Members of Colombia's National Liberation Army  [Voces de Colombia]

▲ Members of Colombia's National Liberation Army [Voces de Colombia]

ESSAY / Ángel Martos

Terrorism and transnational organized crime are some of the most relevant topics nowadays in international security. The former represents a traditional threat that has been present during most our recent history, especially since the second half of the twentieth century. International organized crime, on the other hand, has taken place throughout history in multiple ways. Examples can be found even in the pre-industrial era: In rural and coastal areas, where law enforcement was weaker, bandits and pirates all over the world made considerable profit from hijacking vehicles along trade routes and roads, demanding a payment or simply looting the goods that the merchants carried. The phenomenon has evolved into complex sets of interconnected criminal networks that operate globally and in organized way, sometimes even with the help of the authorities.

In this paper, the author will analyze the close interaction between terrorism and organized crime often dubbed the “crime-terror continuum”. After explaining the main tenets of this theory, a case study will be presented. It is the network of relations that exists in Latin America which links terrorist groups with drug cartels. The evolution of some of these organizations into a hybrid comprising terrorist and criminal activity will also be studied.

Defining concepts

The crime-terror nexus is agreed to have been consolidated in the post-Cold War era. After the 9/11 attacks, the academic community began to analyze more deeply and thoroughly the threat that terrorism represented for international security. However, there is one specific topic that was not paid much attention until some years later: the financing of terrorist activity. Due to the decline of state sponsorship for terrorism, these groups have managed to look for funding by partnering with organized criminal groups or engaging in illicit activities themselves. Starting in the 1980s with what later came to be known as narco-terrorism, the use of organized crime by terrorist groups became mainstream in the 1990s. Taxing drug trade and credit-card fraud are the two most common sources of revenues for these groups (Makarenko, 2010).

The basic level of relationship that exists between two groups of such different nature is an alliance. Terrorists may look for different objectives when allying with organized crime groups. For example, they may seek expert knowledge (money-laundering, counterfeiting, bomb-making, etc.) or access to smuggling routes. Even if the alliances may seem to be only beneficial for terrorist groups, criminal networks benefit from the destabilizing effect terrorism has over political institutions, and from the additional effort law enforcement agencies need to do to combat terrorism, investing resources that will not be available to fight other crimes. Theirs is a symbiotic relation in which both actors win. A popular example in the international realm is the protection that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) offered to drug traders that smuggle cocaine from South America through West and North Africa towards Europe. During the last decade, the terrorist organization charged a fee on the shipments in exchange for its protection along the route (Vardy, 2009).

The convergence of organizations

Both types of organizations can converge into one up to the point that the resulting group can change its motives and objectives from one side to the other of the continuum, constituting a hybrid organization whose defining points and objectives blur. An organization of this nature could be both a criminal group with political motivations, and a terrorist group interested in criminal profits. The first one may for example be interested in getting involved in political processes and institutions or may use violence to gain a monopolized control over a lucrative economic sector.

Criminal and terrorist groups mutate to be able to carry out by themselves a wider range of activities (political and financial) while avoiding competitiveness, misunderstandings and threats to their internal security. This phenomenon was popularized after the 1990s, when criminal groups sought to manipulate the operational conditions of weak states, while terrorist groups sought to find new financial sources other than the declining state sponsors. A clear example of this can be found in the Italian Mafia during the 1990s. A series of deliberate bombing attacks were reported in key locations such as the Uffizi Galleries in Florence and the church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The target was not a specific enemy, but rather the public opinion and political authorities (the Anti-Mafia Commission) who received a warning for having passed legislation unfavorable to the interests of the criminal group. Another example far away from Europe and its traditional criminal groups can be found in Brazil. In the early 2000s, a newly elected government carried out a crackdown on several criminal organizations like the Comando Vermelho, the Amigos dos Amigos, and the group Terceiro Comando, which reacted violently by unleashing brutal terrorist attacks on governmental buildings and police officers. These attacks gave the Administration no other choice but to give those groups back the immunity with which they had always operated in Rio de Janeiro.

On the other side of the relationship, terrorist organizations have also engaged in criminal activities, most notably illicit drug trade, in what has been a common pattern since the 1970s. Groups like the FARC, ETA, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or Sendero Luminoso are among them. The PKK, for example, made most of its finances using its advantageous geographic location as well as the Balkan routes of entry into Europe to smuggle heroin from Asia into Europe. In yet another example, Hezbollah is said to protect heroin and cocaine laboratories in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon.

Drug trafficking is not the only activity used by terrorist groups. Other criminal activities serve the same purpose. For example, wholesale credit-card fraud all around Europe is used by Al Qaeda to gain profits (US$ 1 million a month). Furthermore, counterfeit products smuggling has been extensively used by paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland and Albanian extremist groups to finance their activities.

Sometimes, the fusion of both activities reaches a point where the political cause that once motivated the terrorist activity of a group ends or weakens, and instead of disbanding, it drifts toward the criminal side and morphs into an organized criminal association with no political motivations) that the convergence thesis identifies is the one of terrorist organizations that have ultimately maintained their political façade for legitimation purposes but that their real motivations and objectives have mutated into those of a criminal group. They are thus able to attract recruits via 2 sources, their political and their financial one. Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and FARC are illustrative of this. Abu Sayyaf, originally founded to establish an Islamic republic in the territory comprising Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago (Philippines), is now dedicated exclusively to kidnapping and marijuana plantations. The former granted them US$ 20 million only in 2000. Colombian FARC, since the 1990s, has followed the same path: according to Paul Wilkinson, they have evolved from a revolutionary group that had state-wide support into a criminal guerrilla involved in protection of crops and laboratories, also acting as “middlemen” between farmers and cartels; kidnapping, and extortion.  By the beginning of our century, they controlled 40 per cent of Colombia’s territory and received an annual revenue of US$ 500 million (McDermott, 2003).

“Black hole” states

The ultimate danger the convergence between criminal and terrorist groups may present is a situation where a weak or failed state becomes a safe haven for the operations of hybrid organizations like those described before. This is known as the “black hole” syndrome. Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Angola, Sierra Leone and North Korea are examples of states falling into this category. Other regions, such as the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, and others in Indonesia and Thailand in which the government presence is weak can also be considered as such.

Afghanistan has been considered a “black hole state” since at least the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Since the beginning of the civil war, the groups involved in it have sought to survive, oftentimes renouncing to their ideological foundations, by engaging in criminal activity such as the production and trafficking of opiates, arms or commodities across the border with Pakistan, together with warlords. The chaos that reigns in the country is a threat not only to the nation itself and its immediate neighbors, but also to the entire world.

The People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is, on the other hand, considered a criminal state. This is because it has engaged in transnational criminal activities since the 1970s, with its “Bureau 39”, a government department that manages the whole criminal activity for creating hard currency (drug trafficking, counterfeiting, money laundering, privacy, etc.). This was proved when the Norwegian government expelled officials of the North Korean embassy in 1976 alleging that they were engaged in the smuggling of narcotics and unlicensed goods (Galeotti, 2001).

Another situation may arise where criminal and terrorist groups deliberately foster regional instability for their own economic benefits. In civil wars, these groups may run the tasks that a state’s government would be supposed to run. It is the natural evolution of a territory in which a political criminal organization or a commercial terrorist group delegitimizes the state and replaces its activity. Examples of this situation are found in the Balkans, Caucasus, southern Thailand and Sierra Leone (Bangura, 1997).

In Sierra Leone, for example, it is now evident that the violence suffered in the 1990s during the rebellion of the Revolutionary United Forces (RUF) had nothing to do with politics or ideals - it was rather a struggle between the guerrilla and the government to crack down on the other party and reap the profits of illicit trade in diamonds. There was no appeal to the population or political discourse whatsoever. The “black hole” thesis illustrates how civil wars in our times are for the most part a legitimization for the private enrichment of the criminal parties involved and at the same time product of the desire of these parties for the war to never end.

The end of the Cold War saw a shift in the study of the nexus between crime and terrorism. During the previous period, it was a phenomenon only present in Latin America between insurgent groups and drug cartels. It was not until the emergence of Al Qaeda’s highly networked and globally interconnected cells that governments realized the level of threat to international security that non-state actors could pose. As long as weak or failed states exist, the crime-terror nexus will be further enhanced. Moreover, the activity of these groups will be buttressed by effects of globalization such as the increase of open borders policies, immigration flows, international transportation infrastructure, and technological development. Policymakers do not pay enough attention to the criminal activities of both types of organizations. Rather than dealing with the political motivations of a group, what really makes the difference is to focus on its funding resources – credit-card frauds, smuggling, money laundering, etc.

The following section focuses on the crime-terror continuum that exists between illegal drug trade and terrorist networks. This phenomenon has emerged in many regions all around the world, but the case of Latin America, or the Andean region more specifically, represents the paradigm of the characteristics, dangers and opportunities of these situations.


When drug trafficking meets political violence

The concept of narco-terrorism was born in recent years as a result of the understanding of illicit drug trade and terrorism as two interconnected phenomena. Traditionally linked with Latin America, the concept can now be found in other parts of the world like, for example, the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), or the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos and Myanmar).

There is no consensus on the convenience and accuracy of the term “narco-terrorism,” if only because it may refer to different realities. One can think of narco-terrorism as the use of terrorist attacks by criminal organizations such as the Colombian Medellin Cartel to attain an immediate political goal. Or, from a different point of view, one can think of a terrorist organization engaging in illicit drug trade to raise funds for its activity. Briefly, according to Tamara Makarenko’s Crime-Terror Continuum construct all organizations, no matter the type, could at some point move along this continuum depending on their activities and motivations; from the one extreme of a purely criminal organization, to the other of a purely political one, or even constituting a hybrid in the middle (Makarenko, 2010).

There is a general perception of a usual interaction between drug-trafficking and terrorist organizations. Here, it is necessary to distinguish between the cooperation of two organizations of each nature, and an organization carrying out activities under both domains. There are common similarities between the different organizations that can be highlighted to help policymaking more effective.

Both type of organizations cohabit in the same underground domain of society and share the common interest of remaining undiscovered by law enforcement authorities. Also, their transnational operations follow similar patterns. Their structure is vertical in the highest levels of the organization and turns horizontal in the lowest. Finally, the most sophisticated among them use a cell structure to reduce information sharing to the bare minimum to reduce the risk of the organization being unveiled if some of its members are arrested.

The main incentive for organizations to cooperate are tangible resources. Revenues from narcotics trafficking might be very helpful for terrorist organizations, while access to explosive material may benefit drug trade organizations. As an example, according to the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2004, an estimated US$ 2.3 billion of the total revenue of global drug trade end up in the hands of organizations like Al Qaeda. Another example is the illegal market of weapons emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, field of interest of both types of networks. On the other hand, intangible resources are similar to tangible in usefulness but different in essence. Intangible resources that drug trafficking organizations possess and can be in the interests of terrorist ones are the expertise on methods and routes of transports, which could be used for terrorist to smuggle goods or people - drug corridors such as the Balkan route or the Northern route. On the other way around, terrorists can share the military tactics, know-how and skills to perpetrate attacks. Some common resources that can be used by both in their benefit are the extended networks and contacts (connections with corrupt officials, safe havens, money laundering facilities, etc.) A good example of the latter can be found in the hiring of ELN members by Pablo Escobar to construct car bombs.

The organizations are, as we have seen, often dependent on the same resources, communications, and even suppliers. This does not lead to cooperation, but rather to competition, even to conflict. Examples can be traced back to the 1980s in Peru when clashes erupted between drug traffickers and the terrorist Sendero Luminoso, and in Colombia when drug cartels and the FARC clashed for territorial matters. Even the protection of crops terrorists offer to drug traffickers is one of the main drivers of conflict, even if they do find common grounds of understanding most of the time; for example, in terms of government, revenue-motivated organizations are a threat to the state as they fight to weaken some parts of it such as law enforcement or jurisdiction, while politically-motivated ones wish not only to undermine the state but to radically change its structures to fit their ideological vision (state-run economy, religious-based society, etc.).

The terrorism and drug connection in the Andean Region

Nowhere has the use of illicit drug trade as a source of funds for terrorism been so developed as in the Andean Region (Steinitz, 2002). Leftist groups such as FARC and Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, as well as right-wing paramilitary organizations such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are involved in this activity. At the beginning, the engagement between terrorists and drug traffickers was limited only to fees imposed by the former on the latter in exchange for the protection of crops, labs and shipments. Later, FARC and AUC have further expanded this engagement and are now involved in the early stages of the traffic itself – being the main substance cocaine, and the main reward money and arms from the drug syndicates. The terrorist cells can be therefore considered a hybrid of political and criminal groups. The following paragraphs will further analyze each case.

Peru’s Sendero Luminoso

Sendero Luminoso (SL) started to operate in the Huallaga Valley, a strong Peruvian coca region, several years after its foundation, in 1980. Peru was at the time the world’s first producer of coca leaf. The plant was then processed into coca paste and transported to Colombian laboratories by traffickers. Arguably, the desire for profit from the coca business rather than for political influence was the ultimate motive for Sendero Luminoso’s expansion into the region. SL protected the crops and taxed the production and transportation of coca paste: the 1991 document “Economic Balance of the Shining Path” shows that the group charged US$ 3,000-7,000 per flight leaving Huallaga. Taxes were also levied in exchange for a service that the group provided the cocaleros: negotiating favorable prices with the traffickers. In the late 1980s, SL’s annual income from the business was estimated at US$ 15-100 million (McClintock, 1998).

The Peruvian government’s fight against SL represents a milestone in the fight against the terrorism-crime nexus. Lima set up a political-military command which focused on combatting terrorism while ignoring drugs, because a reasonable percentage of the Peruvian population eked out a living by working in the coca fields. The government also avoided using the police as they were seen as highly corruptible. They succeeded in gaining the support of peasant growers and traffickers of Huallaga Valley, a valuable source of intelligence to use against SL. The latter finally left the Valley.

But it was not a final victory. Due to the vacuum SL left, the now more powerful traffickers reduced the prices paid for the coca leaf. SL was no longer there to act as an intermediary in defense of peasants and minor traffickers, so thanks to the new lower prices, the cocaine market experienced a boom. The military deployed in the area started to accept bribes in exchange for their laissez-faire attitude, becoming increasingly corrupted. President Fujimori in 1996 carried out a strategy of interdiction of the flights that departed from the Valley carrying coca paste to Colombia, causing the traffickers and farmers to flee and the coca leaf price to fall notably. However, this environment did not last long, and the country is experiencing a rise in drug trade and terrorist subversive activities.

The Colombian nexus expands

The collapse of the Soviet Union and an economic crisis in Cuba diminished the amount of aid that the FARC could receive. After the government’s crackdown, with the help of Washington, of the Medellin and Cali cartels, the drug business in Colombia was seized by numerous smaller networks. There was not any significant reduction of the cocaine flow into the United States. The FARC benefitted greatly from the neighboring states’ actions, gaining privileged access to drug money. Peru under Fujimori had cracked down on the coca paste transports, and Bolivia’s government had also put under strict surveillance its domestic drug cultivation. This elimination of competitors caused a doubling of coca production in Colombia between 1995 and 2000. Moreover, opium poppy cultivation also grew significantly and gained relevance in the US’ East-coast market. The FARC also benefitted from this opportunity.

According to the Colombian government, in 1998 the terrorist groups earned US$ 551 million from drug, US$ 311 million from extortion, and US$ 236 million from kidnapping. So much so that the organization has been able to pay higher salaries to its recruits than the Colombian army pays its soldiers. By 2000, the FARC had an estimated 15,000-20,000 recruits in more than 70 fronts, de facto controlling 1/3 of the nation’s territory. Most of the criminal-derived money in the country comes nowadays from taxation and protection of the drug business. According to the Colombian Military, more than half both the FARC’s fronts were involved in the collection of funds by the beginning of the 2000s decade, compared to 40% approx. of AUC fronts (Rebasa and Chalk, 1999).

The situation that was created in both scenarios required created a chaos in which the drug cartels, the cultivation syndicates and the terrorist organizations were the strongest actors. This makes it a very unstable environment for the peoples that lived in the territories under criminal/terrorist control. The tactics of law enforcement agents and government, in these cases, need to be carefully planned, so that multilateral counter-drug/counter-terrorist strategies can satisfactorily address threats existing at multiple dimensions. In the following section, the author will review some key aspects of the policies carried out by the US government in this domain.

The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror”

Since 9/11, policies considering both threats as being intertwined have become more and more popular. The separation of counter terrorism and counter-narcotics has faded significantly. Although in the Tashkent Conferences of 1999-2000 the necessary link between both was already mentioned, the milestone of cooperative policies is the Resolution 1373 of the UN Security Council (Björnehed, 2006). In it, emphasis is given to the close connection between terrorism and all kinds of organized crime, and therefore coordination at national, regional and global level is said to be necessary. War on drugs and war on terror should no longer be two separate plans of action.

The effectiveness of a policy that wishes to undermine the threat of illicit drug trade and terrorism is to a high degree dependent on successful intelligence gathering. Information about networks, suspects, shipments, projects, etc. benefits agencies fighting drug trafficking as well as those fighting terrorism, since the resources are most of the times shared.  Narco-terrorism nexus is also present in legal acts, with the aim of blocking loopholes in law enforcement efforts. Examples are the Victory Act and the Patriot Act, passed in the US. Recognizing the natural link and cooperation between drug trade and terrorism leads to security analysts developing more holistic theories for policymakers to implement more accurate and useful measures.

However, there are many aspects in which illicit drug trade and terrorist activity differ, and so do the measures that should be taken against them. An example of a failure to understand this point can be found in Afghanistan, where the Taliban in 2000 set a ban in poppy cultivation which resulted in a strong increase of its price, being this a victory for traffickers since the trade did not stop. Another idea to have in mind is that strategies of a war on drugs differ greatly depending on the nature of the country: whether it is solely a consumer like the UK or a producer and consumer like Tajikistan. In regard to terrorism, the measures adopted to undermine it (diplomacy, foreign aid, democratization, etc.) may have minimal effect on the fight against drug trade.

Sometimes, the risk of unifying counter-policies is leaving some areas in which cooperation is not present unattended. Certain areas are suitable for a comprehensive approach such as intelligence gathering, law enforcement and security devices, while others such as drug rehabilitation are not mutually beneficial. Not distinguishing the different motivations and goals among organizations can lead to a failed homogenous policy.


Multilevel threats demand multilevel solutions

Terrorism has traditionally been considered a threat to national and international security, while illicit drug trade a threat to human security. This perception derives from the effects of drugs in a consumer country, although war on drugs policies are usually aimed at supplier ones. Although it was already constituting a threat to regional stability during the twentieth century, it was not considered a crucial political issue until 9/11 attacks, when the cooperative link between criminal and terrorist organizations became evident. An example of unequal attention paid to both threats can be found in US’s Plan Colombia in 2000: one of the main advocators of the legislation stated that the primary focus was on counter-drug, so the United States would not engage with Colombian counterinsurgency efforts (Vaicius, Ingrid and Isacson, 2003).The same type of failure was also seen in Afghanistan but in the opposite way, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) completely neglected any action against drug traffickers, the trade or the production itself.

The merging of drug trafficking and terrorism as two overlapping threats have encouraged authorities to develop common policies of intelligence gathering and law enforcement. The similarities between organizations engaged in each activity are the main reason for this. However, the differences between them are also relevant, and should be taken into consideration for the counter policies to be accurate enough.

Evidence of a substantial link between terrorists and criminals has been proved all along our recent history. Around the world, leaders of mafias and terrorist commanders have oftentimes worked together when they felt that their objectives were close, if not similar. When cohabitating in the outlaw world, groups tend to offer each other help, usually in exchange for something. This is part of human behavior. Added to the phenomenon of globalization, lines tend to be blurred for international security authorities, and thus for the survival of organizations acting transnationally.

The consequences can be noticed especially in Latin America, and more specifically in organizations such as the FARC. We can no longer tell what are the specific objectives and the motivations that pushed youngsters to flee towards the mountains to learn to shoot and fabricate bombs. Is it a political aspiration? Or is it rather an economic necessity? The reason why we cannot answer this question without leaving aside a substantial part of the explanation is the evolution of the once terrorist organization into a hybrid group that moves all along the crime-terror continuum.

The ideas of Makarenko, Björnehed and Steinitz have helped the international community in its duty to protect its societies. It cannot be expected for affected societies to live in peace if the competent authorities try to tackle its structural security issues only through the counter-terrorist approach or through the organized crime lens. The hybrid threats that the world is suffering in the twenty-first century demand hybrid solutions.



Bangura, Y. (1997) ‘Understanding the political and cultural dynamics of the sierra leone war’, Africa Development, vol. 22, no. 3/4 [Accessed 10 April 2020].

Björnehed, E., 2006. Narco-Terrorism: The Merger Of The War On Drugs And The War On Terror. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at [Accessed 10 April 2020].

Galeotti, M. (2001) ‘Criminalisation of the DPRK’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, vol. 13, no. 3 (March) [Accessed 10 April 2020].

Makarenko, T., 2010. The Crime-Terror Continuum: Tracing The Interplay Between Transnational Organised Crime And Terrorism. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at [Accessed 3 April 2020].

McClintock, C. Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador’s FMLN and Peru’s Shining Path (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998), p. 341 [Accessed 10 April 2020].

McDermott, J. (2003) ‘Financing insurgents in Colombia’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, vol. 15, no. 2

(February) [Accessed 10 April 2020].

Mutschke, R., (2000) ‘The threat posed by organised crime, international drug trafficking and terrorism’, written testimony to the General Secretariat Hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime (13 December) [Accessed 14 June 2020].

Rebasa and Chalk, pp. 32–33; “To Turn the Heroin Tide,” Washington Post, February 22, 1999, p. A9; “Colombian Paramilitary Chief Shows Face,” Associated Press, March 2, 2000.

Steinitz, M., 2002. The Terrorism And Drug Connection In Latin America’S Andean Region. [online] Brian Loveman, San Diego State University. Available at [Accessed 10 April 2020].

Vaicius, Ingrid and Isacson, Adam “‘The War on Drugs’ meets the ’War on Terror’ ”(CIP International Policy Report February 2003) p. 13.

Vardy, N., 2009. Al-Qaeda's New Business Model: Cocaine And Human Trafficking. [online] Forbes. Available at [Accessed 14 June 2020].

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