The forces of globalization have opened borders and linked societies. But, globalization has also impacted nonstate actors, allowing for transnational criminal activity and providing new strategies to plan and fund terrorism. Here, Justin Leopold-Cohen surveys this development and argues for its consideration in counterterrorism policy. 

Globalization has brought about a convergence of two facets of the underworld. One is transnational organized crime, and the other is terrorist networks, creating what scholars have referred to as the crime-terror nexus. (Cheema 2014)

When describing the crime-terror nexus, most refer to a spectrum designed by Dr. Tamara Makarenko, which features a continuum with organized crime at one end and terrorism at the other. In between, the organized crime-terror continuum accounts for the various paths a group take to reach the nexus in the middle. These include alliances, the adoption of tactics or targets, and the creation of a hybrid organization. (Makarenko 2004) The terrorist side of the nexus often takes shape when a terrorist group engages in criminal activity as a source of financing. (Miklaucic 2013) The criminal side of the nexus, meanwhile is seen when drug smugglers engage in acts of terrorism against the government to influence policy.

The growth of activity at the crime-terror nexus is most readily seen in the links between weapons traffickers and terrorist organizations. According to data produced by the United States Department of State, the five terror groups responsible for the most amount of attacks in 2015 were: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), The Taliban, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Boko Haram, and the Maoist Party of India. All of whom also engage in the criminal trafficking of arms, either in buying from smugglers, or smuggling themselves. (U.S. State Department 2016)

In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, maintains a separatist insurgency estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 armed fighters. (Bruno 2007) Due to Turkey’s location, the PKK is able to operate as a middleman between groups working with other traffickers in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Taking advantage of its geostrategic advantage, the PKK finances its operations using a massive smuggling operation that loads and receives all types of goods traveling around the waters and borders of Turkey. (Shelly 2014) The PKK trafficking operation has managed to take over approximately 80% of Europe’s drug supply and the PKK use those profits to buy arms and finance attacks. (Freedman 2013)

The Afghani and Pakistani Taliban are heavily involved in criminal activities, chiefly narcotics trafficking. Similar to the PKK, the profits from these endeavors fund terrorist activities and the procurement of arms. They work with drug smugglers to import weapons and export drugs. These shipments feature illegal American and Russian arms coming through various ports which then flood the region. (Cheema 2014)

Though the majority of the ISIS arsenal is known to have been seized from the American supplied Iraqi military in 2011, private investigations have tracked significant portions of seized ISIS weaponry to “Sudanese, Russian, Chinese and Iranian” sources. Investigators cannot conclusively prove one smuggling route or another, however, there are documented cases of smuggling busts of weapons believed to have been bound for ISIS and their affiliates, such as the September 2015 seizure by the Hellenic Coast Guard out of Greece, which contained “5,000 shotguns and a half million rounds of ammunition.” (Trayner 2015)

American intelligence officials have tracked cooperation and communication links between Boko Haram and other criminal and terrorist groups, often to fund its operations through illicit activity, including cooperation with Nigerian pirates, and criminals involved in human trafficking, and weapons smuggling. (Johnson & Mohammed Aly 2015) Boko Haram’s relationships to these other groups seems to be largely transactions, typically involving weapons purchases or providing protection to arms smugglers and drug traffickers. (Zenn 2014)

The Maoist Party of India (also called the Naxalites after the original Communist party of India) has maintained a terrorist insurgency since the 1970s. The Naxalites’ operations and financing methods are fairly diverse. It imposes taxes on the regions it controls, and receives additional support from portions of the local populace. (Zissis 2008) They have also engaged in gun-smuggling as a way of financing operations. Indian intelligence accused the Naxalites of illegal shipments of smuggled guns hidden away on ships operated by traffickers. These ships travel from the port of Karachi, Pakistan, around India, to the port of Kutubdia, Bangladesh, and can direct guns to any number of unofficial ports along the coast. (Bhalla 2014)

The aforementioned groups could not have been responsible for the majority of attacks in 2015 without having also engaged in criminal activity as a means of financing them. As globalization advances, more illicit groups like these will move towards the Crime-Terror Nexus. For countries seeking effective countermeasures, developing new strategies to combat arms smuggling and other criminal activities that ultimately fund terrorist activity is essential. Doing so can help prevent the worst-case scenario: a terrorist group obtaining weapons of mass destruction through experienced arms smugglers.

Justin H. Leopold-Cohen is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA program in Global Security Studies. His research has focused on terrorism and its convergence with other transnational threats. He currently lives in Washington D.C. working on security policy. Any opinions expressed in his writing are solely his own, and do not speak for any institution or government.


1. Bhalla, Abhishek. “Ghost Boat Smuggles Weapons into India from Pakistan,' Sparking Fears They Could Reach Maoist Rebels.” Daily Mail, DMG Media, 8 April 2014. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article2600047/Ghost-boat-smuggles-weapons-India-Pakistan-arms-trafficking-incident.html>

2. Bruno, Greg. “Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).” CFR Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations, 19 October, 2007. <http://www.cfr.org/turkey/inside-kurdistan-workers-party-pkk/p14576>

3. Cheema, Asfa Raheela. “Small Arms Trafficking and Crime-Terror Nexus.” Defense Journal. Vol. 17, Issue 7. February 2014 (P.G. 47)

4. Freedman, Benjamin, and Matthew Levitt. "Contending with the PKK's Narco-Terrorism." Policy Watch (2009). Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Web. <http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/contending-with-the-pkks-narco-terrorism>.

5. Johnson, Toni and Sergie, Mohammed Aly. “Boko Haram.” CFR Backgrounders, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 March 2015. <http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/boko-haram/p25739>

6. Makarenko, Tamara. “The Crime-Terror Continuum: Tracing the Interplay Between Transnational Organized Crime and Terrorism.” Rutledge, Global Crime, Vol. 6, No. 1, February (2004) pp. 129-145. (P.G. 131)

7. Miklaucic, Michael. “Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization.” Center of Complex Operations, National Defense University, April 2013. (P.G. 111-113)

8. State Department Reports. “Statistical Information on Terrorism in 2015.” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Gov. 2 June 2016. https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257526.htm#

9. Trayner, David. “Greek Coastguards Seize Huge Shipment of Arms and Ammo Bound for Libya.” The Independent, ESI Media, 6 September 2015. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/video-huge-shipment-arms-ammo-libyanislamists-seized-10488719.html>

10. Zenn, Jacob. “Boko Haram: Recruitment, Financing, and Arms Trafficking in the Lake Chad Region. Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy at West Point, 31 October 2014. <https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/bokoharam-recruitment-financing-and-arms-trafficking-in-the-lake-chad-region>

11. Zissis, Carin. “Terror Groups In India.” CFR Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations, 27 November, 2008. <http://www.cfr.org/india/terror-groups-india/p12773#p3>

12. Shelly, Louise. “Human Smuggling and Trafficking Into Europe: A Comparative Perspective.” Transatlantic Council on Migration, Migration Policy Institute. February 2014. <http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/human-smuggling-and-trafficking-europe-comparative-perspective> (P.G. 9)