Understanding the link between crime and terrorism of ideologically motivated terrorist organizations
By Brett Bolog
Terrorist organizations, driven by politico-ideological motives, need economic resources to finance their operations and expand their influence. These groups often resort to criminal activities, which undermine political stability and bankrupt legitimate businesses while increasing their sphere of control. An analysis of the links between crime and terror that exist in Latin America and the Middle East, which differ slightly according to regional resources and financial support networks, allows us to compare these organizations and better understand how their criminal enterprises operate. As these groups engage in similar criminal activities and the countries that host them face various governance challenges, there are similar policy approaches that can be used to combat and ultimately reduce their criminal economic activity.
Two of the most important terrorist organizations in Latin America are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC) now dissolved and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN). Now a legitimate political party represented in the Colombian government following the 2016 peace agreement, the FARC was originally born out of a sectarian conflict, a small Marxist-Leninist rebel group formed with the intention of be the voice of the marginalized rural population of Colombia, who would be Realized by overthrow the government and establish a communist regime. The FARC, like other right-wing paramilitary groups, financed their operations through passive and active participation in activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, extortion and illegal gold mining, which they used, among other things, to provide social services to local communities and pay for combat operations. In areas controlled by the FARC, they taxed marijuana and coca producers as well as cocaine laboratories.
ELN, a Marxist organization, officially aims to combat poverty and corruption as well as to establish a socialist political-economic system in Colombia. However, over time, the ideological struggles of the ELN took precedence over criminal activities to maintain their operational capacities. The ELN’s initial financial support came from donations from the Soviet Union and Cuba, but they quickly turned to extortion and taxation, including drug trafficking, as well as kidnapping for ransom and illegal gold mining. When oil was discovered in the territories under its control, the ELN expanded its rent extraction, extortion and kidnapping include oil companies and their employees. Although ELN’s mission is focused in Colombia, the group operates in Venezuela thus, taking advantage of political instability to strengthen their criminal activities and operational capacity.
While terrorist organizations in Latin America often focus on socialist / communist political agendas, terrorist organizations in the Middle East, such as ISIS and Hezbollah, generally have strong religious foundations guiding their political goals. They have similar funding mechanisms, although groups in the Middle East often receive more funding through private donations and state sponsors. ISIS’s main objective is to form a caliphate where they can apply Sharia law, and they enjoyed a long period of success in the 2010s in which they controlled large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. . ISIS has used various methods – extortion, kidnapping for ransom, foreign donors, human trafficking, theft and smuggling of antiques, illicit taxation of goods and services, and control of oil fields and refineries – to pay for infrastructure, salaries of combatants and the provision of social protection and services to its “citizens”. According to a US Treasury report, ISIS generated about $ 1 billion in revenues in 2015, half of which came from illicit oil revenues.
While Hezbollah also seeks to create an Islamic republic (albeit within Lebanon), important tenets of its ideology also include opposition from Western imperialism and the existence of Israel. Hezbollah receives passive income in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the Iranian government, and they generate significant income of direct involvement in criminal activity such as drug and arms trafficking as well as smuggling. The proceeds of these crimes are frequently laundered through trade-based money laundering schemes which operate on continents ranging from Latin America to Africa via North America.
Violent non-state actors (AVNS) thrive in areas of weak governance, high marginalization, socio-economic inequality, ineffective legislation and weak enforcement capacity. Ideologically based terrorist groups in Latin America and the Middle East rely on similar illicit activities to generate income despite different political goals. This demonstrates that it is advantageous for the VNSAs to maintain the status quo of weak governance in order to take advantage of lax enforcement and ineffective justice systems to promote their political agendas while simultaneously generating significant revenues. Once they achieve sustainable and sufficient income, they can focus on their core strategy to destabilize the state and strengthen social influence. These organizations have multiple sources of income, which makes them operationally adaptable, and therefore it is difficult to prevent them from engaging in new criminal activity.
Although some terrorist groups focus only on bringing about change in their respective countries, their criminal activity and its impacts spans the globe, forcing all countries to devote efforts and resources to increase political stability and improve legislation as well as enforcement capacity worldwide. Policies addressing the nexus between crime and terror must directly address criminal activity, as well as the underlying socio-economic issues that allow these groups to thrive. Sustained foreign aid as well as capacity building are necessary to develop the capacity of countries in which terrorist groups operate to provide satisfactory and sufficient services to their citizens. If a country can alleviate economic distress, reduce corruption, provide humanitarian assistance, and strengthen local governance, then the threat of radicalization and recruitment will decrease dramatically and terrorist organizations will have less influence in the country in which they operate.
Policies must be implemented to devalue the illicit industries in which the VNSAs are engaged, thus making profitability more difficult. Law enforcement should prioritize removing income streams that give legitimacy to VNSAs (e.g. taxation), forcing them to resort only to activities that will cause them to lose support within their own. organization and their potential supporters (e.g. extortion, kidnapping for ransom). Through better information sharing with foreign counterparts; the creation of multinational intelligence and law enforcement task forces; improvement of legislation against money laundering and drug trafficking; confiscation / effective seizure of assets; and the dissolution of leadership structures, the link between crime and terror of the ideological VNSAs can be seriously compromised.
Brett Bolog is a 2021 Summer Policy Intern with Global Financial Integrity and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan with a concentration in Foreign Policy, National Security, and Geopolitical Strategy.