Fulfilling Clandestiny

Reframing the "Crime-Terror Nexus" by Exploring Conditions of Insurgent and Criminal Organizations' Origins, Incentives, and Strategic Pivots

by Etienne Rosas

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From former Soviet states to prisons in post-Arab Spring nations to the slums of Latin America, ideological and criminal violent non-state actors' (VNSAs) have harnessed weak governance conditions to challenge or infiltrate developing states, impeding democracy across the world and promoting longer and more expansive conflicts. While policymakers, researchers, and security officials discuss organized crime and terrorism as related threats converging in a "crime-terror nexus", there is still only a limited understanding on how these threats are interconnected and what the best approach to counter them in the long-term is.

Using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of 27 cases and an in-depth case study of four organizations, this dissertation explores the fundamental relationship and underlying incentives that drive criminal and ideological strategies and operations. I codify the conditions under which different types of groups originate as ideologically or criminally inclined organizations and I examine factors that compel them to pivot their strategic focus in order to spread or maintain their influence. Finally, I propose a new theoretical framework that explains these pivots in relation to the sociopolitical environment in which VNSAs they operate.

Results of the QCA reinforce the view that ideological groups organize in opposition to the status quo while criminal groups work to infiltrate and coopt the status quo. The four specialized case studies show that both ideological and criminal VNSAs engage in strategic pivots or "borrow" tactics—especially low impact operations, such as smuggling or targeted threats and terrorism—opportunistically as their environment allows or their core strategies favor, but this flexibility appears to be more constrained as organizations specialize and grow. It appears more common when VNSAs splinter or their influence declines as their ideology or criminal structure loses steam.

Despite drawing support from a common "underground market", criminal operations and ideological mobilization had limited compatibility in the long run. However, this shared dynamic space emphasizes the long-term need to bridge governance gaps through greater security coordination, information sharing, and, above all, prevention strategies that promote economic development and political inclusion.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Pathways to Influence: Unravelling the Crime-Terror Nexus

  • Chapter Two

    From Spark to Fire: Origin Case Study of 27 Violent Non-State Actors

  • Chapter Three

    To Coerce or to Coopt: Exploratory Case Study on VNSA Strategic Pivots

  • Chapter Four

    Filling the Gaps: Mapping VNSA Behavior in Framework and Determining Policy Implications

  • Appendix A

    Truth Table

  • Appendix B

    Sources for Ch. 2 Case Selection

  • Appendix C

    27 QCA Case Studies (General Summaries and Main Sources)

Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in April 2018 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Angel O’Mahony (Chair), Christopher Paul, and Colin Clarke.

This dissertation received financial support from the Doris Dong Dissertation Award.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

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