Last October, Italian investigators confirmed a disturbing trend in the War on Terrorism: the growing link between terrorism and organized crime. The investigators revealed that al Quaeda was using the Naples-based Camorra mafia, with its extensive network and expertise in forging documents, to move its operatives through Europe to safe houses in such cities as Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. According to DIGOS, Italy's political crime unit, the number of al Quaeda operatives passing through Naples may have exceeded a thousand. Il Mattino, Naple's major daily newspaper described the arrangement: Should any trouble arise at any time, the Camorra's alliances will send them (al Quaeda operatives) off on one of the many trains leaving the city's main station, or via speed-boat - the same vessels the Camorra uses to traffic cigarettes, drugs and other contraband."
The Comorra-al Quaeda alliance is another example of a growing global security challenge that is both disturbing and complex. The once distinct line between organized crime and terrorism is blurring rapidly, and this development is creating new challenges for the U.S. and its allies in the War on Terrorism. It may seem like a marriage of strange bed fellows. After all, the business of organized crime is business, and the style of the mafia is to keep a low a profile as possible as they build their illicit business. Terrorists, on the other hand, seek a high profile so they can instill fear and insecurity in pursuit of their objectives.
The Age of Globalization has created the conditions allowing terrorists and organized crime groups to join forces. With the Cold War's end in the early 1990s, terrorist and insurgent groups, which the Soviet Union financed, had to become more self sufficient. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Colombia's largest guerrilla group, is a graphic example. Since the early 1990s, FARC has become increasingly involved in Colombia's drug trade, mainly in protecting drug crops, processing labs and airfields for a fee and in taxing peasants who grow crops in areas under their control. By 2000, U.S. authorities estimated that FARC annual take from the drug trade to be as high as $400 million annually.
The guerrillas have helped fill the void created by the take down of Colombia's Cali and Medellin cartels. "The guerrillas have taken a direct role in the drug trade because the vacuum could easily be filled," explained Bruce Bagley, an expert on the Latin American drug trade at Miami University in Miami,. Florida. "The money they are making from the drug trade has given them the degree of autonomy they need to pursue their agenda."
The Colombian guerrillas are suspected of exchanging drugs for arms with international terror groups such as the IRA. Meanwhile, intelligence agencies in Latin America report that at least one organized crime group, the Chechen mafia, have been using Argentina as a transit country for shipments of Colombian cocaine to Europe. In return, the Chechens sell arms to criminal syndicates in Brazil and Colombia.
The terrorism-organized crime alliance has affected other South American countries as well. In Ecuador, for instance, police broke up an international drug trafficking ring run by Rady Zaiter, a Lebanese restaurant owner residing in Quito Zaiter was sending up to 70 percent of his illicit profits to Hezbollah. In Brazil, 19 members of Zaiter's ring were arrested and $65 million worth of cocaine confiscated.
The terrorist-drug trade connection in Latin America poses serious challenges for the U.S. government as it strives to protect the homeland. Reports in 2003 indicated that al Quaeda may be working with Mexican drug trafficking and organized crime groups in an attempt to sneak into the U.S. If true, this development is ominous, given the American problems with border security.
Drug trafficking, however, is not the only criminal activity in which terrorists and criminals collaborate. Kidnapping, human and contraband smuggling, counterfeiting money and CDs, fraud (credit card, cell phone cloning and identity theft) and even extortion and armed robbery have also been lucrative ways of making money. For example, until their arrest in 2002 a Hezbollah cell based in Charlotte, North Carolina, raised money from credit card fraud and cigarette smuggling to help finance the Lebanon-based group, which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, India's most wanted criminal, Dawood Ibrahim, is believed to have worked out a deal with al Quaeda and other terrorist groups to share his smuggling routes, which extend from India to Europe. Ibrahim is accused of the 1993 terrorist bombing in Mumbia. India. that killed 257 people.
"The most profitable form if human smuggling for the terror-organized crime alliance is sex slavery," according to Arnaud de Borchgrave, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Transnational Threat Initiative. "Each year, 7000,000 women disappear," Borchgrave told Investor's Business Daily. “"They come from the Soviet Republic and from as far as China and Burma. Go to Liege (Belgium) and Mons and Antwerp ( the Netherlands). You find them everywhere. And the profits kick back."
Champions of globalization contend that the economic trend has provided legitimate benefits-- free trade, economic integration and the spread of advanced technology, for example. But, no doubt, it is also creating the conditions in which terrorists and criminals can move and interact more easily. As Kimberly L. Thachuk, Deputy Director of the Globalization Project at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington DC, explained: "Criminal organizations and terrorist groups are flourishing as a result of the conditions for heightened worldwide interdependence, increased global commerce and rapid communications and transportation."
The growing connection terrorism-organized crime connection, security experts say, has changed the nature of the War on Terrorism, exacerbated the threat to the global community and created the need for a new paradigm in strategic thinking. At the 2004 forum titled "Deadly Networks: The Nexus between Organized Crime and Terrorism," held at George Washington University in Washington DC, experts urged the U.S., and its allies to adopt variety of strategies to combat the threat. They included focusing on the financial links between the two groups, learning to use the Internet as well as the bad guys and having intelligence communities investigate better the cross over points between the groups.
Perhaps equally important is strengthening the legal, social and political institutions in the counties corrupted by the terror-organized crime nexus. As Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant to the president in the U.S. Homeland Security office, explained in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on Crime in December 2000: "The United States cannot solve the problem itself. “It must provide them (other counties) with the tools to help themselves."
Ron Chepesiuk, a South Carolina journalist and Fulbright Scholar is the author of “Drug Lords; the Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel” (www.ronchepesiuk.com/). He is currently working on a book about terrorism and drug trafficking.