Islamist Militants and Organized Crime

4 MINS READJun 15, 2004 | 16:49 GMT
Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) said June 13 they are facing a backlog of hundreds of cigarette-smuggling cases. This caseload, officials said, is markedly higher than it was five years ago, partly because of increased awareness that militant organizations are entering the business as a fund-raising venture — and because of efforts to intervene. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government has cracked down on funding sources for militants in the United States and abroad. This effort has focused primarily on blocking access to charitable organizations that are sympathetic to militant causes and on freezing the funds of suspected donors. The Saudi government has followed suit by cutting off resources from charitable organizations known to support or suspected of supporting Islamist militants. Faced with the prospect of financial disaster, militant cells have been forced to exercise entrepreneurial skills — and are turning to organized crime. Islamist militants are not the first to resort to organized crime to help fund operations — and they will not be the last. Albanian and Chechen separatists have long been affiliated with organized criminal activity in everything from drug smuggling to trafficking in humans. The Taliban once relied heavily on the opium trade for much of its income. Colombian insurgent and paramilitary groups have morphed from using the drug trade to fund their operations to getting into the business full time. The Irish Republican Army and its rival Ulster Volunteer Force also have engaged in organized crime over the years. Islamist militants, it appears, are being pragmatic by turning to crime to line their coffers. The bombers responsible for the March 11 attacks in Madrid were identified quickly as drug dealers. Also, 17 men were arrested in Charlotte, N.C., in 2003 under suspicion of cigarette smuggling for the militant group Hezbollah, to which ATF officials claimed they had funneled thousands of dollars. Hezbollah also has funded operations in the past by selling knock-off designer products on street corners in New York City. Cigarette smuggling and trafficking is a lucrative and fairly simply criminal operation. In the North Carolina case, the men were suspected of buying cigarettes in bulk in Virginia and other places and then shipping them to New York, where they could be sold on the street at a 100 percent profit. An alternative, and riskier, method is simply to hijack a cigarette shipment, then resell the product. Of course, organized criminal activities that can be linked to terrorism are not limited to cigarette smuggling.
  • The drug trade is a common and lucrative business for any militant organization. It has been used in Europe by various militant groups and in Colombia by the paramilitary organizations to fund their own operations.
  • Human trafficking and kidnapping are other common fund-raising methods employed by militant groups. This can take the form of smuggling individuals for pay through international borders or trading in human beings, a practice well documented in the Balkans. Kidnapping for ransom has taken place in Colombia for years and is emerging as a tactic in Iraq.
  • Weapons smuggling is another lucrative trade. Police uncovered a Sicilian organized crime ring engaged in weapons smuggling in Italy that is suspected of doing business with local Islamist militants.
  • A number of stories also have been leaked about militant groups buying diamonds in conflict-ridden African nations — where legitimate diamond companies are restricted from operating by self-imposed regulations — and then smuggling them to Europe and the United States. As revenue streams for militant groups become restricted by government pressure, it will become increasingly common to see Islamist militants engaged in activities normally associated with organized crime. Then the lines will blur between the various militant groups — and also between ideology-driven militants and common criminals. This involvement in illicit operations could render militant cells more vulnerable to detection. On the other hand, unlike Colombian and Albanian groups, the more staunchly ideological jihadists will use the drug trade as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, making them less ambitious and probably more capable of flying under law enforcement radar.
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