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Part One

Judith Van Der Merwe, January 2, 2014


It is well recognized  that the bane of organized crime and terrorism have materialized as one of the foremost challenges which threaten peace, security, the development of democracy, human rights and the financially viable progress of countries across the globe. This dissertation examined the nexus/relationship that exists among transnational organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups, particularly in Africa.  This particular exploration was initiated from the hypothesis that there is substantiation sustaining the premise that terrorist groups and transnational organized crime syndicates function in a symbiotic correlation that is advantageous to both antagonists. Additionally, questions were posed as to which degree terrorist groups are predisposed by financial gains to continue or even expand their association with organized crime groups, what is the principal rationale for terrorist groups to become involved in crime, how does the connection with international crime groups influence the capability of terrorist groups to continue their operations, and what is the repercussions of said relationship for security, peace, democracy, human rights, economic development, good governance, building state capacity, maintaining the rule of law and inter-state relations? In conclusion, potential counter-measures and recommendations were briefly highlighted so as to indicate how the nexus amongst terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates can mostly effectively be limited or perhaps fully eradicated.

KEYWORDS:  terrorism, organized crime, crime syndicates, transnational crime, nexus, counter-measures, drug smuggling.


Terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates should no longer be seen in the 21st century as two dissimilar and isolated entities. In the early 1990’s law enforcement agencies noted an escalating level of cooperation between terrorist groups and organized crime networks. Both criminal organizations and terrorist groups all over the globe are increasingly cooperating for the mutual benefit of each antagonist. Whereas, initially terrorist groups were motivated by ideological, political, religious or ethnic objectives, and organized crime syndicates were induced by, for the most part, economic/financial and territorial aspirations, the situation has changed significantly since the 21st century into a situation where most terrorist groups are now involved in some or other form of criminal activity, and organized crime syndicates are increasingly becoming involved in political violence. This growing symbiosis between the two groups have made both more influential, in that terrorist groups have been able to expand their area of operations, augment their financial resources, acquired sophisticated weaponry/equipment, enhanced their intelligence/technological capacities, and organized crime groups, on the other hand, have started to utilize terror tactics such as assassinations, political violence and bombings to terrorize society and governments.

Definitions of Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime

In order to clarify the term of terrorism, it should be taken into account that numerous definitions for terrorism exist.  Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, the definition as per the Africa Union Convention on the Prevention and Combating on Terrorism (1999) shall be applied.  The aforementioned Convention defines terrorism as:

Acts which violate the criminal laws of a State Party and which may endanger the life, physical integrity or freedom of, or cause serious injury or death to, any person, any number of group of persons or cause damage to public or private property, natural resources, environmental or cultural heritage and are calculated or intended to intimidate, put in fear, force, coerce or induce any government body, institution, the general public or any segment thereof, to do or abstain from doing any act, or to adapt or abandon a particular standpoint, or to act according to certain principles, or disrupt any public service, the delivery of essential service to the public or to create a public emergency; or create general insurrection in a State.

Organized crime refers to crimes committed by national and international criminal organizations, and according to Article 3 (2) of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, a transnational criminal offense is regarded as such if the following conditions are associated with it:

  •    It is committed in more than one State,
  •   It is committed in  one State but a substantial part of its preparation, planning, direction or control takes place in another State,
  •   It is committed in one State, but involves an organized criminal group that engages in criminal activities in more than one State; or
  •   It is committed in one State but has substantial effects in another State

Relationship between terrorist groups and transnational crime syndicates

However, the link between terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1980’s, terrorist groups in Latin America turned to drug smuggling to subsidize their activities.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) grew substantially, in terms of its terror capacity and financial influence, when it began to traffic cocaine.  Since then, the FARC has diversified its primary cocaine trade from the United States to Europe by the way of West Africa.  In 1985, the Medellin drug cartel in Columbia joined forces with the 19th of April Movement (M19) terrorist group to help them in bomb-making techniques, which the Medellin group later used to murder judges, policemen, drug enforcement agents and border police members.1   However, most analysts agree that the 1990’s was the time-period in which the nexus between organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups was consolidated.2   Where, beforehand, terrorist groups were perceived as having political, ideological, religious and ethnic goals, today most terrorist groups are engaged in organized crime for financial gain, and some criminal syndicates are engaged in political violence through their inter-relationship with terrorist groups.

Since the 1990’s some transnational organized crime groups have become smaller, more loosely organized entities that have become more ideologically radicalized and now actively pursue business in the interest of politics as well as to support the goals of terrorist groups if it is to the benefit of the former.3.  In this relationship both groups are involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, cigarette smuggling, smuggling in narcotics and psychotropic substances, the sale of expired food products, the manufacture and sale of counterfeit medicines, manufacturing and sale of intellectual property, fraud, contraband smuggling, illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW), advance fee fraud/419, stolen vehicles, corruption, forced labor, corruption, trafficking of wildlife products, trade in rare metals, diamonds, gold, precious stones, extortion, identity theft, cybercrime, counterfeit computer software, music piracy, forged documents, counterfeit currency, sea piracy, oil bunkering and kidnap for ransom.

The symbiosis between organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups are making both groups more powerful and more capable.  Terrorist groups are benefitting from the revenue of criminal activities to perpetuate their terror activities and expand their theatre of operations, whilst organized crime syndicates are using the established smuggling routes of terrorist groups to expand their illicit markets, to increase their profit and to use the tactics of terrorist groups to gain political power.  Terrorist groups have  become more willing to partner up with organized crime, including the sharing of smuggling routes, profits, corruptive influence, operational and organizational modus operandi and sharing of expertise.  This symbiotic relationship is challenging the locale of global and national security by weakening democracy, abating state institutions, damaging the credibility of financial institutions, being harmful to the social fabric of society, and infiltrating the formal economy.

The closer collaboration amid terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates in the 21st century was for the most part brought on by four major developments:

  • Globalization, which brought about free trade flow across international borders, a vast reduction of trade barriers between countries and an augmentation in global travel;
  • The communication revolution, through the wider use of the internet – both organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups are progressively using the internet and cyberspace for recruitment, planning, propaganda, logistics, funding, video/music piracy, credit card/banking fraud, identity theft, the sale of illegal drugs, extortion, sharing of intelligence, creation of fraudulent documents, conception of new markets for their illegal activities, and money laundering.  It has also brought closer cooperation due to expanded  access to cyberspace for business, and the spreading out of the global financial systems,  which enables both terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates to expand their criminal/terror activities.  Through their close collaboration with organized crime syndicates, terrorist groups have augmented their competence to exploit the internet and cyberspace.  The knowledge terrorist groups have gained from organized crime groups in this area has enabled the former to activate encryption devices and to use software tools to locate open ports and overcome password tools to steal identities, commit credit card fraud, launder money and extort banking/business institutions for millions of dollars;
  • The end of the Cold War and the diminishing of funds from the Persian Gulf, charities and other non-governmental fronts have compelled terrorist groups to adapt and further diversify their funding sources. Due to the fact that terrorist groups need funding for recruitment, monthly stipends, accommodation, food, fuel, weapons, training, administrative expenses, medical costs, payments to the families of deceased members, travel, communication/surveillance equipment, the maintenance of internet sites, explosives/bomb-making material, these groups found a ready partner in organized crime groups to maintain their terror war.4.  Furthermore, by building an affiliation with organized crime, terrorist groups now have access to specialist skills such as the forging of travel documents, new bomb-making techniques, access to expertise in the illegal transfer and laundering of money.  Consequently, “traditional” criminal activities like drug smuggling, robbery, piracy, forgery, counterfeiting, arms trafficking, human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, fraud, extortion, traffic in precious stones, rare metals, smuggling of wildlife products, money laundering, and other forms of violent crime, rapidly became the main source of terrorism funding;
  • The intensified “War on Terror” after 9/11 led to increased global cooperation on counter terrorism which led to a further decline in state-sponsored terrorism.5

Effect of Organised Crime on Africa

As in the rest of the international community, organized crime has had a detrimental effect on Africa in terms of economic development, building of state institutions, democratization and and security. Since the 20th century, organized crime has become a multi-billion dollar industry with an intrinsic disadvantageous consequence in all the countries in which it has established itself.

Moreover, in 2009, the World Bank’s World development Report estimated the value of revenue accruing to organized crime to be in the region of $1.3 trillion.6   The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) global figures suggest that Africa was in some way linked to 7-10 per cent of illicit trade.7 

Thus, while African trade accounts for only 3 per cent of global trade in goods and services and only 2.4 per cent of global GDP in the licit economy, if we look at the same scale of illicit flows it becomes clear that while Africa has benefitted disproportionately from legitimate growth, the same is also true of illicit economic activity8.  In the same vein, it can be assumed that the impact organized crime has had on stability and economic development in Africa has been profound.  Some examples clearly illustrate this point:

  •  West Africa has emerged as a major transit and repackaging hub for cocaine flowing from Latin American cocaine-producing areas to European markets.  About 13 per cent of cocaine trafficked to Europe is transited via Guinea-Bissau,9 which amounts to at least 25 tons per year with a minimum market value of $4.29billion.10  Large seizures of illicit drugs were made in and along the coast of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Togo, Liberia, Benin, Senegal and Nigeria, proving that these countries are correspondingly being used as transit routes for drug trafficking.  It is estimated that up to 30 tons of heroin from Afghanistan is trafficked into East Africa by drug smuggling cartels.  The heroin reaches East Africa primarily through Somalia. The drug is then smuggled by the terrorist group al-Shabaab via local crime syndicates to Mombasa (Kenya) and South Africa, from where it is smuggled to the lucrative end-user market in Europe.
  •  Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon are ranked among the top countries in the world where cybercrime is most prevalent, contributing to a global flow of $600 million per year.11
  •  Somali piracy cost the global economy financial losses of between $6.6-6.9 billion in 2011.12
  • A recent report by the United States State Department on money laundering claims that Kenya’s financial system may be laundering more than $100 million per year.13
  • Illicit trafficking in ivory, diamonds, gold, tin, tantalum, cobalt, coltan (a very important and rare mineral used as a semi-conductor in the growing mobile and computer technology industry) and natural resources out of Central Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is facilitating sustained insecurity caused by armed groups and is contributing to illicit flows estimated at over $1.2 billion per year.14 Armed groups, particularly in the eastern and northern DRC, still play a significant role in perpetuating instability and violence in order to protect vested interests in mineral and other resources.  It is estimated there are still between 6500 -13,000 active members of armed groups who are benefiting from criminal activity and their relationship with organized crime groups.15
  • In Somalia, al-Shabaab was enabled by the illegal export of charcoal from Kismaayo port to organized crime groups to continue their armed conflict against the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  Since its expulsion from Kismaayo in 2012, Al Shabaab has found alternative means of finance by importing drugs (heroin from Afghanistan, amphetamines, mandrax and ecstasy from India, Pakistan and South-East Asia) through smaller ports in Somalia (including the Puntland port of Bosaso) and smuggling the drugs into Kenya, from which point they are smuggled by local crime groups to markets in South Africa and Europe.
  • Illicit trade in gold, copper, diamonds, tanzanite, timber, ivory and rhino horn between organized crime syndicates and armed groups/terrorist groups/armed militia eventually spread east and southwards towards Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda and South Africa.  The Sahel countries of Mali, Mauritania and Niger are showing increasingly volatility and insecurity, caused by increased drug trafficking from the south and instability to the north, most notably in Libya, resulting in a dangerous intersection of crime, terrorism and insurgency.16  There is evidence that AQIM has links with Latin American drug cartels, where the former provide protection for cocaine shipments through the Sahel en route to Europe.  The same can be said of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), where this group has accepted in-kind cocaine payment from Latin American drug traffickers.  The new relationship between these groups has afforded the drug cartels new smuggling routes for their product through territory controlled by terrorist groups, and for the terrorist groups the working relationship with organized crime syndicates provides them with funds to expand their operational/technical capabilities, acquire sophisticated equipment/weaponry and spread their violent activities beyond their traditional areas of operation.17

In fact, when other illicit flows of capital due to a variety of forms of smuggling, trade in contraband, violations of intellectual property rights, human trafficking, the sex trade, and other illegal activities is included, a report by Global Financial Integrity estimates that cross-border flow of money from Africa increases considerably from $854 billion to about $1.8 trillion over the last four decades,18 with earnings generated through drug trafficking, racketeering and counterfeiting adding about 30-35 per cent to the total, and the proceeds of bribery, theft and corruption by government officials a further 3 percent.19

Drug Trafficking in Africa

Primarily due to decreased demand for cocaine in the United States and improved drug enforcement strategies in that country, drug smuggling cartels in Latin America switched their attention in the 1990’s to the burgeoning cocaine market in Europe.  Realizing that a direct smuggling route from Latin America to Europe was a high risk (due to enhanced drug enforcement capacities in the European Union and the United Kingdom), the drug smuggling syndicates saw Africa as a low risk/high yield smuggling route.  Consequently, the drug cartels developed business relationships with terrorist groups and local organized crime groups in Africa to smuggle cocaine through the continent onto the European markets.

The lack of equipment, shortage of trained drug enforcement officials, poor inter-agency cooperation, insufficient donor coordination, restricted budgets, poverty, large ungoverned land mass and inability to effectively patrol territorial waters made coastal states in West Africa particularly vulnerable to drug traffickers. In the Sahel and North Africa, the cooperation between the drug smuggling cartels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has benefitted both parties.  Through their collaboration with cocaine and heroin drug smuggling cartels, AQIM has significantly enriched itself, enabling the organization to continue its terror campaign.  It is partly due to the increase in revenue that AQIM has been able to acquire sophisticated weapons from arsenals in Libya, which has exponentially led to greater instability in the region.

It can clearly be established that the drug trafficking cartels of Latin America (particularly those situated in Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela), as well as the drug smuggling syndicates in Afghanistan, Pakistan and south-East Asia, are increasingly using Africa as a transit point for cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and amphetamines to Europe and southern Africa. Most cocaine powder, cocaine hydrochloride, is manufactured in Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile, and is then trans-shipped by maritime and air routes to West Africa, where cocaine powder is refined into cocaine hydrochloride, repackaged in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and then smuggled by terrorist groups and local crime groups through the Sahel to the large ports of the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Italy and the UK.  Multi-ton shipments of illicit drugs travel by sea and air to Africa, mainly passing through countries along the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahel and Sahara regions. There are vast unpatrolled areas along the coast of West Africa and in the Sahel where the ships dock and the airplanes land to offload cargo.  Both organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups in Africa and Latin America share a part of the estimated billion dollar cocaine industry, while terrorist groups in Africa and the South –East Asian drug cartels share in the $30 billion global heroin market.20

In addition, hashish trafficking from Morocco is estimated at $12.5 billion.  Hashish was the major source of funding for three major terrorist attacks:  the aborted attack on a US Navy vessel in Gibraltar in 2002, the bombing of several sites in Casablanca in May 2003 and the March 2004attack in Madrid.21


In the map above, it can be seen that Africa (specifically West Africa, the Sahel, East and Southern Africa), is used as a major transit route for Cocaine originating in Latin America (green arrows) and Opiates from Afghanistan (red arrows).


Most of the illegal drugs from Latin America are transshipped by cargo/container ship and airplanes (Gulfstream jets and Boeing 727s) to West Africa (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Ghana, the Casamance region of Senegal, the Bisagos Archipelago (south-west of Guinea-Bissau with its 88 sparsely populated islands), South Africa and the Sahel, from where terrorist groups, particularly AQIM and MUJAO,  and local crime groups (when the drugs are shipped via South Africa) smuggle it across land and by commercial or private air to Europe. A portion of the cocaine smuggled along this route in Africa also gets smuggled to Europe via air routes by using the airports of Cameroon, Senegal, Benin and Ghana. In most cases, local crime syndicates use so-called “drug mules,” individuals who are paid a fee to transport the drugs in their luggage, on their person or by swallowing small bags of cocaine. With the organized crime syndicates being intimately involved in human trafficking, these individuals may also be used to smuggle illegal drugs within their bodies.


         1,  David O’Regan, “Cocaine and Instability in Africa: Lessons from Latin America and the Caribbean,” Africa Security Brief Volume 5, July 2010.

      2. Lee Shelley & J. Picarelli, “Methods and Motives: Exploring links between transnational organized crime and terrorism” Global Crime 6(1), February 2004.

           3.  J. Rollins & l. Sun-Wyler, “International terrorism and transnational crime: security threats and US policy and considerations for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, Washington, March 2010,  p.5.

         4. Charles Goredema, “Organised crime and terrorism: Observations from South Africa,” ISS Paper, no.101, March 2005, p.4.

         5. Christina Schori Liang, “Shadow Networks: The growing nexus of terrorism and organized crime,” GCSP Policy Paper, no.20, September 2011, p.2.

      6. World Bank, World development report 2009: reshaping economic geography, Washington, DC, 2009.

        7. Ibid, p. 11.

           8. UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime), “The transatlantic cocaine market: a research paper, Vienna, April 2011, p.2.

            9. UNODC, World Drug Report 2010, Vienna, p.242.

      10. UNODC, The globalization of crime, 2010, Vienna, p.11.

            11.  Oceans beyond piracy, The economic costs of piracy 2011, One Earth Foundation,

     12. Peter Gastrow, “Termites at work: transnational organized crime and state erosion in Kenya”, International Peace Institute, New York, September 2011, p.7.

      13. UNODC, World Drug Report 2010, Vienna, p.242.

          14.  Mark Shaw & Tuesday Reitano, “The evolution of organized crime in Africa: towards a new response”, Institute for Security Studies, Paper 244, April 2013, p.7.

     15. Geoffrey York, “Coup in Guinea-Bissau shines light on powerful West African drug trade”, The Globe and Mail, 13 April 2012.

     16. Global Financial Index (GFI), “Illicit financial flows from Africa”, p.11.

          17.  ACSRT/CAERT (African Union), “Threat of Terrorism and Linkages to Transnational Organized Crime. 2010. p. 6.

      18. Foreign Policy, “We have no idea if Africa is rising”, 28 January 2013, http//www.foreign

         19. Global Financial Index (GFI), “Illicit financial flows from Africa”, p.11.

     20. Christina Schori Liang, “Shadow networks: the growing nexus between terrorism and organized crime”, GCSP Policy Paper, No. 20, September 2011, p.2.

          21. Ibid, p.2.

      22. Drug Enforcement Joint Task Force (DEA) 2011, p.17.

      23.…saving– south- American- drug-barons.

 Judith Van der Merwe  Is a Specialist (Alert and Prevention) at the Africa Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism in Algiers, Algeria.  Her field of study encompasses the Horn of Africa (Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea), East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda) and southern Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Madagascar).  She is primarily involved in analyzing terrorist incidents/terrorist trends in the regions mentioned.  Additionally she is also involved in research on the impact of organized crime in the region.

 The preceding article is a guest contribution to the Aberfoyle International Security website and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Aberfoyle International Security.