Organized Crime & Terrorism: Making Room for New Friends

Written by: Regina Paulose

The bond between organized criminals and terrorists appear to be growing in the status quo. This connection should be worrisome as these networks have found common interests. Considering the different objectives of each group, some may question whether they truly have anything in common. Terrorists are generally motivated by politics, whereas organized enterprises are motivated by money. Despite this philosophical difference in the bottom line, some examples prove that this connection is strong. “In some cases terrorists and criminals appear to be deeply intertwined in ways that go well beyond fleeting alliances of convenience. The Dubai-based Indian criminal Aftab Ansari is believed to have used ransom money he earned from kidnappings to help fund the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And some people, like the Pakistan-based Indian crime boss Dawood Ibrahim, even go on to pursue dual careers as both criminal and terrorist leaders.”[1]

Despite the different goals of the two illicit groups, differentiating between the two – sometimes – can be challenging. Terrorists are involved in the black market in order to generate needed revenue.[2]  This revenue is what allows them to pursue their political or religious agendas.[3] Organized criminals have resorted to modeling violent techniques which are used by terrorists to advance their monetary agendas.[4] “Criminal organizations can become ideological over time, following the path of terrorist groups.”[5]  Many famous mafia stories highlight how monetary gain is closely tied with political power. The more power the illicit group yields, the easier it becomes to allow the black market to flourish. Who these groups are and who they can turn into poses a challenge for the rule of law everywhere.

So how do the international conventions address this particular bond?[6] The United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which entered into force in 2003, is the main international legal instrument which deals with organized crime.[7]  The Convention is accompanied by three Protocols which deal with human trafficking, smuggling, and arms trafficking. The Convention aims to criminalize participation in organized crime, increase cooperation among state parties, and protect human rights. Given its mandate, naturally, UNTOC does not address the issue of the organized crime – terrorism nexus. With a very broad reading, one could infer that the UNTOC may address this issue. For instance, Article 5 of the Convention calls for criminalization of participation in an organized criminal group. The language of Article 5(ii) states:

Conduct by a person who, with knowledge of either the aim and general criminal activity of an organized criminal group or its intention to commit the crimes in question, takes an active part in:

a. Criminal activities of the organized criminal group;

b. Other activities of the organized criminal group in the knowledge that his or her participation will contribute to the achievement of the above-described criminal aim.

An argument could be made that a terrorist who purchases a weapon from or supplies weapons to an organized group is taking “active part” in the “criminal activities” of the group. Or even the language of section (b) makes it clear that if the terrorist has “knowledge” that his participation will “contribute” to the criminal aim, he could be penalized for his association.

This example should serve as a cautionary tale. We must avoid conflating the two groups because it could pose its own set of legal challenges, especially considering that terrorism is mainly viewed via the law of war. If terrorists are engaging in the same activity as organized criminals, it is probably safe to assume that these operations are a means to an end.

Another international instrument to consider is the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing Terrorism. This particular Convention expressly deals with punishing perpetrators who finance terrorism. Under Article 2, any person could be held culpable for directly or indirectly facilitating, participating in, or aiding or abetting in the commission of various offenses as listed in the annex of the Convention.[8] Some of the offenses listed are: unlawful seizure of an aircraft, taking of hostages, terrorist bombings, endangering the safety of civilian aircrafts, and endangering maritime vessels. This particular Convention could provide relief against this particular nexus, depending on how it is enacted domestically.

The international community has recognized that terrorists do use different resources to accomplish their aims. In 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Specifically one of the aims of the “holistic” strategy is:

“to strengthen coordination and cooperation among States in combating crimes that might be connected with terrorism, including drug trafficking in all its aspects, illicit arms trade, in particular of small arms and light weapons, including man-portable air defence systems, money laundering and smuggling of nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological and other potentially deadly materials.”[9]

While many scholars still argue that the link between these villains is “nebulous”[10] and that the empirical data to support that the groups are working together is little, there still appears to be a small link, at the very least, that should be acknowledged by the rule of law. It is probably time to address the importance of these issues and make the necessary changes required to have states implement more robust language in their national laws. The state parties to these conventions may not have envisioned a world where the underbelly of society forms alliances (however brief) to achieve their various goals. Unfortunately that is the current reality and it seems as though it is far more than a passing trend.


[1] Rolle Lal, “Terrorists and Organized Crime Join Forces” NYT Opinion, May 24, 2005, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/23/opinion/23iht-edlal.html?_r=0

[2] See David Kaplan, “Paying for Terror” US News and World Report, November 27, 2005, available at: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/051205/5terror.htm

[4] Karen Parrish, “Link Grows Between Terrorism, Organized Crime, Officials Say” American Forces Press Service, March 28, 2012, available at: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=67721

[5] Lal , as cited above

[6] My analysis for the purposes of this post is limited to two Conventions and is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive look at every single treaty that exists and could potentially address this problem. For anyone wanting more information on finding treaties or researching this issue in depth, I suggest referring to the UN Treaty Collection: http://treaties.un.org/Home.aspx?lang=en

[7] The “guardian” of the instrument is the UNODC. For more information on the UNTOC visit: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/treaties/CTOC/index.html

[8] International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, available at: http://treaties.un.org/doc/db/Terrorism/english-18-11.pdf

[9] UN Action to Counter Terrorism, A/RES/60/288,  September 20, 2006,  p.5 available at: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N05/504/88/PDF/N0550488.pdf?OpenElement

[10] Annette Hübschle, From Theory to Practice: Exploring the Organized Crime-Terror Nexus in Sub-Saharan Africa, Perspectives on Terrorism (Journal), Vol.5 No 3-4 (2011), available at: http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/157/html

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2 thoughts on “Organized Crime & Terrorism: Making Room for New Friends

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