and the like. Terrorist groups appear to recognize this. Even organisations that have turned the pursuit of criminal profit into an end rather than a means, continue to push a public image of enduring commitment to a larger cause, as is arguably the case with the FARC and the current-day New IRA, responsible for the recent killing of journalist Lyra McKee.

Interestingly, maintaining a reputation for the use of violence in pursuit of ideological goals not only serves to protect an (erstwhile) terrorist group’s public support, but can also benefit its criminal enterprises. The New IRA, for instance, has maintained that they organise armed actions for symbolic purposes in order to ‘let the world know there is an ongoing conflict in Ireland’. While senior members are being jailed for extorting money from drug dealers and the owners of chip shops, the truthfulness of such statements is up for debate. Yet, claiming the IRA’s heritage and being seen to engage in terrorism also serves as a way of maintaining and increasing reputation among criminal competitors, a useful commodity to those operating in the underworld.

Just as it is necessary for terrorist organisations to maintain funding and reputation, it is similarly necessary for them to retain a sufficient degree of legitimacy to ensure support from the base within which the group derives its wider ability to operate. If this is lost, safe housing and movement become increasingly difficult, as a falloff in overall legitimacy will no doubt lead many previous supporters to greater ambivalence or indeed co-operation with the previously perceived common foe. In considering terrorist groups who have cultivated social legitimacy, for instance through service provision, it has been noted that they are significantly less likely to participate in crimes such as kidnapping and robbery than those who have not. This research assists in crystallising the argument that, where groups engage in crime that might harm their reputation, it is of the utmost importance that this crime is not reflected in their public image. For instance, by making a point of ‘punishing’ blatant transgressors. Such a dynamic appears to have played out in Northern Ireland with cases such as the murder of Real IRA member Alan Ryan, the alleged extortionist of chip shop owners mentioned above, who reportedly acted for his own profit.

Being seen to pursue monetary gain, rather than a larger ideological goal, is likely to be an Achilles heel for any terrorist organisation that does not benefit from direct state-sponsorship. Whether a shift from ideologically-motivated violence to financial-gain driven terrorism will also play a role in the successor organisations that arise from Islamic State’s demise remains to be seen. But it has been well-established that a significant proportion of Western states’ jihadist foreign fighters were individuals previously immersed in criminality. Such linkages have been actively exploited by IS propaganda in the past, and continue to be relevant, with funds flowing from operatives undertaking criminality in Europe to the bolster the organisation’s core activities in the Middle East.

As investigations into such cash flows continue, keeping an eye out for opportunities to expose the juxtaposition between terrorists’ ideological goals and instances of self-enrichment or criminal misdeeds not in keeping with their worldviews, may offer attractive propositions for counter-narrative work. Terrorists seek to win, not just a physical struggle, but a propaganda battle against the state or forces they oppose. The exposure of links to criminality and any identified self-reward may go a long way to reducing a terrorist’s standing in any established or prospective support community with a strong value system tied to any utopian outcome so many terrorist actors claim to seek. The more a contradiction between ideological rhetoric and self-serving criminal practice can be exposed, the more supporters might begin to question the righteousness of their cause and its self-declared champions.

In a new way, we once again need to ‘follow the money’, and make sure people (including support networks and those sympathetic to the terrorist cause) know where and on what it is actually being spent. 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 governmental bodies.

About the Author 

Martin Gallagher is is Chief Inspector with Police Scotland. He completed a posting as Area Commander of Paisley, UK last year and is currently working on Digitally Enabled Policing. Martin writes on police leadership, the nexus between Terrorism and Organised Crime, and Lone Actor Terrorism. He is a member of the Global Network Against Transnational Organised Crime, and a Science Writer on a part time basis for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). He holds a BA (Hons) in Philosophy from the University of Stirling, UK, and Master’s degrees in Criminal Justice Studies (from the University of Portsmouth, UK) and Terrorism Studies (from the University of St. Andrews, UK).