Organized Crime and Terror Related

Investigators who pieced together the puzzle of the March 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 and injured some 2,000 found that the Islamic extremists suspected in the attacks had funded their jihad in a not-so-holy way: they traded hashish and ecstasy for 440 pounds of dynamite, then drank holy water from Mecca to assuage their guilt.

Experts say that one way to break into terror networks is through their financing .

Terrorist groups use the same fund-raising tactics as organized crime groups. Because terrorism has held the attention of law enforcement agencies, journalists and academia worldwide since Sept. 11, 2001, governments, think tanks and grant-making agencies have poured resources into anti-terrorism projects at the expense of anti-organized crime projects. This, experts say, may have been short-sighted because the two are linked.

As early as the 1990s, scholars warned that international terrorism and organized crime were converging. But concern over organized crime prompted by reports then of emerging Russian organized crime evaporated after 9/11. One effect of this was that the Islamic charities that had previously done much of the fundraising for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups came under scrutiny and were shut down. Terrorists intent on finding new funding learned from their underworld brethren.

"The terrorist groups are increasingly borrowing the tactics of organized crime to raise money," says David Kaplan, a former U.S. News and World Report journalist who has written extensively on the criminal-terrorism nexus.

Police and intelligence agencies have found repeated examples of terrorists borrowing the techniques of organized crime groups.

Iraqi insurgents are raising tens of millions of dollars every year by oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting and the arms trade, according to a classified U.S. Department of Defense report the New York Times wrote about in late 2006. The U.S. government estimated that the groups responsible for insurgent attacks in Iraq were raising between $70 and $200 million per year through such criminal activities.

The Algerian-based Islamic Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), formed by Osama Bin Laden’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, has not only joined forces with Al-Qaeda, but is reported to be funding its terrorist activities – including thwarted and actual attacks in Casablanca and Algiers – with armed robberies and other criminal activities.

After Al-Qaeda assets were frozen in the wake of the 1998 embassy bombing attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, the terrorist group moved into the African diamond trade – a business that fueled some of West Africa’s bloodiest wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Senior Al-Qaeda members turned bulky cash into more easily-transportable diamonds around that time by buying stones in Liberia and Sierra Leone from Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, and selling them to raise more money, according to a report from the watchdog group Global Witness. The organization estimated that Al-Qaeda laundered some $20 million by buying and selling diamonds.

Not just Islamist terrorist groups are mimicking criminal groups.

Since the 1990s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has helped fund its cause, replacing the government with a Marxist regime, with drug trade money. Kidnapping and extortion have also become part of FARC fundraising methods.

The U.S. Department of Justice recommended in a 2005 report on links between transitional organized crime and international terrorism that overseas corruption should be elevated to the level of a national security concern. Academics who wrote the report also recommended that analysts from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and federal intelligence agencies form a task force to collect and analyze related data.

This has not yet happened, and analysts remain fixated on terrorism, but one author of the report hopes for change. "If we’d had this conversation two or three years ago, I would have been very upset at the way things look, that we weren’t looking at organized crime, that we weren’t looking at how crime groups and terrorists work together,"

says Professor John Picarelli of American University. "As with any large bureaucracy, we can always be doing things better, but after watching what’s going on the last two years and talking to people in the field, there’s a growing recognition that we need to be taking a look at what’s going on as a whole, and it will be interesting to see what the new administration does with that."

Picarelli also noted that the academic world followed the lead of government and law enforcement and focused more on terrorism only. Grants for research projects on terrorism attract more interest than those on straightforward organized crime as was the case before Sept 11, 2001.

Some organizations have changed their entire outlook. The Nathanson Center for the Study of Organized Crime and Corruption at York University in Ontario, Canada, long noted for its work in these fields, has recently changed its name and branched out to embrace transnational human rights and security, including terrorism. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington, D.C., has also dropped its organized crime project in favor of a "transnational threats" project. American University’s Transnational Crime and Corruption Center has moved to George Mason University in Virginia and has added terrorism to the front of its name.

The European Union has replaced a program that sought to combat organized crime by offering joint training to the police, judiciary and related officials on anti-trafficking and other crimes with a new, more expensive program dealing with criminal justice and crime prevention.

The former program, called AGIS, had been funded with about 15 million euros per year from 2003 to 2006, while the new program will receive 80 to 100 million euros annually from this year until 2013.

"We have much more money and a wider scope," says Martin Wasmeier, the Union’s acting head of financial support for internal security and criminal justice. "In Europe, I don’t see the shifted focus to terrorism – look at our financing, our legislation. We’re fighting and preventing crime on a horizontal level and not treating terrorism separately. Terrorism might be the focus of the public, and also politically, but that doesn’t mean the organized crime activities have ended, on the contrary, they have been expanded. I don’t see such a trend in the European Union."

Experts note that horizontal crime prevention is the right way forward. They also point out that the same tactics police have used to fight organized crime can also be used to fight terrorist groups that use crime to raise funds.

"In terms of investigation, the tools that have been honed by smart criminal investigators are invaluable for cracking terrorist cells," says Kaplan. "These are the people who have long experience working with highly mobile, transnational, cell-based criminal organizations.

Colombian and Mexican drug cartels are that way. Albanian and Turkish crime orgs are that way. You can describe Japanese Yakuza and Chinese triad societies that way. These techniques probably have a lot more to offer than to have the U.S. military blast holes in a Third World country."

Kaplan said the root causes of crime and terrorism – countries or societies that have nothing to offer their citizens in terms of security and rule of law – will be important in fighting those evils.

"..What we’re dealing with are very basic problems of development, poverty, of dysfunctional societies, of education," he said. "The solutions to runaway jihadism and runaway organized crime are the same – you need to develop and educate these societies, so that these young disenfranchised kids trying to find a future don’t have a choice between the radical mosque and the racketeering game down the street.

"This is the big job at hand, and I don’t know if the world is prepared," he said.