In this newsletter we will examine the relationship between organized criminal groups (OCGs) and various conflict actors, including violent extremist organizations (VEOs) due to its significant influence on conflict dynamics, peacebuilding, and human rights. This newsletter will first look at some misconceptions around OCG and VEO relationships, before taking a more in depth look at the spectrum of relationships between OCGs and conflict actors, the ways these relationships impact conflict, dynamics between these actors and local communities, and finally, discuss potential intervention strategies.
Image taken from: "Trafficking in the Sahel: Gas Lighting" UN News
While OCGs span continents, they particularly flourish in conflict-affected and post-conflict states. Organized criminal groups affect conflict at every stage and level, as fuel for violent conflicts, key actors within conflicts, and as obstacles to conflict resolution, transformation, and recovery. The convergence of extremist and criminal milieus has also emerged as a critical issue affecting the security and stability of various regions globally. The multi-faceted dynamics between organized crime and violent conflict has led observers to describe the convergence between the two as a “nexus” given the complexity of the dynamics between the two. The crime-conflict nexus has become an increasing concern of states and intergovernmental organizations, like the United Nations.
Definitional Challenges and Limitations
The lack of a universally agreed definition of key terms such as “terrorism” and “violent-extremism” complicates the development of a framework attempting to capture the relationship between OCGs and different conflict actors. This leads to one of the main criticisms of the crime-conflict nexus, or its more specific variation, the “crime-terror nexus”, namely, the conflation of a variety of different actors involved at the intersection of crime and conflict. As a result, literature on the crime-terror nexus may often fail to differentiate between transnational and local violent groups, violent non-extremists and violent extremists, the local members of a group and its core-leadership, or terrorist groups and insurgencies that control territory. It is also important to note that some actors may best be described as hybrid actors.
Another concern is the tendency for the literature to “overlook the multiple roles of the state in economies of violence” which removes a critical actor from the analysis. The literature on the crime-terror nexus has often overlooked the politicization of the concept, and the fact that states may use the concept as a cover for their own participation in predatory and/or illicit behavior. Individuals and groups (not just conflict actors) who “sponsor” such activities may be able to ascend political hierarchies to become important political figures. In such instances, state weakness may matter less than state predation or corruption.
Another problem identified within the literature on the crime-terror nexus, has been uncertainty over what constitutes genuine collaboration between criminal and conflict actors. How strong do connections between criminal groups and “terrorist organizations” have to be for it to be considered a “nexus”? This has led some observers to question the empirical value of describing these connections as a “Crime-terror nexus”. Nevertheless, the relationship between OCGs and conflict actors, including VEOs has a substantial impact on violent conflict as a whole and state policies, security dynamics, violent extremist proliferation, the capabilities of VEOs, and civilian life in particular. It is important therefore, while acknowledging potential complications in discussing this topic, to assess what relationships do exist and what their impacts are.
The Crime-Conflict Nexus
Organized crime and violent conflict tend to empower and perpetuate one another. Organized criminal groups can have a profound impact on conflict, both in increasing community vulnerability to it and exacerbating it with respect to intensity or character. Human trafficking networks in Libya for instance, have had a substantial impact on a large number of matters of peace and conflict in the country, including, among other things:
Weakening the legitimacy of local officials,
The deterioration of the capacity of state institutions
The prevention of democratic participation among citizens
The triggering local conflicts through sudden inflows of income in particular communities
The provision of cheap labor to armed groups
Examining the intersection of organized crime and violent conflict is crucial to tackling both issues, as the two can reinforce and empower each-other in a variety of important ways.
The relationship between criminal actors and conflict actors has become a prominent feature of many conflict zones. This relationship can take many forms. Various rebel, insurgent, terrorist, and violent extremist organizations have developed relationships with organized criminal groups that vary according to their character, scope, and purpose. Some of these relationships are as simple as an exchange of protection for cash. For instance, the Peruvian Shining Path, Colombia's FARC, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka have generated revenue by acting as security support for drug cartels. Some relationships see one party conduct operations for the other, as was seen with the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) which was hired by Cartels to conduct car bombings. Sometimes these connections transform organizations into hybrid organizations. The separatist Abu Sayyaf organization, which was influenced by al-Qaeda and seeks an independent Muslim state in the Southern Philippines, initially engaged in illicit activities like kidnapping and drug trafficking to raise revenue for its political project. Over time however, scholars observed that the group's ideology became secondary to its profit motivations. Intersections between criminal networks and conflict actors will look different depending on the area, the actor, the socio-political context, the type of illicit activity, and the time-period. Such relationships are largely defined by their opportunistic nature, and are, as a result, very fluid.
Why Do Organized Criminal Groups and Conflict Groups Collaborate?
The nature and extent of interactions between armed groups and criminal networks are often determined by strategic and practical considerations. Many armed groups engage in opportunistic relationships based on personal connections, points of mutual interest, and shared social space and avoid systematic convergence with criminal networks for a variety of ideological and strategic reasons. For conflict actors, balancing financial needs and maintaining legitimacy is a key concern. While conflict actors require funds and certain commodities, making participation in illicit economies necessary for many groups, their participation, depending on its character and scope, can positively or negatively affect their social legitimacy. Whether engagement with an illicit activity is a net benefit or a net cost for a group depends on a number of factors. When groups directly participate in unpopular activities, for example, their participation can come at the expense of social legitimacy. On the other hand, when they act in a protector role, as Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has done, by protecting civilian access to illegal gold mining sites, they can increase social legitimacy. These considerations, along with a number of other practical and strategic ones, guide a group's relationship to illicit networks, economies, and activities.
States and inter-governmental organizations are increasingly concerned about relationships between local and transregional criminal networks (TCNs) and violent extremist organizations (VEO’s) in particular, highlighting in specific what was previously, and sometimes problematically, referred to as a “crime-terror nexus”. There are a couple of reasons why the “crime-terror nexus” has become a greater concern over recent decades:
Some traditional revenue streams of terrorist groups have declined, namely state sponsorships and charitable donations. Consequently, various forms of trafficking in illicit commodities and participation in other illicit activities has emerged as an alternative revenue stream for many terrorist organizations.
Weakening state capacity and porous borders have created permissive environments for TCNs and VEOs to form mutually beneficial situational relationships
Both criminal and conflict actors have been able to exploit advancements in information and communication technologies
To some degree, the development of such a nexus might be considered a logical extension of the operational requirements of terrorist organizations. In light of this, it has been suggested to view terrorism as a sort of “complex, multi-layered brick wall” given that every associated activity benefits from some level of collaboration with OCGs. For instance, the operational requirements of terrorist organizations generally entail the need to procure:
Fraudulent documentation (facilitated by counterfeiters and networks with access to primary materials)
Weapons, explosives, and illicit commodities (OCGs may provide them and/or the means to conceal and transfer them)
Training, and travel (often necessitates border crossing, requiring the use of smuggling networks, routes, and/or spaces where OCGs have a high degree of influence, such as the WAP complex in the Sahel)
On top of these logistical demands, terrorist groups obviously need funds, which they can generate through relationships with OCGs. Since these activities have been severely restricted by the state, it makes sense that terrorist groups and other conflict actors have been pushed into increased engagement with OCGs. Involvement in criminal activities on the part of violent extremist organizations are not merely a product of organic convergences however, but also of strategic decisions.
For instance, VEOs like Daesh and Boko Haram may use predatory economic behavior as a means to control and influence populations. Some groups combine violence with organized crime and strategic looting as a tactic. Both groups have used human trafficking networks as a means to intimidate and subjugate local populations while strengthening in-group cohesiveness and identity in the process. These networks offer Boko Haram and Daeshexpedient strategies to enhance recruitment and rewards for group members by offering them wives and domestic slaves. These opportunities are all the more frequent and lucrative in weak states and vulnerable communities. Another strategic benefit conflict actors might receive from participation in organized crime is increased governance capabilities. Groups in Afghanistan and Colombia for instance have used the proceeds from criminal activities to provide basic needs and services to marginalized and under-served populations, enhancing the groups governing credibility in the process.
While weakening state capacity has contributed to greater convergence between organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations, as reports from the European Union acknowledge, these convergences are also happening in relatively stable countries where the mainstream assumption among academics and elites is that criminal groups would not work with terrorist organizations as it would increase the OCG’s vulnerability to state authorities.
While it is true that linkages between OCG’s and terrorist groups generally originate in states with weak state capacity and porous borders, regional interconnectivity means that those linkages impact linkages within more stable states with high state capacity, generating greater vulnerabilities in those states, with the most serious terrorist plots in the EU being organized by cells with transregional connections. Consequently, as one report notes, “both OCG and terrorist groups [in EU states] have learned to adapt their operations to limit their vulnerability to the detection of law enforcement and security services, whilst benefiting from a variety of organizational and operational linkages.”
Recommendations and Next Steps
The first step in developing a response to a specific crime-conflict nexus is understanding the situational and institutional relationships between the OCGs and the conflict actors. How deep are the connections? What kind of illicit activities are they involved in? How do local communities perceive that activity and the groups relationship to it? What is the relationship between the groups and local communities? One of the most important things a state’s response must account for is the degree to which a local community depends on the illicit economy or an illicit commodity in particular. For instance, state’s may look to take a hardline approach to drug trafficking due to its frequent intersection with violent extremism. However, a hardline legalist approach that fails to provide economic alternatives for local communities that may depend on it to make a living (such as some rural Afghan communities with Opium cultivation), will leave those communities continuously vulnerable to exploitation by violent extremists and other groups participating in the illicit economy.
The disadvantages of such an approach can be observed with Sahelian efforts to counter motorbike trafficking, with motorbikes emerging as an essential commodity for VEOs in the region. Bans and curfew policies from Sahelian states have proved more disadvantageous for everyday citizens than for VEOs and have, in some cases, facilitated recruitment for VEOs. The same can also be said to state approaches to artisanal gold mining, in which VEOs acting as de facto guarantors of local community prospecting has led to greater support for groups like JNIM, as states crackdowns on gold mining has allowed JNIM to position themselves as protectors of and providers of economic opportunities.
Ultimately, responses must be even more sensitive to local feelings than the approaches taken by VEOs themselves. A ban or curfew on motorbikes for instance, will be, and has been, counter-productive. Interventions targeting popular illicit activities like artisanal gold-mining will pose different challenges than interventions targeting KFR, and require different solutions. As one report noted, state crackdowns on gold mining “has frequently proved counterproductive and played into JNIM’s governance narratives, where the group positions itself as a provider of economic opportunities, and a ‘gatekeeper’ enabling access to resources forbidden by the state.” Instead, states ought to prioritize service provision and economic opportunities, so they can outcompete with VEOs for legitimacy and separate civilians from the crime-terror nexus as much as possible.
The importance of civilian attitudes to this nexus is illustrated by how territory changes VEO behavior. The status of a territory in relation to the group (whether they control it or whether they are infiltrating the territory) affects their relationship to illicit activities like livestock theft and KFR. In areas they are infiltrating JNIM may generate revenue directly through the looting of livestock, however in areas they control, they adopt a fairer governance based approach that is more likely to be supported by local communities. Similarly, KFR was unpopular in areas that JNIM controlled, seeing it as a problem for sustaining local legitimacy. Understanding the importance of local support, when issues of funding and issues of legitimacy conflict, VEOs like JNIM tend to care more about legitimacy. States ought to similarly center local attitudes in their response to the crime-terror nexus, by emphasizing local well-being and sustainability in their responses.
The strategic demand to center local communities in state responses should not preclude security or legalist approaches where they make sense. Getting this balance right requires an understanding of local communities and their relationship to the illicit economy just as much as it requires an understanding of the VEOs or OCGs. First and foremost, responses to the crime-conflict nexus must be contextual. They must understand the difference between illicit networks that are considered legitimate by local communities and those that only benefit a small number of figures within VEOs and TCNs. In addition, responses must have solutions for providing alternative economic opportunities.