The ongoing struggle to combat the Afghan opium trade, the increasing number of kidnappings in Iraq in which hostages are sold to terrorists, and thriving smuggling rings throughout the Caucasus all reflect a growing trend: the blurring of the lines between business and terrorism.
Terrorists have always needed to finance their violence, of course. During the Cold War, a good deal of such funding came from states such as the Soviet Union, Syria, Libya and North Korea playing sub rosa games of “Battleship” on the fringes of the global order. What is happening today is quite different: Criminal sources of financing are mixing with non-state actors of different sorts to create three models of operation. First, there are ideologically-driven terrorists, like those of al-Qaeda, for whom money is just a means to an end. Second, there are criminals who engage in terrorism solely to make money, professing causes merely as a pretext. Third, some terrorist organizations are hybrids between true believers and violent thugs that tend to shift internally over time from resembling model one to resembling model two.
In other words, beyond the nefarious profiteering of al-Qaeda, terrorists increasingly shroud themselves in the rhetoric of freedom fighters when their goals are no more noble than those of violent mafiosi. They grow opiates, mine diamonds, kidnap for ransom, and control whole systems of distribution and smuggling routes for arms and drugs. If it were not for their ability to use the pretense of a credible cause to justify their profiteering, all the world would view them as the criminals they are. Therein lies the problem: For-profit terrorists thrive because they can simultaneously recruit doe-eyed ideologues as political revolutionaries, run a profitable organization like mercenaries, and negotiate with governments as “freedom fighters.” Their special danger lies in the fact that, without a core ideology, these terrorists will work with anyone, bribe when they cannot persuade, and use violence whenever it suits their purpose.
A Different Breed of Terrorist
The United States and its allies have good reason to focus attention on al-Qaeda and similarly genuine terrorists: Their track record of mass murder is clear. But we must not ignore the growing trend toward for-profit terrorism, for its success would make ideologically-driven terrorists more efficient, and likely more deadly.
From copyright infringement to human trafficking, crime pervades the expanding and evolving global order. It is getting harder and harder to tease apart the criminal from the honest broker, and collusion between the two is rising. Nevertheless, we can identify and act against groups that manipulate political causes to legitimize illegal activities. Many of these groups, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example, began with “sincere” objectives only to be corrupted by their own profitability. Others, like the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, never cared much for politics but were smart enough to understand the utility of hitching on to a political cause.
Whatever its specific origins, criminality that relies upon terrorism threatens our ability to combat terrorism overall. Such groups increase the financial viability of al-Qaeda, one of their many “trading partners.” They prey upon weak and failing states. And they force those combating terrorism to divide their focus and spread thin their resources. For all these reasons, Moisés Naím is right to warn us that it is foolhardy to view these aspects of our new world “as irritants rather than systemic threats.”1Naím, “It’s the Illicit Economy, Stupid: How Big Business Taught Criminals to Go Global”, Foreign Policy (November 2005).
The phenomenon of for-profit terrorism can be traced back at least to the privateers and pirates of the Age of Exploration, but it became a blip on the modern radar during the 1980s with what came to be called narco-terrorism. Many believed that the Soviet government supported the drug trade in South America to undermine the United States by getting Americans hooked on drugs. Although much of this thinking was dismissed as conspiracy theory, South American Marxist groups like Sendero Luminosa and FARC did often straddle the line between criminality and terrorism.
In most cases, groups we would now define as for-profit terrorists started out with sincere, if often twisted, political objectives. As noted by Tamara Makarenko, one of the first to point out this phenomenon, the death of a charismatic leader, a failure to accomplish goals, a loss of legitimacy, the enticement of financial gain, and the basic tendency of groups to adapt and survive can all lead a politically-driven terrorist group to turn into a financially motivated one. Terrorist groups often continue to espouse the agenda of a dead leader, but groups that had particularly strong leaders—leaders that were, to some extent, the essence of the group—can lose their purpose under the weight of such a death. When combined with political evolution that renders original goals obsolete, a leader’s death can destroy a group altogether. But groups that have already reaped the spoils of war and that have devised a structure to sustain criminal enterprises are far more likely to morph into for-profit terrorists.
For terrorist groups that have transformed themselves in this way, the original political goals may still motivate some members. But for the most part the invocation of political objectives serves to salve the conscience in order to rationalize what have become mercenary ambitions. There are terrorists who speak of leftist revolution but care only about profit; who speak of ethnic cleansing but care only about smuggling; and who speak of religious triumph but care only about lucrative criminality.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a case in point of this last type. It began as a terrorist group whose main goal was the establishment of a separate state for the minority Muslim population of the Philippines. Although it continues to espouse this goal, the death of its founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, in 1998 left the group leaderless. The combination of an eroded command structure and the success of its kidnapping industry turned Abu Sayyaf into a terrorist group motivated largely by financial gain. Although the original motives of the group remain cogent enough to bind it together with other Filipino terrorists such as the Moro National Liberation Front, from which Abu Sayyaf is an offshoot, those motives no longer motivate Abu Sayyaf itself. The ASG is more interested today in extortion through kidnapping, which earned about $25 million in 2000 alone. Though that served as the pinnacle of their profitability, they continue to methodologically extort—in 2004 blowing up a ferry full of civilians when their demand for over $1 million from a large shipping company was not met.
Another group now undergoing a similar motivational metamorphosis is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU now claims that it wants Islamic rule in several Central Asian countries, although it started out with the more specific goal of overthrowing the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. The group’s main base of operations is in the Ferghana Valley, where the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik borders converge. This locale facilitates drug smuggling and, from its inception, the IMU was involved in the opium trade. Like many traditional terrorist groups, the IMU used these funds to finance its ideological struggle. Members fought alongside the Taliban, took up arms in the Tajik civil war and cooperated with al-Qaeda. Since the death of one of its leaders, Juma Namangani—who was also the IMU’s military commander—and the loss of many fighters during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the group has focused on maintaining its hold over smuggling routes and large swaths of the drug trade in the region.
The morphing of the FARC also illustrates how changes in environment, as well as government responses, can drive terrorists into the for-profit mode. In this case, the questionable efficacy of a Marxist agenda played an interesting role in the realignment of the organization’s goals. The FARC’s growth since the 1980s directly correlates to the growth of the drug trade in its areas of control. Despite very modest popular support, the FARC has prospered even as its revolutionary rhetoric waned. In a confidential Colombian government report leaked to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the FARC is said to be the richest terrorist group in the world, with an annual income well in excess of $1.3 billion. It can tap new recruits because participation in the “cause” provides a better standard of living than the subsistence farming possible in the areas of insurgent control. The rhetoric now provides a moral front justifying its criminal enterprises. Indeed, the FARC spends half a million dollars each year on propaganda—a clear indication of just how much its leaders care about their image.
Something similar is happening within the ranks of the Provisional IRA. The recent momentum of the Irish peace process and the concomitant loss of popular support for violence have led this terrorist group to look into new means for survival. The robbery of $50 million from a bank in Belfast and the Provisional IRA’s growing involvement in the drug trade, counterfeiting and smuggling are evidence of its changing nature. Whether it will move further in this direction or focus instead on derailing the peace process in Northern Ireland is yet unclear. But its recent behavior in light of a change in the political environment illustrates once again how a group with an increasingly irrelevant political agenda tends to move toward for-profit terrorism.
The problem of for-profit terrorism is magnified by lawless societies bereft of infrastructure. The brutishness of financial terrorists is often most severe and intractable in failing states, what the CIA refers to as the gray zones of a globalizing world. For-profit terrorists and ordinary criminals can find ways to cooperate far more easily in environments where law enforcement is weak and corruptible officials are plentiful. Warlords in Somalia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the Taliban all espoused ideological causes but eventually took over large swaths of a failed state in pursuit of illegal activities.
The devastation in Sierra Leone a few years back shows just how bad a situation can become when natural resources are abundant and government control is scarce. The Revolutionary United Front provides one of the starkest examples of a group that engaged in terrorism, brutality and the torture of civilians under the guise of a larger political objective, but whose goals, never very clear or cogent to begin with, quickly devolved into satisfying the greed of its members. After the initial fighting in 1991, the RUF cared far more about control of diamonds than it did about ideology and political change in Sierra Leone. The RUF’s ability to corrupt soldiers with higher wages than those on offer from Sierra Leone’s strapped government only made the problem worse. Terrorists cut off villagers’ limbs, beheaded traders, and overran diamond mines, often with the help of off-duty soldiers.
For-profit terrorism is also part of the problem we face in Iraq. A still-floundering economy, very sketchy law and order in much of the country, a burgeoning insurgency, and the opportunity to make money through the pretext of supporting “freedom fighters” are increasing the opportunities for for-profit terrorism. Kidnappings abound in Iraq. Groups of armed bandits grab private citizens as well as foreigners, selling the abductees to insurgent groups. According to the most recent Iraq Index from the Brookings Institution, while nearly three hundred foreigners have been kidnapped since the spring of 2003 (some estimate the number as closer to 425), roughly thirty Iraqis are kidnapped every day, and police believe only 5-10 percent of all incidents are reported. These abductions provide money for criminals, generate a sense of insecurity that undermines U.S. efforts, and motivate an exodus of wealthy and professionally trained Iraqis, causing severe long-term harm to Iraq’s society and economy. Murmurs of a growing drug trade in Iraq make this criminal-terrorist collusion more worrisome for the future.
Even more troubling, as for-profit terrorism has grown, financial terrorists have found both obvious and odd partners, with the linkages spanning continents. The IMU has supposedly cooperated with al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf and, most recently, Chechen terrorists and Uighur militants in China. Abu Sayyaf, which began with links to al-Qaeda has also worked with Jemaah Islamiya and often forges convenient ties to other Filipino rebel groups. The RUF colluded not only with Charles Taylor’s group in Liberia—from which the RUF began as a proxy—but also with Hizballah, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda. With terrorists controlling ever more of the global drug trade, the possibilities for transcontinental and trans-ideological networking and profiteering abound. In a world with so many deeply anarchic areas rich in resources and unemployed youth, the stage is set for terrorism for profit to become a high-growth industry.
For-profit terrorists are easily misconstrued as a minor sideshow in the war on terrorism, a threat to the governments of the countries in which they operate, perpetrators of violent acts, but less of a threat to global stability than “genuine” terrorist groups with larger and truer political aspirations. But it is precisely their ideological vacuity that makes for-profit terrorists so dangerous. Since their political dogma is a secondary concern at best, they may well “do business” with just about any terrorist group. And since terrorists need money to operate, this can be a lethal combination.
What To Do?
So how should we deal with the scourge of for-profit terrorism? Most prescriptions for dealing with the black market, transnational crime and the drug trade are controversial. The supply vs. demand policy debate over drug interdiction is a good example. But there are a few things we know beyond dispute, and this knowledge can form a solid foundation for an effective policy.
We know that peasant farmers need a viable alternative to drug cultivation. We know that countering interstate criminal enterprises requires both law enforcement and intelligence capacity-building and cooperation among governments.
We know, for example, that drug dealers can bribe government officials only to the extent that weak states are unable to organize competent security forces and maintain basic infrastructure for law enforcement. So we know we need to strengthen weak states with comprehensive institution-building and development programs. Selected “nation-building” efforts are part of a sound anti-terrorism strategy, but not only or even mainly because of economic development goals. Whatever role poverty may play in the terrorism cycle, police and governance vacuums clearly do abet terrorism.
What may seem obvious, too, but is less often emphasized, is the need to broaden our conception of terrorism and our methods for containing it. Just as terrorist modes of survival have evolved, so must our policies of engagement and prevention. Once terrorist groups transform themselves into profiteers, we need to transform the ways we deal with them. If we and other governments continue to view for-profit terrorists as ideologically motivated, we will be complicit in their ability to recruit the naive, avoid violent crackdowns by authorities, and even gain government-sanctioned control of territory and political legitimacy. If governments do not reconceptualize these terrorists as criminals, then the general population almost certainly will not do so either.
A good example of how to get this wrong comes to us from Colombia. One of the turning points for the FARC came when former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana Arango gave the group control of 42,000 square kilometers of land during peace talks that began at the end of the 1990s. Although the offer was later rescinded, the FARC had already solidified its drug business, and the government’s offer played right into its propaganda strategy, allowing it to pose as ideologically committed. The brutishly violent RUF, who were awarded seats in the halls of political power to bring peace, used this privilege only to commit further atrocities and extort more money. Governments should not negotiate territorial settlements with criminals. Governments should not negotiate “peace settlements” with criminals. Governments should name and shame and, of course, arrest, convict and jail criminals.
The idea that for-profit terrorism is little more than a thorn in the side of global security can have dangerous consequences. Terrorist networking among ideological and criminal groups can lead to better-equipped, better-trained and more dangerous threats. With money, terrorist groups can far more effectively recruit, arm and execute. The last thing we should want to see is for-profit terrorists teaching al-Qaeda operatives how to perfect their revenue-generating activities. We need to identify, rename and root out these groups if we want to avoid adding coinage to their coffers, lethality to our terrorist enemies and more adept players to the sordid game of the illicit economy. We need to put these guys out of business.
1Naím, “It’s the Illicit Economy, Stupid: How Big Business Taught Criminals to Go Global”, Foreign Policy (November 2005).