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
Pathways to Influence: Unravelling the Crime-Terror Nexus
From Spark to Fire: Origin Case Study of 27 Violent Non-State Actors
To Coerce or to Coopt: Exploratory Case Study on VNSA Strategic Pivots
Filling the Gaps: Mapping VNSA Behavior in Framework and Determining Policy Implications
Sources for Ch. 2 Case Selection
27 QCA Case Studies (General Summaries and Main Sources)