Terrorism and organised crime: a marriage of convenience

Terrorist acts generally have a political aim, while organised crime pursues economic gain

AFP/FADEL SENNA  -   Men suspected of being affiliated with Daesh look out from the opening of a prison cell in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019

The relationship between organised crime and terrorism has been a reality for years, not only in the European context, but also at the international level. Both national and international organisations are aware of the danger posed by both phenomena separately, and it is to be expected that when the two converge, the threat will increase exponentially, as has already been seen on numerous occasions. The United Nations warns of these possible connections in several of its resolutions, which is why it is necessary to approach both phenomena from the same prism, so that we can understand them and be able to act more efficiently and proactively in the face of them.

PHOTO/AP - Police officers secure the Higher Regional Court in Celle, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, where an alleged Daesh representative in Germany is on trial.
Approach to both phenomena

Before delving into the relationship between the two phenomena, it is necessary to delimit them in general terms. To do so, we will present the definition of an organised criminal group provided by the United Nations in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, 2004. However, it should be noted that although there is a majority consensus on the concept of "organised crime", this is not the case with respect to "terrorism", which is why we will opt for the definition provided by the Spanish Criminal Code to define the latter. We therefore understand, in the first place, as "organised criminal group":

"Structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit1". 

AFP/JOSE JORDAN - A suspected jihadist is detained by Spanish police in Benetusser, near Valencia, during a police anti-jihadist operation on March 22, 2017.

Secondly, and with regard to "terrorism" (Art. 578 PC):

"The commission of any serious terrorist offence against life or physical integrity, liberty, moral integrity, sexual liberty and indemnity, patrimony, natural resources or the environment, public health, catastrophic risk, fire, forgery of documents, against the Corruption of documents, against the Corruption of the State, or against the State, shall be considered a terrorist offence", forgery of documents, offences against the Crown, attacks and possession, trafficking and storage of weapons, ammunition or explosives, provided for in this Code, and the seizure of aircraft, ships or other means of public transport or goods, when they are carried out for any of the following purposes: a. - ) To subvert the constitutional order, or to suppress or seriously destabilise the functioning of the political institutions or the economic or social structures of the State, or to force the public authorities to carry out an act or to refrain from doing so. b.) To seriously disturb the public peace. c.) To seriously destabilise the functioning of an international organisation. d.) To provoke a state of terror in the population or in a part of it.2"

AFP/HO/SPANISH INTERIOR MINISTRY - An image taken from a Spanish Interior Ministry video on June 21, 2017 shows Spanish National Police officers arresting a Moroccan man during a police anti-jihadist operation in Madrid.

Notwithstanding the above definition, and in order to provide an international view of the term, we will also provide the definition provided by a UN expert group in 2005.

"Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian or non-combatant when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act3"

AFP/BERTRAND GUAY - French police officers near the site of the attack at the entrance of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on June 6, 2017.

Regardless of the commonalities between the two phenomena, the main difference can be found in their purpose. Firstly, in the case of organised crime, like all criminal activity, the ultimate aim is financial or material gain.  Secondly, with regard to terrorism, it lacks an economic purpose, but seeks political gain through terror. Although the purpose differs, there are many cases in which one becomes a means to another.

It is important to emphasise that, although we are focusing mainly on radical Islamist terrorism, we should not ignore other forms of terror, such as extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing, ethnic or nationalist groups. Thus, when we talk about terrorism, especially in the European Union, we must broaden our view to all forms of this form of violence, regardless of the actor or its ultimate purpose.

REUTERS/LUISA GONZALEZ - A helicopter carrying anti-narcotics police lands on a coca leaf plantation in Tumaco, Colombia, February 26, 2020.

Having established the bases of both concepts, we can go a step further to establish the points in common, those that generate synergy and increase the threat level of both phenomena. The connection or possible convergence between terrorism and organised crime, according to studies by Makarenko4, Basra5 and 6Gil7, among others, goes through the following phases or stages:

a.    Alliances: the starting point of any criminal relationship is the formation of (inter)relations between different groups. These lay the foundation for further and deeper interconnection. Due to globalisation and the use of technologies, these alliances go beyond geographical boundaries and enter not only the physical plane of relationships but also the virtual world. 

b.    Appropriation of tactics and integration: as this alliance progresses, the first transfers of skills and knowledge emerge. We should not forget that many terrorists have a criminal background. A clear example of this can be found in the FARC in Colombia or with members of Daesh.

c.    Hybridisation: at this point, both groups take on roles and tactics from each other, and even their agenda begins to change. The latter is reflected, on the one hand, in the fact that terrorist groups pursue economic benefits through criminal activities (trafficking in drugs, people, antiquities, etc.), and, on the other hand, criminal groups seek political change. 

d.    Transformation: this is the last phase, where one phenomenon cannot be distinguished from the other. Although there is no evidence that this stage has taken place on European soil, it can be found in the Sahel, where terrorism and organised crime are already an indissoluble reality, or in the case of the FARC in Colombia, as mentioned in previous stages.

The convergence according to the phases described above can be found at the moment when both groups (terrorists and criminals) integrate and hybridise. Although a complete transformation does not take place, the dividing lines between the two begin to blur, so that the threats multiply and the difficulty for law enforcement agencies increases.

PHOTO/RAÚL ARBOLEDA - Colombian police arrive to take over a coca field in Tumaco.
Crime as a service

The criminal landscape in 2021 has changed radically. The world is changing and criminals are changing with it. More and more criminal markets are being offered and recruited8. This is why the main benefits that terrorists derive from organised crime are the services they provide and that terrorist groups ultimately need to achieve their ends9. Without being exhaustive, we can find the following:

a. False documentation: In order to move freely and without arousing suspicion across borders, the use of false documentation becomes a service widely demanded by both criminals and terrorists across the globe. Here we must highlight the advantages of being able to enter the Schengen area by these means, which offers them absolute mobility across borders.

b. Arms trafficking: One of the most important criminal activities in the field of terrorism is trafficking in arms and explosives. The so-called "Balkan route" remains in 2021 the main gateway for military grade arms and explosives into the European Union. Another main trafficking route comes from Ukraine. As a result of this illicit market, weapons end up in the hands of both criminal groups and terrorists of various kinds. A clear example is the Paris attacks of 2015.

c. Illicit trafficking networks: These are illegal product distribution networks, such as those involved in drug trafficking or human trafficking. Through these, many groups, such as Daesh, have introduced potential terrorists to European soil. It should be noted that humanitarian crises, such as the one in Syria or more recently in Afghanistan, have been and continue to be one of the main focuses of human trafficking across borders, with the consequent risk to collective security. Once again, the Balkans is seen as one of the main routes of entry into Europe, through its criminal networks dedicated to the trafficking of human beings. Another example of this phenomenon are the networks located in North Africa with destination Spain.

d. Financing through drug trafficking: One of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement agencies, as well as intelligence services and institutions, is the phenomenon of financing terrorism through illicit trafficking, such as that derived from drugs. There are more and more criminal groups whose main market is drug trafficking, and in many cases both terrorists and criminals live in the same milieus10, so that in many cases both groups overlap. Examples of this include the FARC, the IRA and the Taliban themselves.

AFP/CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU - Police officers search a man during an anti-drug operation in the "Cité des Oliviers", a northern suburb of Marseille, southern France, March 25, 2020.

Are we really prepared to face these threats together? The link between the two phenomena cannot be ignored today, otherwise we would be making a strategic mistake of the first order. In the 21st century, the synergies that are developing in the area of crime, together with their greater globalisation and scope, pose a challenge for all democracies, especially in the European Union. As a result, many of our neighbouring countries include both phenomena11 in their national security strategies, and even set up specific institutions to deal with them. A clear example of this is the creation of the Intelligence Centre for Terrorism and Organised Crime, CITCO, in Spain. The security forces must be more proactive in terms of criminal intelligence12, anticipating the trends and new synergies that are developing in both criminal and terrorist aspects, so that together with the detection of targets of high strategic value13, the impact of future threats posed by the union between organised crime and terrorism can be mitigated.

José Luis Gil Valero, Strategic and International Security Studies analyst and Sec2Crime collaborator in the area of Terrorism and Armed Conflict.


1. Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la droga y el delito, “Convención de las Naciones Unidas contra la delincuencia organizada transnacional y sus Protocolos” Viena 2004. https://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-s.pdf

2. Código Penal español. Actualizado a 19 de julio de 2021.  file:///C:/Users/JLGV/Downloads/BOE-038_Codigo_Penal_y_legislacion_complementaria.pdf

3. “DEFINICIÓN DE TERRORISMO: según los expertos de la ONU”. Libertad Digital, 2005, disponible en https://www.libertaddigital.com/nacional/definicion-de-terrorismo-segun-los-expertos-de-la-onu-1276246052/

4. MAKARENKO, Tamara, “The Crime–Terror Continuum: Tracing the Interplay between Transnational Organised Crime and Terrorism” Global Crime, Vol. 6, No. 1, February 2004, pp. 129–145. https://www.iracm.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/makarenko-global-crime-5399.pdf

5. MAKARENKO, Tamara, “Europe’s Crime-Terror Nexus: Links between terrorist and organised crime  groups in the European Union” ParlamentoEuropeo, Directorate-General for internal Policies, Bruselas  2012, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201211/20121127ATT56707/20121127ATT56707EN.pdf

6. BASRA, Rajan y R. NEUMANN, Peter, “Crime as Jihad: Developments in the Crime-Terror Nexus in Europe”, CTCSENTINEL, Volume 10, Issue 9, October 2017. https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/CTC-Sentinel_Vol10Iss9-21.pdf

7. GIL VALERO, José Luis, “Terrorismo islamista y crimen organizado en la Unión Europea: el tráfico ilícito de armas de guerra” Documento de Opinión IEEE 63/2021

8. Europol, “EUROPEAN UNION SERIOUS AND ORGANISED CRIME THREAT ASSESSMENT – SOCTA 2017” Europol 2017. https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/european-union-serious-and-organised-crime-threat-assessment-2017

9. Europol, “EUROPEAN UNION SERIOUS AND ORGANISED CRIME THREAT ASSESSMENT – SOCTA 2021” Europol 2021 file:///C:/Users/JLGV/Downloads/europol-european_union_serious_and_organised_crime_threat_assessment_-2021-10-10.pdf

10. Entendemos estas, por los mismos entornos socio-culturales en donde convergen ambos tipos de fenómenos y que reúnen unas características comunes. Como ejemplos los podemos encontrar en el barrio del Príncipe Alfonso de Ceuta o el barrio de Molenbeek en Bruselas.

11. Estrategia Nacional contra el Crimen Organizado y Delincuencia Grave, 2019-2023. Consejo de Seguridad Nacional,  https://www.dsn.gob.es/es/documento/estrategia-nacional-contra-crimen-organizado-delincuencia-grave

12. OSCE, “Guidebook on Intelligence-Led Policing” OSCE, 2020. https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/d/3/327476.pdf

13. Europol, “EUROPEAN UNION TERRORISM SITUATION AND TREND REPORT 2021 (TESAT)” Europol, 2021 file:///C:/Users/JLGV/Downloads/tesat_2021_0%20(1).pdf