Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
Blood money. Some scholars argue that terrorists and traditional crime groups both now exist on a single, violent plane, populated at one end by politically minded jihadists and at the other by profit-driven mobsters, with most groups falling somewhere in between. Mafia groups and drug rings in Colombia and the Balkans, for example, commit political assassinations and bomb police and prosecutors, while terrorist gangs in Europe and North Africa traffic in drugs and illegal aliens. Both crime syndicates and terrorist groups thrive in the same subterranean world of black markets and laundered money, relying on shifting networks and secret cells to accomplish their objectives. Both groups have similar needs: weapons, false documentation, and safe houses.
But some U.S. intelligence analysts see little evidence of this melding of forces. Marriages of convenience may exist, they say, but the key difference is one of motive: Terrorist groups are driven by politics and religion, while purely criminal groups have just one thing in mind--profit. Indeed, associating with terrorists, particularly since 9/11, can be very bad for business--and while crime syndicates may be parasitical, most do not want to kill their host.
What many intelligence analysts do see today, however, is terrorist organizations stealing whole chapters out of the criminal playbook--trafficking in narcotics, counterfeit goods, illegal aliens--and in the process converting their terrorist cells into criminal gangs.
The terrorist gang behind the train bombings in Madrid last year, for example, financed itself almost entirely with money earned from trafficking in hashish and ecstasy. Al Qaeda's affiliate in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah, engages in bank robbery and credit card fraud; its 2002 Bali bombings were financed, in part, through jewelry store robberies that netted over 5 pounds of gold. In years past, many terrorist groups would have steered away from criminal activity, worried that such tactics might tarnish their image. But for hard-pressed jihadists, committing crimes against nonbelievers is increasingly seen as acceptable. As Abu Bakar Bashir, Jemaah Islamiyah's reputed spiritual head, reportedly said: "You can take their blood; then why not take their property?"
_ The implications are troubling because organized crime offers a means for terrorist groups to increase their survivability. A Stanford University study conducted after the 9/11 attacks looked at why some conflicts last so much longer than others. One key factor: crime. Out of 128 conflicts, the 17 in which insurgents relied heavily on "contraband finances" lasted on average 48 years--over five times as long as the rest. "If the criminal underworld can keep terrorist coffers flush," says Charles, the former State Department official, "we will continue to face an enemy that would otherwise run out of oxygen."
The growing reliance on crime stems from the end of the Cold War, when state sponsorship of terrorism largely faded along with communism, forcing groups to become much more self-sufficient. Accelerating the trend, analysts say, is the crackdown since 9/11 on fundraising by Islamic radicals from mosques and charities, which has pushed their operations further toward racketeering. "The bottom line is if you want to survive today as a terrorist, you probably have to support yourself," says Raphael Perl, a counterterrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service. The drug trade, in particular, has proved irresistible for many. Nearly half of the 41 groups on the government's list of terrorist organizations are tied to narcotics trafficking, according to DEA statistics.