Terrorism and organised crime: risks of shared responses

2019-07-29

The macabre sale of human organs, trafficking of people and wildlife, drug crime, the smuggling of precious minerals – all have become lucrative revenue streams for organised transnational criminal groups. And there is growing anecdotal evidence that international terrorist groups such as Da’esh and al-Shabaab are exploiting the same channels.

But will grouping the two problems lead to a positive singular global response, or more problems regarding human rights abuses?

To increase the pressure on states to respond more urgently to the twin threats, United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution 2482 was adopted on 19 July. It calls on member states to ‘enhance coordination of efforts’ to strengthen the global response to the links between international terrorism and organised crime. It also urges them to ‘continue to conduct research and collect information to … better understand the nature and scope’ of such linkages.

Some observers say the resolution shows that the lines between transnational organised crime and terrorist groups are becoming murky. This was underscored by a counter-terrorism debate at a recent UN conference in Nairobi.

International terror groups are exploiting the same revenue streams as organised crime networks

Many terrorist groups and criminal gangs share the same routes and often the same networks, although their motivations may be different. Terrorism is driven by political idealism while organised crime focuses on financial gain. The responses are also becoming more blurred, reflected in the power exercised by a supranational body such as the Security Council and sovereign states.

Some commentators fear that by conflating terrorism and transnational organised crime, exceptional law – as applied internationally post 9/11 – is beginning to trump domestic law. Also, for some states transnational organised crime is considered a law enforcement issue and shouldn’t be packaged as part of efforts to stop global terrorism.

Resolution 2482 urges member states to respond to what appears to be an ill-defined ‘threat’. It stops short of invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would conceive the dual threat of terrorism and organised crime as threats to international peace and security.

Yet it ‘signals that the council is taking the matter seriously,’ says Martin Ewi – technical coordinator of the ENACT transnational organised crime project at the Institute for Security Studies. ‘But it is shy of calling it a Chapter VII issue because of the additional sanctions that would come with it.’ Even so, a lively debate is being fuelled about whether the Security Council is exercising mission creep in the fight against global terrorists and their financiers.

Resolution 2482 urges member states to respond to what appears to be an ill-defined ‘threat’

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, is particularly concerned. At the core of her argument are the issues of sovereignty, oversight and human rights. With still no universally agreed definition of international terrorism, she says existing counter-terrorism laws are already being used (or rather abused) to squeeze democratic space and stifle dissent.

By throwing organised crime into the mix, the human rights community warns that the potential for abuse is increased with security operations being used as a pretext for clamping down on opposition voices.

There is also a particular concern about terminology in the African context. Transnational organised crime and terrorists are ill-defined terms. An investigation into linkages must also take into account militias, rebel movements, local criminal gangs and how their own unique objectives may sometimes align with those of proscribed terrorist organisations. Furthermore, do they operate at regional or national level, and to what extent should this influence the response?

International law is flavoured by politics because it requires negotiation between states who have their own interests at heart but sometimes cooperate because of a sense of shared threats and common values. In contrast, domestic law – where criminal law has traditionally resided – is shaped by national norms, constitutions and common law.

Could Security Council resolution 2482 give further political cover for domestic human rights violations?

The Special Rapporteur argues that by obligating states to impose regimes – i.e. a new Security Council resolution – it risks opening the door to abuse. It does this, she argues, by undermining state sovereignty and the national system of checks and balances already existing to protect human and constitutional rights. By extending powers originally intended to thwart terrorism into new terrain, the council potentially gives further political cover for domestic human rights violations.

However such mission creep is surely nothing new, and perhaps the Security Council should be applauded as an example of the UN’s agility in responding to new global realities. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) redefined some domestic conflicts after the Rwanda Genocide in 1994 as threats to international peace and security. R2P compelled states to act or risk facing Security Council sanctions.

This revised definition was used to justify an international response to what would previously have been considered a domestic concern. Does the supposed fusion of terrorism and organised crime present a paradigm shift for the Security Council? And is invoking the council the best way to urge states to investigate and de-couple the linkages?

More focus on stamping out corruption and collusion between criminal gangs and state actors would help increase legitimacy to governments, which may remove one of the drivers fuelling extremism in the first place. However as outlawed organisations, terrorist groups generally can’t tap into legitimate sources of funds, so there is almost inevitably a link with organised crime, given the basic principles of supply and demand.

Resolution 2482 gives numerous UN bodies 12 months to report to the Secretary-General on how to address suspected linkages. Shouldn’t such bodies also be mandated to monitor state responses to these twin threats, and report back on whether they conform with human rights law?

For now the Security Council’s five permanent members acknowledge that not enough is known about how these supposed interlinked networks operate. But as the evidence base grows, it could well pave the way for a tougher approach.

Karen Allen, Senior Research Adviser, Emerging Threats in Africa, ISS

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Picture: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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