Terror-crime 'poisonous brew' requires a calibrated response

Terror-crime 'poisonous brew' requires a calibrated response
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Former CIA Director James Woolsey famously made reference in a 2003 speech to ties between terrorists and traffickers of drugs, arms and people as a “poisonous brew” that threatens international security.

The crime-terror nexus has since become an increasingly popular paradigm, with practitioners identifying so much overlap between extremism and organized crime that it culminated in a U.N. Security Council resolution. But identifying the intersection has proved easy. The harder part is how to develop a well-calibrated response.


The U.S. government took a step in the direction of nuanced policy on Oct. 15, when it named Lebanese Hezbollah among its top transnational organized crime targets. The announcement complements a task force of organized crime, drug and terrorism prosecutors established in January this year to take broader aim at the group’s finances. 

Beyond solidifying Hezbollah as an American law enforcement priority, these actions show how Washington has matured in its approach to addressing highly complex hybrid threats after years of incremental adjustments.

During the 2000s, Washington sporadically used sanctions to highlight cases with a pronounced crime-terror nexus. Several groups named as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under the Immigration and Nationality Act were re-designated as drug kingpins in actions primarily useful for public messaging.

The move toward a more dimensional approach came in 2011 with a transnational organized crime strategy that prioritizes defeating crime networks to prevent them from facilitating terrorist activities.

To put the strategy into practice, fusion centers like the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA’s) Counter-Narcoterrorism Operations Center develop phased law enforcement action plans against complex networks containing extremist and criminal elements.

The strategic logic underlying these efforts is important. Washington has increasingly combated terror groups using organized crime authorities, while mostly resisting the temptation to designate organized crime syndicates as terrorists. This approach, which focuses on denying criminal support to extremism, is smart bureaucracy.

First, it recognizes that transnational crime can exist separately from terrorism, but that most terror groups depend on criminal activity to facilitate their operations.

Unsurprisingly, Interpol estimated in September that non-state armed groups, including terrorist organizations, derive up to 66 percent of their funding from environmental crimes and the drug trade.

By broadening the criminal statutes under which law enforcement can pursue terrorism supporters, it becomes easier to constrain terrorist funding. This strategy has proved effective in practice, allowing the DEA to arrest affiliates of Hezbollah’s terrorist wing in 2016 on drug-trafficking charges. 

Second, highlighting the criminal connections of terror groups makes it politically easier to build international coalitions to combat them. National views on a multifaceted, politically active group like Hezbollah vary widely and building an international consensus to confront its terrorist activities is difficult work for American diplomats.

This is particularly true in countries where authorities recoil from the terrorist label because it was historically misused to slander political opposition or repress dissent. In such countries, host governments are more inclined to take action against terrorist facilitators if they can be credibly linked to apolitical crimes. 

The reverse strategy of classifying crime groups as posing a terrorism threat, as El Salvador has done with its street gangs, can also seem superficially appealing.

Former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDOJ to probe Minneapolis police Garland rescinds Trump-era memo curtailing consent decrees Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE speculated last April about designating another of Washington’s top transnational crime targets, the Mara Salvatrucha, as a terror group.

U.S. congressmen have tabled similar proposals targeting Mexican cartels in recent years. Some of these proposals aimed to give the federal government greater tools to restrict the travel of traffickers and impose harsher legal penalties on their supporters.

Others were probably driven by law enforcement agencies looking to make their missions eligible for counterterrorism funding. 

Yet, such proposals invite legal and social risk. When extremely violent criminals with fundamentally apolitical goals are rebranded as terrorists, it allows for harsh counterterrorism measures to be inadvertently used against vulnerable people.

A terrorist label for the Mara Salvatrucha, for example, would risk harming the gang’s victims. As the Michigan Law Review points out, U.S. asylum law prohibits anyone from entering the country that has supported a terrorist organization, even if under duress.

By that standard, victims of the gang in Central America could find themselves ineligible for asylum in the United States because of extortion fees they were forced to pay back home. 


Applying counterterrorism authorities to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel or the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, which feature alongside Mara Salvatrucha and Hezbollah as top organized crime targets, would present similar problems.

If the cartels were classified as terror groups under U.S. law, consumers of their products from Los Angeles to Long Island would technically be eligible for treatment — as terror financiers, not addicts. 

To its credit, Washington has done well in remembering Woolsey’s words. U.S. government action against the criminal underpinnings of terrorism is increasingly dimensional and rightly takes aim at the transnational networks that can support both extremist and criminal ends.

But intelligent national security policy isn’t just interdisciplinary and illicit finance-focused. It also recognizes that when you follow the money, sometimes what you find is pure crime.

Andrew Rennemo is a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department focused on transnational threats and a management consultant for anti-money laundering risk and forensic investigation.