Assessing the Threat of Organised Crime: The First National Strategic Assessment

With the release of its first National Strategic Assessment, the National Crime Agency highlights some worrying trends. But it also reveals a series of knowledge gaps that will undermine attempts to address organised crime.

This month the National Crime Agency (NCA) published its first National Strategic Assessment of serious and organised crime in the UK.  The document suggests that serious and organised criminal activity is likely to get worse, with the supply of heroin from Afghanistan increasing and millions of pounds still being laundered through UK financial systems including banks and investment property.

The assessment highlights the limitations of the current intelligence picture – particularly the regional dimension – which is a key linchpin of the government’s architecture. The assessment comes amidst the high expectations placed on the new Agency after the failures of predecessor bodies.  Yet it faces a reduced budget and a public that remains ignorant of the threat of organised crime even though a substantial number are quite likely to be involved in it, wittingly or not.

Some areas of organised criminal activity have decreased or remained steady, such as the use of firearms in the UK. Yet the consequences of criminal use of firearms remain significant. We are also told that there have been reductions, in organised acquisitive crime, be it commercial robbery, organised vehicle crime, commodity-based criminality, metal theft or wildlife crime.

Organised Crime Remains a Significant Threat to National Security

Organised criminal groups are utilising new technologies and techniques in pursuit of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The rise of the alternative, ‘dark net’ has facilitated more widespread distribution of indecent images of children. However, as the NCA assessment makes clear, this is one of the most difficult forms of crime to detect as offenders primarily work alone and victims are often unwilling to report abuse.

Cybercrime is a significant growth area with an increase in the targeted compromise and disruption of access to UK networked systems and services and the use of cyber crime by traditional crime groups. In this respect, the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure looks particularly vulnerable.

Drugs remain a key threat. Almost half of criminal groups in the UK are involved in the trade. In 2012, the drugs trade caused 2000 deaths, with social and economic costs of £10.7 billion per year. The supply of regular drugs has remained steady, but changing routes and groups involved in trafficking makes detection difficult. Amphetamine processing and production is expected to increase in the UK, and the supply of psychoactive substances has already risen and is predicted to grow further.

Economic crimes have resulted in losses of £4.7 billion. Fraud against the individual, private and charity sector is also high. With the rise of cyber enabled crime, this is only expected to rise. The involvement of organised crime groups in immigration crime – whether of willing immigrants or those trafficked for exploitation – has increased. These trends paint a bleak picture of the state of organised crime in the UK.

Cross Cutting Issues

The threat assessment goes beyond the identification of threats to consider cross cutting issues that influence the scale and cost of crime. Of particular note is the difficulty in detecting organised crime,with an increase in the number of entry routes into the UK, false documentation and corruption. The changing nature of criminal groups also hampers detection. Traditional hierarchical groups have morphed into loose and fluid networks that quickly adapt to the changing global context and law enforcement strategies.

Remaining Challenges

The National Strategic Assessment provides a snapshot of the current state of organised crime in the UK and how this is predicted to change over the next three years, but it also exposes the current knowledge deficit.

By mapping current threats and future challenges, the National Crime Agency seeks to advance a quantitative understanding of organised crime. In doing so, it raises a series of shortcomings. A comprehensive assessment of the scale of child sex exploitation and abuse is not possible to quantify, there is no definitive measure of cybercrime, the assessment is unable to judge some areas of economic and organised acquisitive crime and a more cohesive and consistent intelligence picture on corruption is required.

The assessment also reveals gaps in the qualitative understanding of organised crime. While some work has been done to understand the drivers, motivations are not clearly understood. This makes it difficult to identify opportunities to undermine illicit activity. Estimations have been made about the social and economic costs of organised crime. Yet deeper analysis is required to assess what this actually means. Difficulties in understanding organised crime within the UK suggest that the regional dimension is not adequately understood, specifically the routes into the UK, the markets that exist along them, and the drivers in source countries.

These knowledge gaps hamper our ability to prevent organised crime, stem the flow of illicit goods and people into the UK, and reduce the impact of organised crime to the UK.

Could Do Better

The way organised crime is addressed in the UK has undergone a major overhaul in the last few years with the creation of the National Crime Agency. The first strategic assessment provides a good snapshot of the current state of organised crime. However, it points to a lack of knowledge about organised crime and its drivers – some of which could be addressed through research and deeper analysis. If the NCA is going to have a better record than its predecessors, it must work on getting the basics right. Knowing your enemy would be a good start. 


Dr Sasha Jesperson

Associate Fellow

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