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Countering Linkages between Terrorist and Criminal Networks. James J.F. Forest Director of Terrorism Studies. T he C ombating T errorism C enter . A t w est p oint. EAPC/PfP Workshop on Threat Convergence, Zurich, 5 March 2007.

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Countering Linkages between Terrorist and Criminal Networks

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Countering Linkages between Terrorist and Criminal Networks

James J.F. Forest

Director of Terrorism Studies

The CombatingTerrorismCenter

Atwest point

EAPC/PfP Workshop on Threat Convergence, Zurich, 5 March 2007

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Networked Organizations

  • “Living, breathing organisms” with no state/geographical boundaries

  • Distributed cellular architecture can insulate and protect the core

  • Can concentrate resources when necessary (‘swarming’)

  • Becoming preferred method of communication, coordination, cooperation & collaboration

    • Political Activists

    • Organized Crime

    • Terrorists

    • Academic Researchers

Trust is critical

“To work well, networks require strong shared beliefs, a collective vision, some original basis for trust, and excellent communications”

- Brian Jenkins, 2006

In human networks, trust is established by various social mechanisms and shared beliefs

Anyone can plug into the network if they use the proper protocols (the “trusted handshake”), usually enabled by previously established network credentials

Trust is critical

  • Examples of the “trusted handshake”

    • Family ties, clan, tribe, etc.

    • Mutual friends/acquaintances who vouch for you w/their life

    • Battlefield veteran status (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq)

    • Religion (doctrinal knowledge, credentials, etc.)

    • Shared experiences (prison, battlefield, oppression)

    • Political, ideology, political activist goals

    • Shared academic/scientific knowledge base

  • Some individuals have a very high level of "betweeness centrality" – these are critical knowledge brokers connecting different types of members (e.g., veterans & new recruits; scholars & mujahideen)

Hybrid network linkages

We have seen an increase in the establishment of linkages between terrorist and criminal networks, creatingHybrid Networks

  • Why?

    • Need for new funding sources, money laundering services, specialized skills, knowledge, etc. (especially when state sponsorship, charity funds have become constrained)

  • Upon what grounds are these linkages established?

    • Mission-specific, temporary, transaction-specific vs. long-term linkages (examples include smuggling, kidnapping, trading drugs for weapons)

  • Money is a centrifugal force; because they both need it, this force brings them together

Hybrid network linkages

  • “Trusted handshake” of Hybrid Networks established by

    • Ethnic ties, often within a diaspora (e.g., Algerians in France, Spain; Pakistanis in UK; Tamils in Canada; Turks in Germany)

    • Record of successful black market transactions

    • Shared prison experiences

    • Shared anti-government sentiment

    • Mutual friends/acquaintances who vouch for you with their life

    • Family ties, clan, tribe, etc.

  • Where do we see increasing chances of forming “trusted handshakes”?

    • Prisons

    • Black market transaction centers

    • Ethnic enclaves related to a diaspora

Enabling environments

  • Environmental issues that enable or facilitate network linkages:

    • Conflict zones (& former conflict zones flush with weapons)

    • High level of corruption

    • Weak civil society / Low level of rule of law

    • Zones of competing governance/ungoverned spaces

    • Ethnic enclave/diaspora neighborhoods

    • Areas of deep ethnic fissures, animosity towards a “them”

    • Regions of financial/economic desperation forces alignments

    • Poorly equipped, underpaid border guards

    • Authoritarian, statist regimes that overly control economy

    • Lack of transparency in private and public sector finance


  • Any organization involved in clandestine activities faces similar challenges in terms of operational security

    • Includes ferreting out spies within the organization

  • Must maintain a level of security that facilitates conducting meaningful transactions of information and finance

  • Secure long-distance communication is time consuming and expensive

  • Constant fear of intelligence agencies, law enforcement

Agency Theory

  • A network’s members have different preferences, based on personal experiences, perceptions, etc.

  • Preference divergenceimpacts the level of trust/expectations of shared effort toward common goal

  • Preference divergence can make it harder for a network’s principals to maintain:

    • Tactical control

    • Transaction integrity

    • Strategic authority

  • These challenges are exacerbated by Hybrid Networks(temporary “marriages of convenience” between criminals and terrorists)

1. Tactical Control

  • Principals must delegate certain duties to middlemen or low-level operatives, but cannot perfectly monitor agents

  • Preference divergence over controlled use of violence

    • Terrorists cannot afford to alienate the center of gravity, or risk losing support

    • Danger of “Freelancing” - members initiating attacks against strategically high-value targets

  • Preference divergence over who needs what kinds of situational awareness

  • Preference divergence over what should be done to maintain security



Operational Security

Exacerbate tactical control challenges

  • Preference divergence creates challenges for networked organizations that can be exploited

    • Exploit preference divergence over controlled use of violence

    • Force leaders to consider punitive actions against agents/operatives

  • These challenges are particularly acute for Hybrid Networks

    • Pre-existing differences between criminals and terrorists in their views toward the use of violence

    • Terrorists take responsibility for violence; media attention provides a form of strategic communication

    • Criminals do not take responsibility for violence; do not want media attention

2. Transaction Integrity

  • Strength of any network is based on the level of its integrity (reliability and trust) for conducting transactions

    • Expectations of money to support operations

    • Expectations that recipients will do the correct things with funds

  • Limited or no accountability

    • Because of operational security needs, a clandestine organization cannot offer much transparency regarding its finances

    • Considerable latitude for abuse, corruption

    • Particular challenge for Hybrid Networks, where suspicion is already natural


Operational Security

Exacerbate transaction integrity challenges

Distrust can be easier to establish than trust

Slow the transfer of funds, assets from one node to another; cause unexplained transaction delays

Encourage internal looting (or perception of looting); Promote suspicion, rumors, mistrust

Publicize accounts of financial mismanagement, corruption, misappropriation, fund diversion (e.g., from court records)

Get money to disappear with no reason, and then have conspicuous consumption items (big screen TV) appear in place of the missing money

Spread rumors of preferential treatment, special benefits given to certain members of the network unfairly

countering Hybrid networks

  • Hybrid networks require a higher level of trust in order to maintain operational security

  • Linkages between criminal and terror organizations exacerbates trust, agency theory problems

  • Most criminal and terrorist network operatives have difficulty trusting terrorists because of differences in objectives, rationality for violence, values, motivations, etc.

  • How to exacerbate these problems to sow distrust and discord between them?

  • Exploit network vulnerabilities and produce a constant state of disruption and uncertainty – degrade its ability to function effectively

Final thoughts

  • Information warfare: influencing “street perception” of an organization is a powerful component of an overall counterterrorism strategy

  • Criminal network infiltration may offer new pathways for counterterrorism

    • Highlight the perception that criminal organizations may be easier to penetrate with human intelligence resources

  • Increase concern about network infiltration, forcing them to spend more time on screening new members

  • Identify and exploit rivalries:Disagreements already exist in these networks; How can we exacerbate them, make them more acrimonious?


Backup slides

Technology and OPSEC

Technology enables organizations to become more “networked”

Constraining their technological capacity forces more face-to-face interaction

More frequent face-to-face interaction can increase a clandestine network’s vulnerabilities

- technology, eavesdropping

- human intelligence, spies



Organizational Tightness

Strategic authority

Strategic Authority/Leadership Preference Divergence

Within all networks, there are forces which influence how the nodes operate. For example:

if Mafia, certain family leaders/patrons . . .

if Jihadis, certain influential scholars . . .

Preference divergence over “who’s in charge”

Internal dissension within the network’s leadership

Strategic disagreements within network lead some members to subvert the authority of senior commanders

Principals must combat perceptions of strategic drift, disconnections between rhetoric and actions

Exacerbate strategy authority challenges

  • Identify the most influential members within each network; who is trusted most? Whose word carries most weight, and why?

  • Identify and exploit rivalrieswithin each network and between networks

    • - Disagreements already exist in these networks

    • - How to exacerbate them, make them more acrimonious?

    • - Encourage debate; force them to defend their ideas

    • - Ideology vs. profit motivation differences lead to legitimacy questions

  • Raise questions about strategic coherence, leadership competency, direction

  • Highlight personal agendas of those who are “in charge”

  • Highlight disconnect between rhetoric and actions – especially when an ideologically-driven group is involved in narcotics, extortion (e.g., UDF)

  • Publicize CT successes and the network’s tactical failures; spread rumors of incompetence, strategic drift, lack of tactical control

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