The nexus between organised crime and terrorism

The interplay between these threats poses serious challenges to Africa’s peace and security.

What is terrorism? 

What is organised crime?

  • Like ‘terrorism’, the term ‘organised crime’ is continually debated within the international community.
  • The ENACT project adopts the definition used by the UK’s National Crime Agency, which defines organised crime as ‘serious crime that is planned, coordinated and conducted by people working together on a continuing basis, usually, but not always motivated by financial gain.’


What are the key differences? 

  • The main difference is the goal. While terrorism is carried out in order to achieve a political aim, organised crime is usually perpetrated for material gain, financial or otherwise.
  • For terrorist groups, the illicit acquisition or sale of goods and services is most often viewed as a means to achieve their political or ideological goals, rather than the goal itself. By contrast, for organised criminal groups, the illicit acquisition or sale of goods and services is the goal.


How are they similar? 

  • While there are definitional distinctions between organised crime and terrorism, in reality these distinctions may not be clear, as these activities often reinforce one another.
  • Terrorists may engage in criminal activities such as the trafficking of arms, persons, drugs and artefacts; and the illicit trade of natural resources and gemstones; to raise the resources they require for their political purposes. This can have severe impacts on state security, social stability and economic development. In turn, this can create or maintain the conditions for organised criminal groups to flourish.
  • Likewise, organised crime groups may pursue political strategies and use violence to enable and protect their illicit businesses, at times to keep state institutions at bay, or to co-opt state institutions through corruption and patronage networks.


What does this mean for policy makers? 

  • The evolving relationship between terrorism and organised crime poses significant challenges to national governments and the international community, and, as explained above, the activities of terrorists and organised criminals frequently reinforce each other.
  • The linkages between terrorist and organised crime groups are wide-ranging and manifest in various forms, from tolerant coexistence, to cooperative collaboration all the way to convergence, where it is not possible to distinguish the actual purpose of the group. These different linkages make the nexus complex, dynamic and context-based.


What does this mean for Africa?

  • In Africa, different terrorist groups employ contrasting models and ideologies. Though sometimes affiliated to international terrorism ‘brands’, their operations and targets are vested tightly into their local political economy, and opportunistically exploit organised crime markets.
  • Groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have taken advantage of weak state structures, regional crime dynamics, and widespread corruption to engage in kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking to transform their activities, even at the expense of their purported ideological aims.
  • This is problematic for policy makers, who have tended to focus on the ostensible aim of a particular group in a specific geographic area.
  • In Africa, however, it is often not easy to distinguish between the stated political or ideological aim of a particular group and their overtly criminal activities. This calls for a more nuanced approach in countering the organised crime-terrorism nexus.

ENACT’s approach

  • To build up the evidence base on the enabling factors for transnational criminality and terrorism. This is based both on research and engagement with local actors.
  • Identifying, monitoring and mitigating the dynamics that exacerbate vulnerabilities and create ‘prevailing winds,’ which increase the likelihood of terrorism and organised crime occurring and converging.
  • Recognising catalytic triggers, or micro conditions, within specific African contexts.
  • Developing context-specific policy tools that analyse the nexus to assist policy makers in tailoring strategic responses to tackle the phenomenon.

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ENACT is funded by the European Union
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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.