Terrorism and transnational crime

Eman Ragab
Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

What are the reasons behind the increasing links between terrorist activities and transnational organised crime groups, asks Eman Ragab



he Global Risks Report for 2024 issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF) highlights what is likely to be one of the most significant security threats over the coming years: the intersection between terrorist activities and the operations of transnational organised crime networks, especially those engaged in the illicit trafficking of humans, arms-smuggling, illicit financial activities, and cross-border drug-trafficking.

The Report suggests that this convergence is becoming increasingly complex and expansive due to the growing weakness of states, particularly in Africa, and technological advances that provide significant additional capabilities to both terrorist and criminal networks.

What motivates terrorist entities to establish links with organised crime groups despite their differences? Several reasons can be identified. Firstly, there are financial reasons as criminal activities often generate the financial resources that terrorist entities require to sustain themselves. This reminds us of former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s statement in 2001 that “money is the oxygen of terrorism.” Criminal groups also need money to continue their activities, and their ability to find it often requires collaboration with terrorists.

Secondly, there are the unique skills of criminals, since these may be individuals with a criminal background who, for terrorist entities, are simply “terrorists who have not yet been recruited.” Such individuals possess traits such as risk-taking, the ability to raise funds through activities like drug-trafficking, a propensity for violence and experience in it, and the ability to access the organised crime networks needed by terrorist organisations for purchasing weapons, smuggling them across borders, forging documents, and money laundering.

Thirdly, there is the religious appeal of terrorist entities, particularly for some criminals who may see cooperation with terrorist entities, especially religious ones, as a means of “salvation.” The Islamic State (IS) group consistently used a narrative of this sort on various social media platforms to attract criminals from impoverished and marginalised areas in several European countries to join its ranks, for example, portraying this as a means of absolving them of the “sins” resulting from their criminal activities.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a think tank based in London, has observed that the group calling itself the “Flag of Monotheism,” which is known for its affiliation with IS and is also based in London, launched its “Flag of God” campaign in 2016 with a key idea related to salvation. It said that though “criminals may have the worst history, they can create a better future” by joining it.

Another reason for the linkage between organised crime and terrorism has to do with modern technology. The increasing use of the Internet by terrorists and criminals creates various forms of interaction and convergence between them, especially through the use of the Dark Web and the Deep Web, which together represent 96 per cent of the Internet. Various security institutions have recognised the use by terrorists and criminals of the Internet for recruiting new members, planning, psychological operations, logistical support, and fundraising. Terrorists also learn from criminals how to communicate online in ways that cannot be traced or penetrated by the security agencies.

Technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology also play a significant role in shaping the relationship between terrorism and transnational crime. Terrorist cyberterrorism is growing, as is evidenced by the increased presence of IS in the virtual world even after it lost control of territories in Iraq and Syria.

Law-enforcement agencies worldwide face challenges in dealing with cyberterrorism, especially if critical technological infrastructure, such as energy networks, come under attack by terrorists. Organised crime groups also now often have a digital presence, and they may engage in activities like ransomware attacks in which digital files and data are held hostage, as has been seen in well-known attacks like that of WannaCry, a ransomware cryptoworm, in 2017.

Apart from these clear reflections of the use made by technological advances in the activities of terrorism and organised crime, there are also grey areas where legitimate and illegitimate activities overlap, facilitating the growth of financial activities benefiting both terrorists and criminals.

However, classifying these activities as illegitimate poses a challenge to the law-enforcement agencies. For example, the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies worldwide has led to their use by terrorist and criminal groups to secure financial resources. But due to the ambiguous nature of cryptocurrencies, many countries do not criminalise their use and instead have sometimes established regulatory frameworks for them.


The writer is director-general of the Regional Expertise Centre for Combating Drugs and Crime at NAUSS.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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