Where Transnational Crime Meets Terrorism

Terrorist groups and transnational crime organizations share many of the same attributes, operating outside of the law, often committing violent acts and murder, as well as engaging in illicit business. In some instances, the line between the two can blur. Abu Sayyaf, once an Islamic separatist terrorist organization in the Philippines, has transformed itself into a maritime criminal organization committing piracy and kidnappings for profit. Often, however, a terrorist group remains a terrorist group and a transnational criminal organization remains such. The primary difference between the two is that terrorists are primarily driven by ideology, while criminals seek profit.

Terrorism is defined as the use of threats or violence, to achieve objectives, whether political, religious, or ideological objectives. Domestic terrorists, transnational terrorists, insurgents, or guerrillas form or join organizations based on shared ideology. Terrorists often use extreme violence or violence against civilians in order to send a message, sow fear, or incite terror, hence the name, terrorist. 

Transnational organized crime groups are self-perpetuating associations operating by illegal means, across national borders. Different from terrorist groups, transnational crime organizations are driven by profit. They often engage in drug-, human-, and weapons-trafficking, as well as money laundering, extortion, credit card fraud, financial crime, counterfeit goods, and cybercrime.

In spite of differences in motivation, there are three general categories of cooperation which occur between terrorist networks and transnational criminal organizations. The first is coexistence, whereby the two groups operate in the same geographic region without warring on one another. The second is cooperation where they may share mutual interests which they feel can best be achieved if they work together. The third type of cooperation is convergence, which occurs when the groups engage in similar activities. With convergence, the two groups find that they share values and goals which are being suppressed by the state. The two share resources, identifying and exploiting weaknesses in the state system.

Factors that contribute to cooperation between transnational terrorists and criminals include porous borders and weak government enforcement. Two geographic regions where terrorism and crime are closely aligned are the Golden Crescent (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran) and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam).

The Golden Crescent

Criminal activity in the Golden Crescent has increased since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban have joined forces with 20 foreign terrorist groups, and have become more deeply involved in transnational organized crime. The group is operating directly or through local cells in Pakistan and Iran, while engaging in large-scale organized criminal activity around the world, producing and smuggling drugs, including heroin, opium, methamphetamine, and marijuana. They also earn money through illegal logging and mineral extraction, as well as human trafficking. The Taliban smuggles and sells gemstones and semi-precious minerals, which find their way to wealthy consumers in Europe and the U.S.

Within the borders of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operates corporations in legitimate sectors, such as construction. They also control illicit businesses in Iran. They control the country’s government and courts, as well. Internationally, they sponsor terror groups in other countries.

The Golden Triangle

Illicit activity in the Golden Triangle is heavily skewed toward weapons and drugs. Light arms from Cambodia are transited through the Kingdom of Thailand. The Kingdom is an attractive location for arms smugglers because of its proximity to Cambodia, a long and weakly policed border, and the willingness of authorities to accept payments to look the other way. Weapons smuggled through Thailand find their way to terrorists in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Some weapons are smuggled to Southern Thailand, where they will be used by Muslim separatists. Other weapons will be transited to the North of Thailand, where they will be used in the war in Myanmar. The Myanmar conflict is a premier example of the overlap between transnational crime and terror. The country is home to the world’s oldest ongoing conflict, as multiple ethnic armies are fighting against the government and sometimes against each other. These ethnic resistance armies have been identified as terrorist organizations. At the same time, many of these groups fund their activities through the sale of methamphetamine and opium, which is moved through Thailand. Opium warlord Khun Sa (1934-2007) was at once the leader of a resistance army and one of the world’s largest drug traffickers.

Al Qaeda

From 2000 to 2010, Al Qaeda operated in Europe, with operations in Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. In these countries, Al Qaeda established successful relationships with organized crime networks, like Camorra and Ndrangheta, to smuggle diamonds and weapons, while affiliated and independent cells engaged in petty crime such as credit card fraud and drug sales. Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Europe, such as the 2015 attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, were carried out using weapons from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

The Taliban

Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium poppies, accounting for up to 80 percent of global production. In 2021, opium production accounted for between 9 and 14 percent of the country’s GDP.  The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with the ensuing economic sanctions, have reduced international aid money and loans flowing into the country and removed nearly any hope of trade and investment, except from China and a few other countries willing to ignore sanctions. Consequently, opium production has become more important. It is now the primary source of income for the Taliban. The Taliban also produce methamphetamine which they smuggle through Russia and Pakistan with the help of other terrorist organizations.


Analysts know there is cooperation between transnational terrorists and transnational criminal organizations, including Hezbollah, but the extent and exact nature of this cooperation has been difficult to pinpoint. Arguably, Hezbollah is the most globalized terrorist organization. The group has been linked to pornography, contraband cigarettes, and various forms of fraud, used to fund the group’s terror operations. Although the proceeds flow back to Hezbollah’s headquarters in Southern Lebanon’s Shiite community, it has been difficult for law enforcement to quantify and to link to the group. Transnational terror organizations are often organized in nodes connected through other networks, obfuscating the connection with the headquarters. These nodes are able to function independently because of the high degree of trust and familial ties which bind them.

Working through networks of criminals and coerced Lebanese Shiite diaspora in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Australia, and with state support from Iran, Hezbollah engages in the trafficking of drugs, arms, human beings, diamonds, counterfeit goods, and pharmaceuticals. Hezbollah launders money, while also engaging in financial, credit card, and passport fraud, as well as sham marriages, and intellectual property theft.

Hezbollah is actively engaged in criminal activity in Latin America, shipping tons of illicit goods from Colombia to Europe, including cocaine, luxury watches, and counterfeit goods. The cash is then transferred back to the Middle East, where it is used to finance Hezbollah’s activities.

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) uncovered a money laundering ring, linking Hezbollah and Colombian drug traffickers. Hezbollah was laundering Colombian drug money through Miami-based accounts. At the same time, Hezbollah associates were buying cocaine, weapons, and ammunition from cartels. In 2011, a Hezbollah member was charged with selling cocaine to the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. He was also charged with laundering money for the cartel and then funneling the profits of the laundering operations back to Hezbollah. In 2014, Brazilian authorities discovered that a domestic prison gang was providing protection for Lebanese inmates in exchange for Hezbollah facilitating the gang’s access to international arms markets.

Hezbollah’s criminal activity extends to the United States. In Charlotte, North Carolina, in the late 1990s, a group of Hezbollah-linked men, tied to each other by kinship, ran a complex criminal organization which engaged in credit card fraud, cigarette smuggling, and marriage and immigration fraud. The group also procured dual-use technology to be used by terrorists. At the same time that the Charlotte network was in operation, another Hezbollah network was operating out of Dearborn, Michigan and in New York State. The two groups cooperated in some of their criminal activities, with the Dearborn group purchasing cigarettes from the Charlotte group, while the Dearborn group also purchased cigarettes from other terrorist organizations.

The decentralized structure of international terror groups or criminal organizations presents significant obstacles for law enforcement agencies. Operating through individual cells, these groups have little to no knowledge of the members or activities of other cells, making it difficult to identify and disrupt their operations comprehensively. As law enforcement apprehends one cell, another emerges to fill its place, perpetuating the cycle of illicit activities. This decentralized nature poses a formidable challenge, as it requires law enforcement to constantly adapt their strategies and tactics in an ongoing battle against these groups.

Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo
Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.