Governments around the world are scrambling to understand the various terrorist networks that make situations like the ISIS crisis in Iraq possible. Given other high-profile incidents in Nigeria and Kenya in recent weeks, it’s not a stretch to connect terrorism and crime with high poverty and little government control.
But researchers from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point say reality is much more complicated.
“There is a tendency in the policy community to see the dangers of crime-terror connectivity as stemming from poor countries and failed states, but this only speaks to part of the problem,” they wrote wrote in a recent paper.
“The link between economics and criminality is complicated, with divergent expectations based on an assessment of conditions that drive push and pull,” they added.
For the study, they analyzed relationships between 2,700 individuals involved in terrorism, illegal narcotics trade, human trafficking and political corruption in in 122 countries. Among other things, they found that these activities aren’t linked to impoverished countries, and are in fact more likely to spawn in developed regions.
“There may be fewer legitimate means to amass wealth in poor countries, pushing individuals toward crime, but the ample opportunities that exist in wealthy countries may pull people toward criminality.”
In fact, wealthy, developed countries are prone to crime-terror activity for various reasons.
“The allure of accessing wealthy markets and individuals may be too much for criminals or terrorists to pass up,” they wrote. “These markets offer criminals and terrorists the opportunity to make illicit profits, reinvest assets, gain know-how, access material resources and choose among an array of targets.”
These types of connections help funnel the finances into illicit economic activities, which make up 20 to 30 percent of the global economy, or about $50 to $70 trillion.
“That money is not put under mattresses or tucked away in warehouses.” they added, explaining that it makes it way into banks, investment vehicles, real estate and others. Al Qaeda once made forays into a Chicago stock account. These types of activities are what make the criminals hard to catch.
“U.S. authorities will go after money linked to illicit activity, but once it is introduced into the local economy, distinguishing between the licit and illicit funds becomes difficult,” they write.
“The authorities tasked with addressing this issue seem to be losing the financial arms race as the adversaries’ financiers often manage to stay a step ahead,” they wrote.
One of the problems is a misconception about terror and criminal groups. Most analysts and policymakers tend to distinguish actors by their ends when in fact, they are more connected than most people think. The ultimate goals of narcotics dealers, and political terrorists may not align, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work together.
In fact, the West Point researchers found that 35 percent of the links maintained by criminal and suspicious individuals cross over into terrorism. This is what policymakers don’t understand, at their own peril.
“Rather than finding multiple parallel or disconnected networks separated by geography and illicit activity, almost all of the 2,700-person sample is subsumed in a single large global structure.”
“The end goals of criminals and terrorists differ, but they both require political space and resources in the intermediate stage,” the report says.
For instance, criminals require resources to make profit and sanctuary to escape police, and terrorist groups need to fuel their political activities while controlling government-free areas. Often, this means the groups will work together.
“Undoubtedly, there are some criminals who would knowingly refuse to work with terrorists, and there may be terrorists whose ideological convictions prevent them from working with criminals,” they wrote. However, “moral or ethical obstacles may impede cooperation for some, but this study suggests that many in the illicit network are not constrained in such a fashion.”
The report also outlines best practices for governments and international authorities to fight this. In essence, they need to fight the interconnectivity with co-operation. Currently, governments don’t often work together. Plus, it’s important to know that taking down a leader isn’t enough to destroy a group, since the people with the strongest ties hover near the mid-level.
“Removing the kingpins will not crash the network,” they advise.