Islamic State now ranks at the forefront of terror groups around the world which fund their operations from criminal activities, one of the country's top organized crime experts said last week.
“They're making money from illegal activities ranging from cigarette smuggling and oil theft to stolen antiquities,” Louise Shelly of George Mason University told a panel on the “Crime-Terror Nexus” at the American Society of Criminology annual convention in Washington DC.
Although other violent groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda have long been known to raise money through criminal activities (the Taliban is said to have earned millions from heroin smuggling), Islamic State appears to be the most successful—and profitable—so far, said Shelly.
Just as troubling, they have attracted large numbers of criminals to their ranks—including some of those identified in the Paris attacks last week and earlier this year, she said.
“We're seeing a high level of recruitment by ISIS of people with a crime record, said Shelly, using one of the acronyms by which Islamic State is known.
She added that much of the recruitment by terror groups occurs in prisons, where youthful petty criminals largely of Middle East background are attracted by the jihadist ideology. “It seems to be a big part of their recruitment strategy.”
For example, one of the assailants in the January 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris had been convicted of cigarette smuggling. Another involved in an attack the following day on a supermarket had a long criminal history for more serious offenses. Both attacks were linked to an Al Qaeda branch in Yemen.
Almost all the known assailants in last week's Paris shootings had criminal records. One had eight criminal convictions between 2004 and 2010, Shelly said.
The link between terror groups and organized criminal activity has long been known to researchers –particularly in relation to the illegal drug trade—but it is often missing in many public accounts of terrorism activities.
“Terror organizations operate in many ways like diversified criminal businesses,” said Shelly. “They seize opportunities wherever they can find them.”
Another panelist, Mitchel Roth of Sam Houston State University, said that terror groups operating in Africa, such as the notorious Al Shabab and Boko Haram, fund their activities through sophisticated criminal networks that employ kidnapping, oil theft and piracy.
The Nigeria-based Boko Haram, for instance, is believed to have staged more than 100 bank robberies during 2011.
“Much of our information is anecdotal,” he said. “But it appears that the same factors that sustain organized crime also sustain terrorism.”
Focusing on terrorists' criminal activities doesn't negate the political dimension of their acts, Roth said, but when law enforcement and intelligence agents target organized crime in conflict zones or in marginalized neighborhoods, “you get a kind of 'two-fer'—in which you pick up many of the same actors.”
Nevertheless, too few major law enforcement agencies connect the links between their counter-terrorism activities and the 'smaller-scale criminal activity that is literally the life blood of terrorism,” said Shelly.
The New York and Los Angeles police departments are among the few in the U.S. which actually coordinate their organized crime and anti-terrorism efforts, she said.
Stephen Handelman is Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.