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The Owl in the Olive Tree | Dec. 5, 2019

Beneath the "Crime-Terror Nexus": Local Power Struggles, Competition over Resources, and Corrupt State

By Mariya Omelicheva and Lawrence Markowitz

The post-Cold War era has been marked by policy and academic debates about the cooperative links between criminal and terrorist actors. According to the prevailing view, the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in the contraction of traditional revenue streams of terrorist groups, (including state-sponsorship), drawing terrorist organizations into a range of illicit activities to raise funds for their operations. Concurrently, advances in information and communication technologies and the ease and speed of cross-border movement have transformed the nature of organized crime. These changes were believed to have provided opportunities for criminal and terrorist groups’ collaboration. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent attention to the threat of terrorism furthered this view of a proliferating “crime-terror nexus,” leading proponents to regard it as a prevalent feature of world politics and a critical security challenge to individual states. On the other hand, critics of the crime-terror nexus maintain that the linkages between terrorist and criminal actors have been vastly exaggerated and poorly understood.

            How prevalent is the nexus? What causes it to materialize in some locations but not others, and in which form? Does the nexus amplify or dampen the threat of terrorism? Focusing on Eurasia (Central Asia, Russia, and Caucasus), and using a unique combination of quantitative, qualitative, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) methods, our research offers important answers to these questions. First, our findings challenge the assumption that a durable and cohesive crime-terror nexus is as widespread as it is commonly assumed. Second, the likelihood that a nexus will arise, in any form, is not due to random events but is associated with a set of socio-economic, geographic, and political factors. Third, the state is a critical actor in the crime-terror nexus. The nature of state involvement in crime determines how criminal and terrorist groups intersect and these intersections shape the type of crime-terror nexus that emerges. Below we elaborate on these arguments and discuss the implications of our findings for U.S. security assistance programs.

Rethinking the Convention Approach to the Crime-Terror Nexus
A pivotal assumption of the conventional approach to the crime-terror nexus is that terrorist groups are opportunistic actors who need funds to survive and carry out their operations. When criminal activities promise high yield in revenues at a relatively low cost, terrorist groups can be expected to engage in crime or collaborate with the criminal networks. Some of these connections can be “operational” in nature and involve “activity appropriation,” such as smuggling and drug trafficking by terrorist groups. Other intersections can involve organizational linkages between terrorist and criminal groups, which rely on each other’s expertise, skills, and networks for mutual advantage. The enduring ties of criminal and terrorist groups can even lead to the transformation of one organization into another or formation of the “hybrid” groups exhibiting the convergence of the criminal-terrorist threat. 

            We contend that this approach is limited in its ability to illuminate the links between illicit economies and political violence or serve as a policy guide. First, its tight “cause-effect” relationship—the growing demand for resources motivates terrorist groups’ involvement in crime—leaves little room for considering other factors affecting their identity, motivations, and behavior. Human trafficking by terrorist groups, for example, has been used to intimidate and subjugate their enemies and to strengthen the terrorist group’s cohesiveness. Proceeds from drug trafficking have been used to provide the scarce public goods to the impoverished population in an effort to outcompete the state. Second, the conventional approach to the nexus tends to overstate the potential for cooperation between criminal and terrorist groups. Sometimes, the relationship that is portrayed as cooperative involves coercion rather than a voluntary alliance forged in pursuit of shared objectives. At other times, interactions among the rank-and-file drawn from the same pool of recruits are mistaken for the full-fledged cooperation between criminal and terrorist groups. Third, a conventional view holds that the crime-terror nexus thrives in conflict and post-conflict territories. Extremely “weak” and “failing” states in Africa, Latin America, and South East Asia have been named the “perfect breeding ground” for criminal and terrorist convergence. Yet, the “state” in these fluid environments plays a far more complicated and central role in shaping the nexus.

Much Ado about the Nexus?
We identified considerable barriers to sustainable criminal-terrorist linkages for a variety of reasons. In some locations, such as Russia’s North Caucasus, the sheer fragmentation of criminal and terrorist milieus prevented the rise of a nexus. In others, such as Uzbekistan, early investments in state capacity to deal with the problems of trafficking and terrorism allowed the Uzbek government to prevent the emergence of their intersections. Still, in other locations, such as Tajikistan since the 2000s, state collusion in crime has fostered the rise of violent and predatory law enforcement and security institutions with a capacity to dampen terrorist violence in the short term. The one context in which a full-fledged convergence of terrorist and criminal actors appeared was in Tajikistan during its civil war. State failure enabled the rise of interwoven networks of militants, traffickers, and government officials that—for a few years—approximated the full convergence of criminal and terrorist threats. As we outline in Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia, even within these broad trends, criminal-militant relationships vary greatly from country to country and over time, primarily shaped by the nature of state involvement in these relationships.

            We contend that treating violence as a context-specific strategy that can be deployed by a variety of actors driven by a range of motives is a more productive approach to understanding the criminal-terrorist connections. Our research illuminates the importance of the space where formal, informal, legitimate, and illicit activities are all intermingled; the state represented through power networks at different levels of government authority, with some of the networks deeply embedded in crime; and the multitude of state and non-state actors competing among themselves for authority and access to resources. Violent groups, in short, are deeply rooted in the local contexts. They emerge out of local conflict dynamics, tribal and ethnic political divisions, or negotiations of power between the center and periphery. They are sustained by the existing social and commercial networks and informal arrangements often rooted in illicit economies. And they are driven by the goal of influence over the space within which they operate, although they may opportunistically exploit tenuous affiliations with the international terrorist “brands”. In virtually all of these local contexts, moreover, representatives of the state, immersed in illicit economies and embedded in complex relationship with non-state violent actors, are integral to an emerging nexus.

Implications for U.S. Security Assistance
The conventional view of the nexus holds that in order to defeat terrorists, it is necessary to take away their money by suppressing the illegal activity, such as by eliminating drug smuggling or eradicating poppy fields. Yet policy interventions to combat illicit economies have rarely been highly effective. Conversely, partnering with a criminal state has been both detrimental to good governance and counterproductive to the very objectives such partnerships seek to achieve (i.e., reducing criminal and terrorist activity). Since criminalized political elites are a protection racket for criminal activity (and insurgents who are leveraged against an overreaching central government), more foreign security sector assistance does not necessarily help countries address the nexus of crime and terrorism.

             Our research lends support to those security assistance approaches that are informed by and evaluate the recipient government’s involvement in illicit economies and, by extension, existing militant-criminal relationships. Ignoring such involvement may lead technical support for security infrastructure to inadvertently empower parts of the state that are promoting an existing nexus. Additionally, security sector assistance needs to balance short and long-term challenges and avoid common pitfalls. The latter include recipient regimes repurposing security assistance in support of their coercive capabilities and neglecting the risks of trafficking and terrorism in order to sustain the high levels of security aid.


Associated Reading
Omelicheva, Mariya Y, and Lawrence P Markowitz. 2019. Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mariya Omelicheva is Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. Her research and teaching interests include international and Eurasian security, counterterrorism and human rights, democracy promotion in the post-Soviet territory, Russia’s foreign and security policy, and terrorism/crime nexus in Eurasia. She is the author of Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia and Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia.
Lawrence Markowitz is Professor of Political Science at Rowan University and Visiting Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He specializes in comparative politics with research and teaching interests in state building, authoritarianism, and political violence in post-Soviet Eurasia. He is the author of State Erosion: Unlootable Resources and Unruly Elites in Central Asia and Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia.

Associated Minerva Project
Trafficking/Terrorism Nexus is Eurasia

Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research

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