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Exploring the Nuanced Nexus between Terrorism and Organised Crime

17 Aug 2018
Short Read by Martin Gallagher

In this Perspective, I aim to illustrate that although the crime-terror nexus has attracted significant attention of late, it is not a new phenomenon, and has past iterations that offer useful lessons for its present form. I reference my own experience as a police officer in Scotland and draw parallels to far older diaspora communities than the populations currently facing scrutiny. Over the following pages, a number of factors are outlined that I believe are crucial to a nexus relationship. The perspective concludes with a look to the future and offers some suggestions for practitioners and policy makers working on this complex topic.

Research in Scotland, Links to Northern Ireland

As a serving police officer with 24 years’ experience, my journey into undertaking research on the nexus between terrorism and organised crime began when I read this quote attributed to an American mobster: ‘The Mafia will help whoever can pay’. I came across it while undertaking a Master’s Degree at St. Andrews, and it felt so at odds with my own experience of investigating organised criminals and the reality of their multi-faceted personalities. Given this, I was moved to look into the matter further, and assess whether the quote stood scrutiny or was problematic as my intuition indicated.

Initially, this interest led me to look at my native Scotland and the nexus that existed between terrorism and organised crime there. What I found, through research, interviews and focus groups, was that a factor of particular importance to understanding potential cooperation between organised criminals and terrorists, were the nation’s various diaspora communities. However, these were not communities that had arrived in relatively recent travel from less developed nations, but instead those that had come into existence some hundreds of years previously and which were, and still are, closely linked to Ireland.

Scottish emigration to Ireland took place through the ‘plantations’ in Ulster of the 1600s, while Irish immigration to Scotland largely occurred in the aftermath of the potato famine of the 1840s, although there has been continuing movement between the islands since. Within these movements there was emigration of some with strong ‘loyalist’ sentiments, and immigration of others with ‘republican’ beliefs. For generations, through organisations that span both islands such as the Loyalist Orange Order, contact and strong bonds have consistently been maintained. With the onset of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ in the 1960s, Scotland became a support hub for both communities involved in the struggle. Although arrests were made of individuals connected to the conflict who were using safe houses in Scotland,  no terrorist action related to the Troubles ever occurred within Scottish borders.

As the Troubles wore on, both the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), along with their adversaries in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), became more heavily involved in criminality as a funding stream. Commencing with the establishment of illegal drinking dens in the areas under their control from 1968 onwards, these groups’ fundraising grew increasingly sophisticated, with ‘security firms’, which were in fact a front for extorting the business community, and controlled illegal gambling becoming the norm. Conversely, however, this immersion in criminality also seeped into both sides’ Scottish support bases, who began to undertake actions for both profit as well as for funding terrorist activities.

With the apparent arrival of peace in Northern Ireland following 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, many assumed that these organisations and their support bases would wither and die, but this has been far from the case. Attacks on security forces in Northern Ireland from dissident factions continue, with some speculating much of this is to retain a form of legitimacy for burgeoning crime enterprises. Similar motives appear to be at play among both groups’ Scottish support bases. For example, 2012’s ‘Operation Hairsplitter’ was mounted by the Scottish police as a response to dissident republicans’ plans to murder dissident Loyalists. The operation aimed to remove firearms from organised criminals in Glasgow and demonstrated that the relationship between terrorism and organised crime in Scotland was still very much alive.

This brief overview illustrates that the ‘crime-terror nexus’, which has drawn so much attention recently, is certainly not a new phenomenon. Neither is it a connection which can be easily accounted for. In the remainder of this op-ed, I draw upon both my professional background and academic work to present some key things to consider for both researchers and those in the counter-terrorism policymaker or practitioner communities.

For money and honour

Organised criminals operate in a risky environment. They have the constant threat of discovery by law enforcement, coupled to their lack of a ‘regulatory body’. When deals go bad, or they are ripped off, organised criminals must maintain their reputation or risk others taking advantage of them. For the police officers I spoke with during my research into this matter, and from my own experience, reputation rather than cash is the key commodity for an organised criminal. To operate in the murky world of organised crime, you must be trusted not to be an informant or an undercover agent. You must have sufficient kudos to be taken seriously, and not seem like an easy target for those you are dealing with to take advantage of. The threat of potential violence is never far from the surface of interactions in order to retain legitimacy. Additionally, you must be conscious of the level of attention you are drawing to your activities and have sufficient cover to explain the profits you are making.

In short, what my own experience, the opinions of my colleagues, and other authors on the subject highlight, is that those immersed in organised crime (and terrorism for that matter) hold particular ‘value sets’. While they may be far-removed from those of the general public who obey the rule of law, they are values and associated norms of expected behaviour nonetheless. This is a point with particular relevance for understanding the crime-terror nexus.

On a number of occasions during my research into organised criminals’ relationships with terrorists, the analogy of paedophilia was made. Paedophilia is seen as a wholly unacceptable behaviour in most societies, a crime beyond the pale, and this is a ‘value’ on which both law-abiding citizens and criminals appear to agree. Prison is an excellent setting to see in action the opinions of other criminals regarding this behaviour. Those convicted of paedophilia are segregated, and during rioting are always targeted for extreme punishment by their fellow inmates. Why? Because they are seen as breaching the societal norms of criminal society, as having broken a form of ‘taboo’. Criminals, like anyone else, have governing operating parameters on behaviour, and it seems that this one form of criminality is simply unacceptable to the vast majority, drawing considerable opprobrium. Also, attacking these individuals positively affects the social standing of those undertaking the attack, providing an uplift in their ‘reputation’.

Until approximately 2011, my colleagues in the Scottish police viewed the likeliness of Scottish criminals assisting those involved in international jihadist terrorism akin to criminals assisting a paedophile; in other words, as a ‘deal too far’. The cultural distance between Scottish organized criminals and groups such as al-Qaeda meant that, were such a relationship to be discovered, the former would likely suffer catastrophic reputational damage amongst their peers and wider society. All the more so if the terrorists’ actions affected those socially connected to the criminals in question. Conversely, however, if the relationship were to involve criminals and terrorists from a shared background, the former’s ‘stock’ might actually rise through benefit of association with ‘the cause’. An excellent example of this in relation to the Troubles is James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a Boston-based organised criminal whose arms smuggling on behalf of the PIRA made him a feared and respected criminal, and directly impacted on his ability to have an advantageous and manipulative relationship with law enforcement agencies for decades.

Determining factors for a crime-terror nexus

Reputational considerations, therefore, appear to be a key element governing potential crime-terror relationships. But, based on both my own research on this topic and relevant professional experience, both my own and that of my colleagues, several other factors stand out as relevant for determining whether a ‘crime-terrorism nexus’ can come into being. Although previous examples have focused on terrorism related to the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, these observations are partly drawn from, and believed to be relevant to, the contemporary threat posed by groups like the Islamic State (IS) as well.

First of all, there is the individual dimension to consider. The psychological makeup of the participants in an organised crime group and the personality and standing of its leader(s) will have a direct bearing on any potential crime-terrorism relationship. Criminals’ attitude to risk, their personal identification with the particular terrorist cause, any controlling ‘red lines’ on behaviour and an individual desire for cultural and/or widespread notoriety (or perceived adulation) will all be determining factors. Closely related are considerations of reputation, or the degree to which knowledge of the nexus relationship is perceived as having a positive or negative affect on the organized criminals’ standing amongst criminal peers and relevant elements within wider society.

Of similar weight is the consideration of distance. How close a potential terrorist partner may operate in relation to the organised criminal group’s own society will be of direct relevance to all relationship calculations. We then come to the consideration that started this investigation, namely that of profit. A crucial consideration here is the degree to which the organised crime group is dependent on the nexus relationship to continue its funding and whether any alternative revenue streams may be available as a contingency if the relationship is discontinued. Moreover, in maintaining any nexus relationship, the participants need to consider their degree of co-operation. Simply put, if the relationship falls apart will this change impact significantly on other elements of criminal operations. For example, will the availability of ‘expertise’ in relation to explosives or access to a smuggling route be lost?

As with all parties involved in nefarious enterprises, actual or perceived deception by one of the nexus partners will have a bearing on the degree to which cooperation is established and deemed worthwhile. External factors that will impact any nexus relationship include increased or decreased law enforcement interest as the level of law enforcement activity will be directly commensurate to the actions those participating in the nexus can undertake without potential or actual interdiction or arrest. Similarly, the amount of media interest will impact on the ability of the nexus participants to carry out mutually beneficial activities without public knowledge.

Every terrorist and organised crime group is different, and the weight that each participant in a crime-terror nexus places on these factors will differ. However, in determining the risk of relationships occurring they are a useful starting point.


We have an increasing number of diaspora communities emerging across Europe, and this diversity can, of course, be a fantastic addition to our societies. However, it has to be acknowledged that some elements within these communities have incubated significant terrorist threats. Just as the organised criminals of Glasgow went to the same schools, gyms and social hangouts as some of those involved in Northern Irish terrorism, so too have some criminal individuals within the more recent diaspora communities interacted with extremist elements. The finding that many Western citizens who joined IS as foreign fighters were previously engaged in criminality is well documented. Clearly, the potential ways in which criminal pasts do and do not lead on to terrorism need to be better understood.

In Scotland, the police are making concerted efforts to work closely with and on behalf of all of our communities, for instance by establishing bespoke recruitment assistance programs to encourage diversity within the force. There are also efforts such as the Grey Space[1] Community Tension Monitoring Group, which I established and initially chaired in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde. Its purpose is to bring all of our communities, established and emerging, together and gain trust and understanding amongst community leaders. A Catholic Bishop, Mosque Chairman, LGBT representatives and community leaders from our Polish, African and our more recent refugee populations sit together, forming new bonds and discussing shared concerns. The diversity and cultural influences diaspora communities bring should be harnessed for the betterment of all, while remaining cognizant of the fact that some elements within these communities could harbour dangerous links with extremist elements both domestically and internationally. It is through mutual understanding, trust and cooperation that important first steps towards identifying such potential threats can be made.

Looking ahead

So, what of the future? Although the demise of the Islamic State as a territorial entity appears to be well underway, the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq is likely to remain a primary concern. Over the past several years, somewhere between 5000 and 7000 individuals from the West are believed to have travelled to participate in the jihad as foreign fighters. In the UK alone, 400 are thought to have returned, with only 40 prosecuted so far.

Those who travelled to fight in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, whether for jihadist factions or those opposed to them, have likely acquired a skill set uniquely suited to participation in organised crime. They have functioned within organisations with rules far removed from the societal norms of the West, and many will have acquired expertise in the use of firearms and explosives. Their exposure to extreme violence, and to trafficking networks will no doubt be of benefit to potential careers as criminals, while the cachet of having fought for or in opposition to jihadist groups like IS will most probably impact criminal reputations.

The likeliness of these returning foreign fighters using their newfound skill sets for criminal purposes is tied not just to ideological rationales, but the simple need to make a living. Those who remain loyal to the cause are likely to leverage their criminal contacts for terrorist purposes, just as PIRA veterans did. But we should also remain aware of the likelihood that many will become less involved with the cause and instead use their skill set and reputation for criminal purposes. A process seen not just among some PIRA veterans, but also, for instance, among the French paramilitary Secret Army Organisation (OAS) and the Mexican military veterans who went on to found the Los Zetas cartel.

We must be alert to the communities in Europe we now host, and their complicated relationships to the nations from which they emerged. The émigré and immigrant communities of Scotland are now hundreds of years old, and I myself am the product of this immigration. As the Orange Walks and Republican marches continue on Scotland’s streets, often commemorating battles in what are now foreign countries over 300 years ago, I can assure you that the diaspora issues that are present today across the West may be with us for some time to come. However, I hope to have shown that whether issues will include cooperation between criminal and terrorist elements depends on a complicated and nuanced calculation.

The development of a crime-terror nexus, or the ‘evolution’ of terrorists into criminals and vice versa, has been an element in numerous recent intrastate conflicts. However, I do not believe that its development is inevitable. It is perhaps incumbent on policymakers and practitioners to look to history to further research the factors which have contributed to a nexus’ emergence and seek to identify and introduce mitigation measures. In addition, the variety of factors at play in determining whether a crime-terror nexus may emerge, discussed in brief above, need further investigation and refinement.

Finally, while the IS-related crime and terror nexus is not in itself unique, the degree of previous criminal history amongst the Western foreign fighter who travelled to join this group, is. This propensity to crime amongst participants causes me, as a policeman and researcher, significant concern and should in my opinion act as a ‘red flag’ to all involved in organised crime interdiction of potential dangers ahead. Many who travelled to fight for Islamic State were young men. If they ultimately return to a life of organised criminal activity they may cause significant issues for decades to come.

[1] In his book ‘The New Threat from Islamic Militancy’ Jason Burke discusses Islamic State’s desire to annihilate the ‘grey zone’ that exists between communities, with them espousing a binary world view of ‘with us or against us’. I took this concept and met with all the community leaders outlined individually, where they agreed the meeting of minds was what made the pluralist West function well. After we had become a group, and adopted the name I suggested members arrived collectively at the following definition:

‘Grey Space exists to foster a community of healthy relationships through mutual collaboration of all its stakeholders and it is noted by the Grey Space Group that community tension is partly natural and not intrinsically bad, since justice is constantly being refined in dynamic societies – and we should expect some tension in healthy communities. For example, community activism and public protest are legitimate and potentially creative activities, though they may cause tensions. People have the right to express opinions and to ‘peaceful assembly’, providing they are not stirring up hatred. These can often be positive means of promoting social change - it is legal expression and may produce tension.’