Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
For a brief moment in the early '90s, American cops, spies, and soldiers did come together on a common target of crime and terrorism--Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cocaine cartel. Escobar's killers were blamed for the murder of hundreds of Colombian officials and the bombing of an Avianca airliner that killed 110. To get Escobar, firewalls between agencies came down, information was shared, and money and people were focused on destroying one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates. During the 1990s, transnational crime continued to be seen as a national security priority, but it fell off the map after 9/11. Until January of this year, the federal government's chief interagency committee on organized crime hadn't even met for three years. The intelligence community's reporting on the area, although boosted in the past year, remains a near-bottom priority. One knowledgeable source called the quality of work overseas on crime "sorely lacking" and said the best material comes from other governments. Domestically, meanwhile, years of neglect by the FBI of analysis and information technology have left the agency without much useful information in its files. "Everyone thinks we've got huge databases with all our materials on organized crime," says one veteran. "We've got nothing close."
Still, the growing criminal inroads by terrorist groups have raised alarms among a handful of tough-minded policymakers in Washington, and they are pushing for change. The National Security Council has begun work on a new policy on transnational crime that promises to make the crime-terrorism connection a top priority. The CIA's Crime and Narcotics Center is spearheading the work of a dozen agencies in revamping the government's overall assessment of international crime; their report, with special attention to the nexus with terrorism, is scheduled for release early next year. One program that has caught U.S. attention is underway in Great Britain, where London's Metropolitan Police now routinely monitor low-level criminal activity for ties to terrorism, checking over reports of fraud involving banks, credit cards, and travel documents. Similar work is being done by the feds' Joint Terrorism Task Forces in some U.S. cities. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement has prioritized cracking rings smuggling people from high-risk countries, with good success.
"Draining the swamp." In some ways, the deeper involvement by terrorists in traditional criminal activity may make it easier to track them. Criminal informants, who can be tempted with shortened prison time and money, are much easier to develop than the true believers who fill the ranks of terrorist groups. Acts of crime also attract attention and widen the chances that terrorists will make a mistake. Take, for example, a case uncovered this July, in which four men allegedly plotted to wage a jihad against some 20 targets in Southern California, including National Guard facilities, the Israeli Consulate, and several synagogues. Prosecutors said the planned attacks, led by the founder of a radical Islamic prison group, were being funded by a string of gas station robberies. The break in the case came not by an elite counterterrorist squad but by local cops who found a cellphone one of the robbers had lost during a gas station stickup.