Terrorist groups and organized crime networks are increasingly working together, strengthening their ability to inflict harm on law-abiding societies with conventional weapons today, and possibly with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the future.
Terrorists and criminals have long been considered separate and distinct threats, with terrorists motivated by ideology and criminals by greed. But recent attacks suggest that criminal networks and terrorist groups are teaming up with growing regularity for their mutual benefit.
In fact, 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.
The connections between the two networks exist on a variety of levels — from purely tactical to strategic — including logistical support in weapons procurement, shared routes, training and some ideological overlap. As a result, in some areas it may be impossible to destroy the logistical network supporting terrorist groups without striking major blows at supporting criminal networks.
In South Asia and the Middle East in particular, a variety of criminal and terrorist organizations have been known to collaborate in international operations. The recent disclosure of the role of criminal syndicates in the nuclear smuggling network of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan is a prime example of this troubling trend.
Nuclear transfers from Pakistan to North Korea, Libya, and Iran could not have occurred without the assistance of criminal networks. Khan used false papers and front companies in several countries to transfer the nuclear technology to other nations, and used government cargo planes to assist in deliveries to North Korea. These channels raise concerns that the inability of authorities to interrupt cooperation between organized crime and terrorist groups could lead to more dangerous nuclear transfers in the future.
Khan's middleman was a Dubai-based Sri Lankan businessman, Buhary Ayed Abu Tahir. He arranged for a Malaysian company to manufacture nuclear components for shipping to Libya, and for Libyan technicians to be trained in the use of machines that were part of the nuclear program. Tahir also assisted Khan in the transfer of centrifuge units from Pakistan to Iran.
Even if states agree to international nonproliferation treaties, the existence of criminal networks engaged in nuclear trade could allow proliferation to continue. Without knowledge of where these networks operate and who is involved, interdiction becomes extremely difficult.
At the tactical level, terrorist groups rely on organized crime networks to provide them with the necessary weaponry and munitions to undertake massive attacks and insurgencies. The routes that have been carefully constructed by criminal networks can also be extremely useful for transporting goods on behalf of terrorist groups.
For their part, criminal gangs can turn to terrorist groups to provide needed training in the use of guns and explosives, and also to provide safe passage through terrorist-controlled territory for a price.
Criminal syndicates in the Middle East and South Asia are also closely connected to terrorist groups via the illegal drug trade. Money earned from drug trafficking supports both criminal and terrorist activity.
Criminal organizations can become ideological over time, following the paths of terrorist groups. In South Asia, for example, some criminal organizations have come to acquire ideological or religious predispositions that motivate their actions, not merely cover them.
Terrorist groups will be able to continue operations as long as they can acquire the needed weaponry, financing and personnel. Closing this access is difficult, but crucial.
In addition to military cooperation to interdict terrorists, much more attention needs to be paid to promoting the rule of law, combating corruption and improving judicial proceedings in areas where terrorists have taken refuge.
Police capabilities in urban areas need to be much improved if they are to locate and disrupt criminal networks. International cooperation on extradition laws must also be strengthened, so that criminals cannot easily elude arrest by fleeing the country.
The linkages between the criminal and terror groups allow terror networks to expand and undertake large attacks internationally by leveraging criminal sources, money and transit routes. Identifying the cooperative activities between the two networks — both tactical and more enduring — is critical to ending the financial and supply lines that support both sets of groups. Underestimating their bonds could prove disastrous.
Rollie Lal is a political scientist at RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on May 24, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.