Is Britain the Organised Crime Capital of Europe?

A new EUROPOL assessment highlights the scale of the threat coming from organised crime in Europe. Half of the major investigations pursued by EUROPOL have links to Britain. Fighting organised crime can no longer be the poor relation to tackling the threat from international terrorism.

EUROPOL, a European Union agency run by a Briton and heavily reliant on British intelligence, has published its annual Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA). The assessment highlights the scale of the threat from organised crime to individuals, communities and businesses across Europe. Of particular concern to EUROPOL are 'facilitated illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, synthetic drugs and poly-drug trafficking, Missing Trader Intra-Community (MTIC) fraud, the production and distribution of counterfeited goods, cybercrime and money laundering.'

These crimes, in EUROPOL's view, require concerted action by EU member states - not least by the British government. The UK remains vulnerable to organised crime and the challenge, according to officials in the British government, is constantly evolving. EUROPOL's assessment comes at a time when the British government is reorganising and rebuilding its response to fighting organised crime. The National Crime Agency (NCA) will begin to operate in April but will not be fully operational until December. The NCA will build on the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and will incorporate some of the functions of the National Policing Improvement Agency. It will be responsible for:

  • tackling organised crime
  • strengthening UK borders
  • fighting fraud and cyber crime
  • protecting children and young people.

The creation of the NCA is in part an admission of failure. Previous British governments have attempted such reorganisations before. While SOCA was successful overseas: the failure to organise local police forces severely impeded its operational success at home. Former officers cite a list of challenges including the lack of 'enforcement action taken by the agency, the concentration on building a never-ending intelligence picture, the lack of operational focus, a heavy management structure and lack of resources.'

In 2009 Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report concluding that 'despite evidence of impressive results achieved by a few individual forces and some collaborative efforts, the national response [to organised crime] overall is blighted by the lack of a unifying strategic direction, inadequate covert capacity and under-investment in intelligence gathering, analysis and proactive capability.'[1]

Organised Crime: The World's Local Threat

According to EUROPOL, there are an estimated 3600 organised crime groups (OCGs) active in the EU, 30 per cent of which are involved in drug trafficking. The same percentage is involved in more than one crime area.

Strategic factors such as the global economic crisis, increasing international trade and travel, new information communication technologies and new markets in developing countries have led OCGs to adapt their approach, creating networked structures that bring together a mix of nationalities and ethnicities under shared leadership. While the traditional notion of the 'organised crime family' continues to exist, organised crime groups have evolved into dynamic crime networks 'defined much less by their ethnicity or nationality and much more by their capacity to operate on an international basis, with multiple partners across regions.'[2] For example, both Belgium and Portugal have reported criminal groups consisting of more than 60 nationalities of criminals. These two EU member states also reported criminal groups whose main criminal activities extend to more than thirty-five countries.

Mapping Crime

The EUROPOL assessment sets out the key global logistical and transportation routes:

  • The Western Balkans remains important for the movement of many illicit commodities into the EU;
  • Turkey is the main staging point for illicit goods and irregular migrants travelling to the EU from parts of Asia. Turkey's borders with the EU remain vulnerable despite intense law enforcement focus;
  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Dubai in particular, is a nexus for multiple criminal activities;
  • Africa is an important transit region for cocaine, which enters the EU via the Iberian Peninsula. Traditionally West Africa was the most prominent transit area: however, East and southern African nations, are becoming increasingly important.

Adapting to the Market

The global economic crisis has also seen organised crime networks adapt to a new era of austerity. The EUROPOL assessment identifies reduced consumer spending as a key driver for counterfeiters expanding their product ranges.  OCGs now counterfeit daily consumer goods such as detergents, food stuffs, cosmetic products and pharmaceuticals. According to the UNODC as much as 30 per cent of medicines in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America could be fraudulent.

The EUROPOL assessment also suggests the market for the facilitation of illegal immigration into the EU has not diminished as a result of the crisis. This is primarily because global inequality continues to push migrants to the EU. Migrants are not solely from outside of the EU but increasingly moving within the EU towards those member states with favourable economic conditions.   

Reduced incomes and unemployment also may have led to an increase in corruption in the public sector. As austerity measures in the public sector continue to bite, including spending on policing there is a concern among officials that there will be a reduction in prevention measures aimed at increasing safety and security due to their high costs. How law enforcement agencies react to this challenge - and prioritise accordingly remains open for debate. One approach will be to continue to raise the public's awareness of the threat of organised crime. However, EUROPOL is under no illusion about the challenge facing European governments. As the assessment states:

The consumption of new psychoactive substances (NPS) and the purchase of counterfeit luxury goods enjoy the highest levels of social tolerance. Despite media campaigns, such activities are rarely considered problematic or hazardous by the public due to their perception as victimless crimes with little risk to the consumer.

Crime Has Moved Online

One of the key areas of vulnerability for individuals and global corporations alike is the threat of organised crime online. The EUROPOL assessment identifies seven crime types including: Illicit drugs, protected intellectual property, counterfeited goods, firearms, fraudulent identity documents, endangered fauna and flora and counterfeit euros.  All are traded over the internet. The threat facing individuals is described in bleak terms:

The continued expansion of the internet, combined with a lack of security awareness, puts citizens and their personal data increasingly at risk of exploitation by cybercriminals. OCGs can already access a large pool of potential victims via social networking, spamming and phishing websites, and shopping or auction facilities.

Organised Crime and Terrorism

EUROPOL's assessment of the links between terrorist groups and organised crime suggests that some terrorist groups are known to resort to common crime to generate funds. However this is only a very marginal phenomenon in the EU. But questions remain as to the links between these groups in the EU's neighbourhood: To what extent are terrorists engaging in organised criminality and vice versa? Are terrorist and OCGs collaborating (especially around the supply of firearms, facilitation routes and logistics)? And what are the common factors between the two groups; do they share common vulnerabilities, locations, and methodologies?

While the extent of the terrorism/OCG overlap is contested there is increasing evidence of longer-term cooperation between both groups as well as groups motivated by both wealth and ideology - such as the Haqqani Network based in Pakistan. In West Africa al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been identified by the State Department as 'not only a terrorist syndicate, but a criminal enterprise.' While AQIM may not be directly engaged in smuggling they benefit from these illicit networks through agreements with drug dealers and tobacco smugglers. The latter give money and fuel to the AQIM, which, in return, guarantees a rite of passage, they even recommend ways for them to escape from the region's customs services and security force.[3]

Britain: Crime Capital of Europe?

The UK's National Security Strategy judges that one of the four highest priority risks is a cyber attack by an organised crime or terrorist group. Meanwhile a significant increase in the level of organised crime affecting the UK is deemed to be a tier two priority risk. The UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review states: 'Organised criminal activity poses a significant and persistent threat to the UK public and economy. At present, there are around 38,000 individuals involved in organised crime affecting the UK, costing the economy and society between £20 billion and £40 billion per annum.'

According to senior officials in EUROPOL, of the 600 major investigations currently being pursued by the organisation, half have links to Britain. That would mean around 1,500 gangs are currently targeting the UK, making it in line to become the crime capital of Europe.

Fighting organised crime has long been the poor relation to tackling the threat from international terrorism. There is a growing sense in government that twelve years after 9/11 the time has come to revitalise efforts to respond to organised crime. Home Office officials describe a new found determination to take the fight to criminal networks in the UK, Europe and beyond.

The Coalition would do well to learn from the mistakes of past governments in the fight against organised crime. Launching a new organisation, publishing lengthy strategies and giving tough speeches on the subject are no substitute for a well funded agency, a comprehensive intelligence picture and access to the right capabilities at home and abroad. Most important of all however, it is for governments to take the threat from organised crime seriously too.



[1] Serious and organised crime: Getting organised, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary,  30 March 2009

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amado Philip de Andrés, Organised crime, Drug Trafficking, Terrorism: the new Achilles' Heel of West Africa, FRIDE, May 2008


Charlie Edwards

Senior Research Fellow

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