Tangled Webs: Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Since the early 1990s, Western law enforcement agencies have noted an increasing reliance on criminal activity by terrorist networks around the world. Funding sources from the Persian Gulf, charities and other non-governmental fronts have been placed under pressure. This development, compounded by the arrests of several high-ranking coordinators and financiers of operations in Europe and North America—such as Abu Doha and Fateh Kamel—have compelled jihadi networks to adapt and further diversify their funding sources. Consequently “traditional” criminal activities like drug trafficking, robbery and smuggling are rapidly becoming the main source of terrorism funding. In fact, many recent terrorist attacks have been partly financed through crime proceeds.

Funding Shifts

Throughout the 1990s, European law enforcement officers tasked with combating the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) networks noticed that operatives had penetrated local criminal structures in Europe and North Africa by using ethnic and cultural links. With the jihad in Algeria at its height, the under-funded GIA became actively involved in drugs and weapons trafficking through logistics and financial support cells in Europe. GIA members such as Djamel Lounici and Mourad Dhina also trafficked stolen vehicles and forged documents. Similarly, for years the Fateh Kamel network in Montreal and an affiliated cell in Istanbul benefited from trafficking in stolen vehicles, theft and credit card fraud. One of its Montreal members, the Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, had also planned a series of armed robberies to secure funding for his aborted attack on the Los Angeles airport in 1999.

While a number of violent crimes involving jihadists have taken place in North Africa and Europe over the last decade, the full synthesis between criminality and terrorism took place in 1996 with a series of deadly armed robberies in the French town of Roubaix, which police initially assumed were perpetrated by criminals motivated solely by money. Following the attempted bombing of a G-7 meeting in Lille, French authorities discovered that the Roubaix gang was in fact a small Islamic militant organization that had also committed robberies in Bosnia to fund the jihad. An added benefit of these actions—from the Roubaix gang’s point of view—may have been that these unconventional “fundraising operations” were, in fact, terrorizing in themselves.

In December 2005, co-leader of the Roubaix gang and French convert Lionel Dumont was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Moreover, similar groups have been dismantled in France in the past months, including in a December 13th joint operation involving five French law enforcement agencies that netted over 25 suspects as well as high-grade explosives and weaponry. The group included known jihadists, radicalized delinquents and common criminals. Some of the members of this Zarqawi-linked cell—including presumed leader and ex-convict Ouassini Cherifi—were also involved in a number of armored car robberies that were undertaken to raise funds for the movement of recruits to Iraq.

Triangular Trafficking and Specialization

A “triangular trade” is steadily evolving that consists of weapons, stolen/contraband goods and narcotics. New al-Qaeda affiliates, notably the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) and North African branches of Takfir wa al-Hijra (Excommunication and exile) have inherited old GIA networks spread across Europe and are actively involved in various types of trafficking to fund operations, trade in weaponry and explosives and move/shelter militants. In Europe, this nexus is mostly active in France and especially Spain, which because of its geography is a major transit (and destination) point for Moroccan cannabis as well as a hub for forged documents and credit cards (Le Nouvel Observateur, October 7, 2004).

While networks were initially involved in drugs-for-weapons exchanges, many eventually shifted to direct drug trafficking. Moroccan sources suspect drug money to be the main source of funding for the May 16, 2003 attacks in Casablanca. Moreover, according to Spanish police, the funding for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train attacks came from drug trafficking, and many of those who took part in the preparation and execution of the attack had been involved in criminal activities such as stolen vehicle trading, jewel thefts and various types of counterfeiting (La Vanguardia, May 24, 2005). Furthermore, over half of the members of the group planning suicide strikes against the Spanish High Court later that year were already in jail on drug-trafficking-related charges.

Additionally, in June and November of this year, Spanish police uncovered operational and logistics cells of the GSPC and the Zarqawi networks, and discovered that the suspects had engaged in credit card fraud, robberies, drug trafficking and vehicle theft. At times an operational cell may partially fund itself, as when police found 7 kilograms of hashish in the hideout of the suspects planning to bomb the Strasbourg cathedral in 2000. Although financed by Abu Doha, the group had been raising funds through drug trafficking in Frankfurt and London. Many other Islamist cells dismantled in Europe following September 11, 2001, had engaged in drug trafficking, including an al-Qaeda linked group operating in Antwerp and Brussels and a cell in the Netherlands involved in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud.


Aside from narcotics, militants and sympathizers also traffic in precious stones and metals, mainly because they are easy to transport and difficult to trace. This was the case with a Tunisian man charged in Germany with planning attacks against Western targets, who had used a travel agency as a front for gold and silver trafficking (Agence France-Presse, November 30, 2004). Front companies are ideal vehicles to transfer illicit funds and since the mid-1990s, dozens of terrorist front companies have been dismantled in Europe. Recent arrests in France uncovered a GICM support cell (linked to the Madrid bombings) operating various business ventures, just as Ould Slahi—involved in major al-Qaeda plots and closely linked to al-Qaeda financier Khaled Al Shanquiti—was first arrested in 1999 for laundering drug money through his import-export firm.

Blurring the Lines

Following the arrests of several key players in the GIA’s European operations in the mid-1990s, networks reorganized themselves around contraband and arms-smuggling rings influenced by elements of the Russian and Sicilian mafia (the latter has also laundered money for the GIA) [1]. These types of relationships arise from mutual benefit, with the terrorists seeking entry into established trafficking/money laundering channels and traditional criminal groups taking advantage of profit opportunities. Ethnic or religious links are not necessarily essential for collaboration to take place; for example, the Madrid bombings were facilitated by members of local criminal groups and petty thieves. When in 2001 the Spanish police conducted a counter-narcotics operation, which netted, among other items, hashish, explosives and detonators, they initially arrested the procurer of explosives for 3/11, José Suárez. Furthermore, the arrests of Marc Muller and Stephen Wendler in the mid-1990s were two of many examples where arms traffickers knowingly supplied terrorist groups with weapons from ex-soviet bloc states. In a case of direct barter, two Pakistanis and a U.S. citizen were detained in Hong Kong in 2002 in an attempt to exchange 600kg of heroin and five tons of hashish for four Stinger missiles, which they intended to sell to al-Qaeda.

Since traffickers and terrorist organizations have similar logistical needs, there is ample room for collaboration in money laundering and even facilitating illegal immigration. Recent evidence from Morocco strongly suggests that jihadists are increasingly reliant on outsourcing to specialized migrant smuggling networks to infiltrate or exfiltrate targeted countries (La Gazette du Maroc, February 9, 2004).

There are additional concerns that trafficking channels can be used to move heavy weaponry and even weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD components. In December 2004 members of Takfir were arrested in Barcelona for allegedly trying to purchase over 400kg of industrial explosives and material from a Czech source to build a “dirty bomb” (MAP Maghreb Arebe Presse, October 28, 2005). Moreover, in a recent case of arms smuggling from Russia, traffickers attempted to sell high-powered arms—and reportedly uranium—to an FBI informant posing as a middleman for al-Qaeda.


To retain legitimacy, contemporary terrorist groups are particularly concerned about providing religious justification for their acts, criminal or otherwise. The writings of a 13th century Islamic jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, are an important source of authorization in regard to seizing the enemy’s property during jihad. During the Algerian jihad, Ali Benhadj (a leader of the Islamic Salvation Front—FIS) quoted Ibn Taymiyya in declaring a fatwa authorizing GIA groups to assassinate and seize the property of all Muslims who opposed them. Terrorist mastermind Sheik Abdel Rahman had also authorized robbery against “the miscreants and the apostate state,” while in 1998 Osama bin Laden echoed this in his call to kill Americans and “plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.” In January 2004 a member of the Moroccan group, Salafiya Jihadiya admitted being shown videos that legitimized and promoted robbing “infidels and hypocrite Muslims,” suggesting that encouraging criminal behavior is emerging as an integral feature of al-Qaeda’s internal propaganda.

While Islamists are widely viewed as uncompromising literalists, pragmatism in the search for funds is evident in the religious decree by Salafist ideologue Nasreddine El Eulmi, which authorized the use and sale of drugs during the Algerian jihad. The most radical of contemporary terrorist groups, the Takfir, explicitly encourages robbery and drug trafficking as long as a fifth of the proceeds are used to fund the Islamist cause (Le Parisien, September 8, 2002). Arrests in Morocco in 2002 confirmed that its members were encouraged by their emir to steal “jewels, credit cards and money” from their victims (Maroc-Hebdo, August 3, 2002).


For terrorist organizations, the source of funding is irrelevant and only matters because it procures weapons, facilitates movement and produces propaganda. Even major operations cost relatively small sums when compared with the vast revenues of organized crime groups. For example, major operations like the Madrid bombings cost anywhere between $15,000 to $35,000, while the annual profits from cannabis trafficking in Europe alone are estimated at $12 billion.

The incorporation of organized criminality into terrorist ideology and operations shows the flexibility of terrorist organizations in adapting to dynamic fundraising environments. The border between the two worlds is ever more porous, with terror suspects now often imprisoned on multiple charges, both criminal and terrorist.

This poses significant challenges to law enforcement agencies, which have traditionally targeted terrorism and criminality separately.

Hayder Mili is an independent researcher specializing in Islamism in Central Asia and the Caucasus.


1. Salima Tlemçani, “Trafic d’armes en Europe,” Les filières du GIA, January 11, 2000.