Fending For Themselves: Al-Qa'ida Affiliates and the Crime–Terror Nexus

As robust counter-terrorism financing measures post 9/11 have forced Al-Qa’ida affiliates to diversify their sources of income, greater attention needs to be paid to the nature and complexities of specific groups’ links to organised crime

The degradation of Al-Qa’ida core in recent years has transformed the threat posed by the group, which now emanates primarily from its increasingly autonomous affiliates across the globe. While the degree to which such groups continue to receive direction or even guidance from Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri is subject to debate, there is little doubt that they no longer receive financial support from the core for their operations. Alongside the military action taken against Al-Qa’ida since 2001, the international community has pursued robust counter-terrorism financing measures, including the freezing of supporters’ assets and the imposition of strict regulations on international remittances. This has effectively strangled the flow of funds to Al-Qa’ida core from external sources, preventing its leadership from offering valuable financial assistance to its affiliates. Such measures have also curtailed direct remittances from sympathisers to the affiliates.

This, however, has done little to curb the activity of declared affiliates, such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab. Instead, there is increasing evidence that they have engaged in criminal activity to replace – and perhaps surpass – these sources of funds. This raises important questions as to the nature of affiliate links to organised crime, and the precise mechanisms through which these groups are deriving such funds.

Many organised crime groups shun direct co-operation with terrorists, fearful of increased attention from security agencies. Yet claims of a nexus between terrorism and organised crime continue to focus on the possibility of such co-operation, even though concerted efforts to examine the nature of the relationships themselves are rarely made.

Much of the publicly available evidence remains anecdotal. Yet patterns are emerging which suggest – in the case of Al-Qa’ida affiliates – three degrees of convergence between these groups and organised crime. These include exploitative governance, removed engagement and direct involvement. Examining each of these forms of co-operation can shed light on the nature and extent of these linkages.

Exploitative Governance: Where terrorist groups exert control over a geographical area, there are repeated indications of opportunistic exploitation of the population and criminal groups. Sharia Law deems narcotics to be haram (forbidden), yet rather than curtailing drug-trafficking within areas it controls, AQIM, for example, profits from the trade. In West Africa, a hub for cocaine transported from Latin America to the lucrative markets of Europe, cartels exploit the hidden desert routes once frequented by smugglers travelling by camel and carrying spices or silks. But where these routes are ‘protected’ by AQIM, a tax is required for passage. This is an important source of revenue: reports suggest that the profits from such taxation were instrumental in funding the group’s 2013 insurgency in Mali.

Parallels can be drawn with the activities of Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and its involvement in the charcoal trade. The primary form of organised criminal activity in this case is qualitatively different, but East mirrors West Africa as the group has sought to exploit criminal opportunities within its territory.

Indeed, in 2012 international concern over the revenue generated from charcoal by Al-Shabaab resulted in the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2036, banning its import or export from Somalia. Rather than deterring the activity, however, this has resulted in charcoal-smuggling becoming a lucrative form of organised criminality from which Al-Shabaab continues to benefit.

There is evidence of direct involvement with traders in some cases, but the group’s activity in this regard is also often more removed, imposing taxes on charcoal and other goods flowing through ports or territory where it has an operational presence, for example. Although the principal ports of Kismaayo and Baraawe are now ostensibly beyond Al-Shabaab control, the group continues to tax imports and exports through both and imposes further levies, via checkpoints, on land transport. Thus, despite its ban, the UN recently estimated the annual worth of the Somali charcoal trade at more than $250 million, of which one-third may reach Al-Shabaab.

Such extortion also extends to legitimate enterprise. Research conducted by the dedicated UN Monitoring Group in 2011 suggests that Al-Shabaab conducts regular assessments of businesses and imposes a proportionate tax: $10 per cultivable acre of land is levied from farmers, and a consumer tax is enforced at general merchandise stores. While the only organised criminal activity here is the extortion practices of Al-Shabaab itself, this nevertheless represents an extension of the group’s exploitative governance. The group makes no distinction between illicit and legal enterprise, exploiting both when opportunities arise.

Removed Engagement: Although terrorist groups may be eager to capitalise on the proceeds of criminal activity, this requires significant resources, detracting from their core focus on recruiting and training members to carry out attacks. To overcome this, some affiliate groups have engaged in a transactional relationship with organised crime groups, profiting from their activities by buying and selling commodities.

An example of this is Al-Shabaab’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade in East Africa, apparently obtaining significant revenue from elephant poaching in particular. But poaching is a resource-intensive activity which would certainly detract from the group’s primary objectives; thus Al-Shabaab does not participate directly in this business.

Instead, a report published in April 2014 by Born Free, an international wildlife charity, outlines that ‘financiers most likely procure ivory within a diversified portfolio of illicit activity using a network of brokers … in Kenya to arrange orders. Ivory is then brought back to the border, handed off to a courier and brought for packaging to the ports.’ This suggests that Al-Shabaab limits its role to the buying and selling of ivory – something seemingly confirmed by the identification of recruiters and facilitators connected to Al-Shabaab by the UN Monitoring Group. Thus, while these practices denote a greater degree of engagement in organised criminal activity than exploitative governance, Al-Qa’ida affiliates remain removed from the primary activity itself, leaving this to the organised crime groups themselves.

Direct Involvement: Some affiliates have, however, engaged directly in other forms of criminal activity. Kidnapping has become a key source of funding for Al-Qa’ida affiliates, estimated by the New York Times to have generated at least $125 million since 2008.

Indeed, efforts in this regard have become much slicker since the haphazard nature of early kidnappings in 2003, with income from initial kidnappings providing the seed money required to launch what is now known as AQIM in 2007. The group has since kidnapped, and subsequently released, many individuals, usually in exchange for a ransom or the release of its fighters. Austrians Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber were released in October 2008, eight months after their capture, reportedly in exchange for nearly $4 million from the Austrian government. Although governments usually prefer not to publish ransom payments due to well-founded fears that this will perpetuate the practice, a Swiss government report acknowledged that in 2009 5.5 million Swiss francs had been paid to release two hostages in Mali. (Meanwhile, the insistence of UK and US officials that they do not pay ransoms has been evidenced by the killing of citizens, such as Edwin Dyer in 2009.)

Similarly, kidnapping for ransom is the primary revenue source for AQAP. Yet the group has also increasingly engaged directly in other criminal activities. Yemeni news reports claim that since 2013 the group has robbed banks, post offices and exchange houses to fund its operations; in October 2014, for example, 30 million riyals (around $140,000) were stolen from the Al-Udayn Post Office in Ibb province. Yet, while AQAP’s kidnapping for ransom and robbery tactics are certainly criminal, they are activities that are often avoided by contemporary organised crime groups, and thus the involvement of AQAP is neither in direct competition nor collaboration with them.

Indeed, Al-Qa’ida affiliates generally demonstrate an aversion to direct involvement in many of the core forms of organised crime activity, such as drug-trafficking, because, as noted, they are deemed haram. At most, affiliates will tax drug smugglers, rarely engaging in the practice themselves.

The US State Department has, however, linked AQIM to cigarette-smuggling. Yet this and other allegations of drugs- and weapons-smuggling were primarily driven by the activities of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former military commander of AQIM, who is no longer part of the group, with many analysts citing ideological differences – particularly his prioritisation of profit over the group’s strategic aims – for his estrangement from the organisation.

As such, it is clear that the criminality in which Al-Qa’ida-aligned terror groups directly engage is often qualitatively different to other forms of organised crime. While profit remains an important driver, kidnapping for ransom in particular has an additional appeal for Al-Qa’ida affiliates, aligning with their goal of generating fear. Meanwhile, although some organised crime groups also engage in kidnapping for ransom, particularly in Mexico, as organised crime has become more businesslike and less violent this is increasingly seen as too far removed from their core activities; rather than a business transaction over illicit commodities, kidnapping relies on violent coercion and draws significant attention.

In sum, while there is growing interest in the crime–terror nexus, and while a clear convergence between the threats of organised crime and terrorism certainly exists, in the case of Al-Qa’ida affiliates, this is a marriage of convenience rather than a strategic partnership. Terrorist involvement in organised crime is also more removed than academic discussions on the nexus suggest; Al-Qa’ida affiliates tend to engage with organised crime groups in a somewhat peripheral role, distanced from the direct conduct of the principal activity itself. Where affiliates do engage directly in criminality – through kidnapping for ransom, for example – this is more closely aligned with their brand of terrorist activity than with crime, pursued to invoke fear in the West and further the central aims of the group. What is noticeably absent is a category of joint terrorist-criminal venture; there is little evidence to suggest any genuine partnership.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the nexus is complex, evolving and context-dependent. The three categories identified here are unlikely to represent the interconnections between organised criminality and other types of terrorist group, driven by differing objectives or ideologies. Nationalist groups unconstrained by strict religious doctrine may more readily engage directly in organised criminality; indeed, dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland have been repeatedly linked to cigarette-smuggling. To account for this context-dependence, dedicated analyses of specific groups and specific regions are necessary. Only in this manner will it be possible to determine the various ways in which different entities operate, and how the converging threats of terrorism and organised crime are likely to evolve in the future.

Clare Ellis

Research Analyst, National Security and Resilience Studies, RUSI.

Twitter: @cfa_ellis

Sasha Jesperson

Research Analyst, National Security and Resilience Studies, RUSI.

Twitter: @sashajesperson


Clare Ellis

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