In recent decades, the connections and similarities between terrorism and organized crime have increasingly grown. Long time terrorist groups like the FARC in Colombia or the PKK in Turkish Kurdistan have been dedicating more and more time and resources to running the criminal side of their organizations and organized criminal groups have been relying increasingly on terrorist style attacks like beheadings and even large scale bombings. Convergence is also happening as part of something called the criminal-terror nexus where criminal groups are collaborating with terrorist groups for things like criminals selling weapons or forged passports to terrorists, or terrorists protecting and taxing criminal’s drug routes. One aspect that has long been viewed as the major difference is that terrorists employed violence for strictly ideological ends and that organized crime groups used violence as a way to earn profits.
The divide between criminal and terrorist motives seems stark, but there has always been a blending of the categories. For example the Japanese Yakuza has been so closely intertwined with right wing Japanese nationalist groups that at times they have been hard to tell apart, and since terrorism is intrinsically criminal, many terrorist groups have had to rely on some form of criminal activity for funding.[i] This synthesis has recently been accelerating with criminal groups increasingly using terrorist tactics for reasons like fighting an extradition treaty or usurping government control over strategic areas while terrorist groups are increasingly focusing on activities like kidnapping for profit and drug trafficking. Further confusing this issue is the phenomenon of terrorist and criminal groups using the same infrastructure of bankers, forgers, and accountants.[ii]
There is hesitancy for many counter-terrorism experts to accept comparisons between terrorism and organized crime, noting the key differences of motivation between them. Terrorists have absolute political goals that rarely leave room for compromise or flexibility, whereas criminal groups are free to change their political goals and strategies to optimize their ability to generate profit. Another difference is that most terrorist groups want to overthrow established states, but organized criminal groups prefer to work within weak state structures. These motivational differences can inspire the two different types of groups to pick particular targets. Terrorists are more likely to pick symbolic targets, such as the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, whereas criminals will more likely target specific rivals or public figures that are impeding their business, such as the Camorra killing Don Peppino after the priest publicly denounced the group.
Despite these differences, it is worthwhile for counter-terrorism and law enforcement experts to work together and understand each other’s fields because, as Professor James Forest has stated, both require a grand strategy approach that relies on several aspects of a nation’s power, such as diplomatic, intelligence, financial, and military force in order to be successful.[i] In the past these different functions of state power have worked too much as individual actors instead of coordinating responses. As criminal and terrorist groups learn from each other, especially in terms of organizational structures, so should those fighting them. If America’s approach to these dual problems cannot evolve, and if each problem is regimented to its own departments, then our enemies’ capacity for organizational learning and networking will surpass ours, making the world a less secure place.
[i] James J. F. Forest, “Criminals and Terrorists: An Introduction to the Special Issue,” in Terrorism and Political Violence, guest ed. James J.F. Forest (London: Routledge, March 14, 2012), 177.
[i] David Kaplan, The Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, (Los Angles: University of California Press, 2003), xxiii.
[ii] J.P. Larsson, “Organized Criminal Networks and Terrorism,” in Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century: International Perspectives Volume 2 Combating the Sources and Facilitators, ed. James J. F. Forest (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2007), 166.