Misleading analyses on the link between organized crime and terrorism are commonplace. This is because much of the available literature analyzing the nexus between organized crime and terrorism fails at making explicit distinctions between terrorism and other types of political violence, as well as between organized crime and other types of criminal activity. This consequently leads to a failure to address constructively the evolving nature of that nexus. Addressing the issue of working definitions for terrorism and organized crime is a key step towards a sound analysis of the convergence between both.

In defining terrorism, the focus will be on several keys elements: political motivations, power relations, use of violence, heterogeneity of victims, and the perpetrators being non-state actors. Bruce Hoffman’s definition is therefore an appropriate one, describing terrorism “… as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence in the pursuit of political change… carried out by a sub-national or non-state organization…” (in Shelley et al, 2005: 16). Just like terrorism, organized crime has also been confused and used interchangeably with other crime-related terminology. Hutchinson and O’Malley’s comprehensive definition of organized crime describes it as “…enduring networks of actors engaged in ongoing and continuous [illegal] money-raising, with such secondary characteristics as corruption of political and law enforcement personnel, and the systematic and targeted use of violence as a means to maintaining operations and profitability” (2007: 1098). This definition addresses the following crucial elements: illegality of the business, use of corruption and violence, and its organization as a structured network of actors.

Having a clear idea of what we mean by a convergence between terrorism and organized crime is the final logical step. For the purpose of this paper, convergence will refer to both the intra-group shifts in terms of characteristics (terrorist becoming criminal vs. criminal becoming terrorist) and the inter-group shifts in terms of levels and forms of cooperation with each other. The ultimate stage is that of full convergence, or the transformation of a terrorist or organized crime group into a type of ‘hybrid group’ (Shelley et al, 2005) which displays the main characteristics of both groups, as described in the previous definitions.

So can we say that there is a convergence between organized crime and terrorism? Yes, we can say this by pointing to three trends: 1) increasing links in different forms of cooperation; 2) direct involvement in organized crime by terrorist groups for funding and operational purposes, with some groups remaining politically motivated while others shifting to financial motivations; and 3) use of terrorist tactics by organized criminal groups, with profit remaining the main objective.

This paper will first look at the main trends regarding the convergence of organized crime and terrorism, considering some key ideas from existing literature. Next, the issue of full convergence will be examined, analyzing the prospects of such an event becoming a trend like those previously discussed. Final remarks will address a number of crucial topics concerning the implications of these trends on law enforcement, intelligence and policymaking.

Convergence between Terrorism and Organized Crime: Recurring Trends

Earlier studies on the nexus between organized crime and terrorism contrast on their approach. Different authors have identified various levels of cooperation, but these are often unclear about the type of criminal or terrorist activity being analyzed. Some authors talk about a crime-terror nexus without necessarily referring to organized crime. For example, Rollins and Wyler (2010:14) identify ten variations, using case studies to illustrate the nexus, but mixing terrorist links with both organized crime groups and other types of criminal activities. When referring specifically to the link between international organized crime and terrorism, Makarenko (2004:131) discerns seven categories in a continuum, Shelley et al (2005:5) identifies five different stages in the crime-terror relationship, and Williams (in Shelley et al, 2005: 18) focuses on three models of cooperation between organized criminal groups and terrorist groups. Taking into account the information from past literature on the subject, the following are some significant trends of the convergence between terrorism and organized crime.

Increasing cooperation

The first trend, referring to the rising cooperation between terrorists and organized criminals, is the oldest and until recently, most common. It gained momentum with the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks, the former causing a decline in state sponsorship for terrorism and the latter increasing pressure on terrorist activities (Sanderson, 2004). The need for diversifying funding resources has led terrorist organizations to expand their participation in other criminal activities, including organized crime.

Cooperation is based mainly on the idea of mutual benefit, without any compromise on the political goals of terrorists, or on the profit-making goals of organized crime groups. For example, the Taliban has been involved in heroin trafficking and has used those proceedings to fund its insurgency. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on opium in Afghanistan claims that about 98% of the country’s opium comes from seven provinces, most of that territory under Taliban control (in Rollins and Wyler, 2010). The group has made alliances with local organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking, which need the Taliban’s protection to move around their territory. This is therefore a mutually beneficial alliance, with the Taliban gaining financial support for its operations and the drug traffickers receiving protection for their business, while both uphold their respective objectives.

When cooperating, terrorist groups are mainly looking to gain resources such as cash and weapons for their operations, whereas organized criminal groups seek access to resources that serve as assets, like drugs and other commodities. This can be achieved both through short-term transactions like the placement of bombs by the ELN for the Medellin Cartel, which lacked the expertise (Makarenko, 2004), or more complex arrangements like the trafficking of cocaine and heroin by ETA to purchase arms from organized criminal organizations in Italy and the Balkans (Curtis and Karacan, 2002). These arms-for-drugs deals are some of the most common types of alliances that take place between terrorists and organized criminals.

Direct involvement of terrorist groups in organized crime

The second trend involves terrorist groups engaging directly in organized crime themselves, with the group either retaining their political motivation or shifting their attention to profit making. A key reason for doing this is to gain autonomy from other groups’ influence and thus greater control of operations, consequence of removing the ‘middleman’ from the transaction (Curtis and Karacan, 2002). This has become recurrent in the convergence between terrorism and organized crime, and seems to be replacing cooperation as the main trend.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its involvement in the drug trade is one example of this. As Curtis and Karacan claim: “The PKK is a multilevel business organization that is involved in all phases of the narcotics trade, from production to retail distribution” (2002: 21). The group has a strong presence in Western Europe, running human-smuggling networks from northern Iraq to Italy, as well as arms trafficking deals with groups like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (Curtis and Karacan, 2002). This money serves to finance its terrorist activities both in Turkey and northern Iraq, thus remaining loyal to its political motivations.

On the other hand, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a terrorist group that has been involved directly to some extent in organized crime, but has shifted its focus to those activities following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. One investigative news article reported on the IRA’s diverse list of criminal activities, much of it linked to organized crime, that included kidnappings; cross-border smuggling of fuel, cigarettes and livestock; money laundering; insurance fraud; and training of other groups such as Marxist guerrilla groups in Colombia, the PLO, ETA, and guerrillas in South Africa (Lister and O’Neill, 2005). This shift toward profit motivation in the IRA case can be explained by the ceasefire in 1994 and the ensuing peace process in Northern Ireland, which gave a larger role to political solutions and leading fragments of the group to shift its efforts to other criminal activities.

Use of terrorist tactics by organized crime organizations

The third trend on the link between organized crime and terrorism highlights the former’s use of terrorist tactics. This happens when organized crime groups need to “…fulfill specific operational aims… not to change the status quo, but merely to secure their operational environment… the primary motivation of these groups often remains illicit profit-maximization” (Makarenko, 2004: 133). The use of terrorist tactics is usually meant to exert leverage on a government that threatens to interfere with the group’s illegal businesses.

Indication of this is so-called ‘narco-terrorism’, which is “…the violent action of drug trafficking cartels against governments that seek to disrupt their criminal activities” (Chepesiuk, 1999: 152). A notorious example of this kind of tactic is the terrorist campaign launched by the Medellin Cartel against the Colombian government in the late 1980’s, which had assumed the task of disrupting their drug business (Chepesiuk, 1999). On the Italian Mafia, Makarenko comments: “Terror tactics were used… to subvert anti-Mafia actions and legislative moves… meant to openly challenge the political elite…” (2004: 134). Taking into account that terrorism is not just the use of violence, but also the political motivations behind a group’s intended use of violence, these cases illustrate how insignificant political motivations are for some organized crime groups.

Is there such a thing as full convergence?

Evidence on the existence of full convergence between organized crime and terrorism is rare. Besides a few documented examples of full convergence, “…finding hard evidence that such a trend exists is very difficult” (Chin and Dandurand, 2004: 27). The previous section showed the most common levels of convergence based on various trends, of which the second is the closest to full convergence.

Full convergence is most evident when looking at terrorist groups and their link to organized crime. As discussed in the previous section, the second trend depicts how terrorist groups turn to criminal activities for operational and financial purposes. Some remain committed to a political cause, while others stray from it and decide to concentrate on organized crime. Either way, these terrorist groups turn to run an organization with characteristics of both organized crime and terrorism, like Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda (Hudson, 2003), and are therefore the closest to full convergence.

On the other hand, this is not witnessed with organized crime groups and their link to terrorism. The third trend shows how these groups will resort to terrorist tactics if deemed necessary in order to put pressure on government actions that threaten their illegal activities. Some case studies however seem to show otherwise. Makarenko (2004) comments on the role of the Albanian Mafia as a hybrid group with both criminal and terrorist activities closely linked, while Rollins and Wyler (2010) address the unique case of D-Company that shows the shift from an organized crime group to a terrorist organization with all of its main characteristics. Although such cases of full convergence exist, these are limited to a few groups and some are often misleading, since they ultimately show some other form of link. Thus, this does not point to a trend.


Addressing the topic of convergence between organized crime and terrorism has proven a difficult task. Conceptually, both phenomena pose challenges to those who study the topics by themselves, let alone to those who attempt to understand the convergence of both.

Several issues continue to undermine the understanding of convergence. Unclear definitions are still a recurrent obstacle, specifically that of distinguishing between terrorism and other types of political violence, and between organized crime and other types of crime. Addressing this will allow for better-targeted research, and in turn be more useful for policymakers when addressing the various types of convergence.

Further research should also be aimed at the convergence between other types of political violence and organized crime, as well as other types of criminal activities, with the purpose of tracking other emerging trends concerning the links between these phenomena. Can full convergence become one of those emerging trends? If it can, what implication does that have on policymaking circles dealing with security? Meanwhile, in order to develop strategies to better confront these threats, greater attention should be given to assessing the consequences of the main convergence trends on countries’ security and economic wellbeing.

Finally, the global dimension of both organized crime and terrorism will make it even more difficult to detect and prevent these phenomena. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will have a greater challenge if they are not equipped with the right tools and frameworks to analyze these evolving trends. Governments will have to open up to the idea of sharing information on current and emerging trends, and international institutions dealing with organized crime and terrorism will need to cooperate more closely if they are determined to deal efficiently with those two issues that seem to increasingly intertwine.

*Originally written in 2011


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Chin, V. and Y. Dandurand (2004). “Links between Terrorism and Other Forms of Crime”, International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy, pp. 1-36.

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