As politicians around the world seek to reach popularity among their nations by promising an effective protection against terrorism and its complete eradication, I believe that a more comprehensive view on this phenomenon is needed to properly comprehend what those promises entail. Below you will find a small dissertation on the relationship between Al-Qaeda and different types of transnational organized crime proving that the famous “War on Terrors” often lead to unwanted results.

On 11th September 2001, nineteen kamikazes associated with the Islamic extremist group “Al-Qaeda” managed to hijack four American Airline planes, and to carry out the deadliest attack in American history: two planes destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, one crashed into the Pentagon and another in a field in Pennsylvania (Encyclopedia of Terrorism).  This event opened a new chapter in the history of terrorism: the vulnerability perceived by the Western world pushed the War on Terror to the top of the international agenda, shifting the global focus on this threat. It is clear that the worldwide attention on terrorism, albeit necessary, shadowed another dangerous phenomenon: transnational organized crime. TOC was indeed the main international focus of the international community during the 1990s, as global actors were starting to face the most significant side-effects of globalization (Standing 2010). By fragmentating Al-Qaeda and not stopping TOC, the international community, within a few years from 9/11, had unconsciously created the conditions for terrorism to become more difficult to defeat.

Prior to 9/11, Al-Qaeda, at that time centralized, used to collect its resources mainly through to donations and state-funding (Gunaratna 2002); after the War on Terror and the following fragmentation and compartmentalization of Al-Qaeda, the power and responsibilities of the organization shifted to the local cells and its veteran leaders. While gaining more independence, Al-Qaeda branches started relying on transnational organized crime and on the Hawala system. The Hawala transactions are informal operations, that consist in sending money to a third part without moving it. An Hawala transaction indeed sees no money crossing borders or entering an institutionalized banking system (Looney 2003) and it is solely based on trust. A usual transaction involves a client who wants to send money to their recipient across the world and two halawadors, namely the intermediaries through which the transaction is possible. The client simply gives the money to their local halawador who will call their counterpart to inform them about the payment that must be made to the recipient (Looney 2003). Following Hawala operations often leads to money laundering, a crime transcendent to most international illicit activities. Besides donations, that now provide only a part of terrorist funding, experts have found evidence of terrorist organizations financing themselves mainly through antiquities trafficking, human trafficking and narcotics route taxations.

Mohammed Atta, who crashed the plane on the North Tower the 11th September 2001, was reported to try selling pieces of looted art several months before to “buy a plane” (Brems 2009). The attacks on America and their organization linked to antiquities trafficking indeed constituted a turning point in studying both terrorism and transnational organized crime. Experts have indeed found enough evidence to maintain that the roots of this phenomenon often lead to terrorist groups (Koush 2011). Even if the Society for the Preservation for Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage have been reporting this issue since 1996, collecting detailed and reliable data is still very complicated due to the lack of sources (Pringle 2014). However, through an ample research on this matter, it is easy to link conflict areas with art trafficking , where Al-Qaeda itself or related organizations often force the local communities to loot archeological sites, finding little or no obstacle from national forces (Hanson 2015).

Another source for terrorist funding is human trafficking, which profits around $150 billion every year (Fanusie & Entz 2017). The report of the UN Secretery General on Conflict-related sexual violence (2018) suggests that “Armed, terrorist and transnational criminal groups directly profit from trafficking, with victims being either abducted or deceived by false premises of lucrative job offers”. The peculiarity of the relationship between Al-Qaeda and this crime relies on the fact that terrorist groups represent a significant demand of this worldwide business. Indeed, there seems to be little if any involvement by Al-Qaeda in the management of such trafficking, for it does not generate enough revenue. (Lounnas 2018). More likely, each Al-Qaeda branch has a unique incentive to pursue human trafficking and exploits these pursuits in ways that are most convenient for their specific interests. For example, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) exploits the existing network for recruitment, increasing financial flows and controlling communities (Huckerby 2019), and cooperates with trafficking organizations that smuggle people from Asia to Europe, providing them security along the routes in exchange of money; on the other hand, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) mainly demands trafficked women as gifts for the mujahidins and to attract other fighters (Fanusie & Entz 2017).

Trafficked people are not the only victims of Al-Qaeda. Another extremely profitable funding method is kidnapping for ransom. This crime is one of the most profitable activities carried by Al-Qaeda and probably the one with the biggest political impact in western societies. A New York Times analysis carried out in 2014 revealed the concerning profits of AQAP, such as the $9 million ransom payed by France in 2011 for three French citizens and the $20.4 million ransom paid by Oman and Qatar in 2012-2013 for four European citizens. As per AQIM, kidnapping for ransom profited some $91.5 million for twenty hostages between 2008 and 2013 (Fanusie & Entz 2017). Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, even sees kidnapping for ransom as its main profit source (Fanusie & Entz 2017). The numbers are outstanding: $150 million in 2013, from $49 million to $142 million in 2014, estimated $45 million in 2015 and $11 million in 2016 (Fanusie & Entz 2017). Even if European countries deny paying ransoms, “Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al-Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe” (Callimachi 2014) for countries such as Oman and Qatar serve as intermediaries, to avoid direct payments (Callimachi 2014).

Another tight connection with TOCs is given by the relationship between Al-Qaeda and drug trafficking, the two most important scenarios being the opiates trafficking from Afghanistan and the drug route from West Africa to Nord Africa. The production and trade of Afghan heroin and opium through the Balkans creates a market of some $28 billion yearly, worth more than Afghanistan GDP (Afghanistan Opium Survey 2018). The Drug Enforcement Administration note that “Al-Qaeda is heavily involved in Afghan opium trafficking” (Peters 2009), and its business is largely based on the hawala system (Peters 2009). As per the West African route, the “permission” or “protection” that drug traffickers pay to AQIM is a constant source of profit for the organization (Yapp 2010): the transit of drugs through West Africa has evolved due to an increase in sea patrolling in the Atlantic (Fanusie & Entz 2017). According to the regional representative for West Africa of the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime Pierre Lapaque, “between 30 and 40 metric tons of cocaine come through West Africa every year en route to Europe” (Coulderwood 2012), furthermore, the Drug Enforcement Administration noted that “AQIM would protect the shipment of cocaine at a rate of $4.200 per kilo (Fanusie & Entz 2017). The magnitude of this phenomenon reflects the major role AQIM plays in the drug cartels network, and as well as the impact of the growing European demand for cocaine (Badri-Maharaj 2016).

In its 2016 Report, the Union des Fabricants (Unifab) explains the link between Counterfeiting and Terrorism. The first point made in this report is that counterfeiting, according to the United Nation Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, is the second largest source of illegal income in the world and terrorist groups play a central role in this business, for they often provide both production and distribution of counterfeited goods. (Counterfeiting and Terrorism 2016). As per Al-Qaeda, the report quotes an interview with the former director of the General Dictorate for International Security published by Le Monde in 2002: Afghan terrorist networks exist “thanks to crime, robberies, reproduction of credit cards (…), and the counterfeiting of designer clothes” (Counterfeiting and Terrorism 2016). In the report it is also mentioned the fact that Al-Qaeda propaganda itself encourages its branches and collateral organizations to invest in the business of counterfeiting, for it is highly lucrative and poorly enforced.

The links between Al-Qaeda and antiquities trafficking, human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, drugs trafficking and counterfeiting only consist a part of the complicated intertwinement of transnational organized crime and terrorism. Before 9/11, this relationship was not receiving any kind of attention from the international community; and it was only when the investigation on the attack on America led to the discovery of the link between Al-Qaeda and antiquities trafficking that security experts started realizing the possibility of other connections (Standing 2010).  However, despite the hard evidence on the matter, public authorities still often refrain from embracing this reality: one striking example are the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The French anti-terrorist authorities had been monitoring the movements of the brothers since long before the attack and stopped as soon as their investigations led to their counterfeiting business, because “they were leaving the terrorist world to focus on a petty crime” (Schneider 2016). Only after the event, the anti-terrorist police found out that this “petty crime” was responsible of financing the weapons used during the attack (Schneider 2016). The undeniable connection between TOC and Al-Qaeda is also given by the fact that the aims of both actors match to a certain extent: even if in the long run OC goals are of an economic nature, while Al-Qaeda’s ones are political, in the short run they both share the need of raising funds (Vreja 2005). However, taking into consideration this relationship is only the first step to actually fight Al-Qaeda. International anti-terrorist authorities should indeed start relying more on each other, pushing international goals at the top of their agenda, sharing resources and information. The reality behind Al-Qaeda and its related TOC groups is comparable to a huge puzzle; with each country handling a small piece of the whole picture.

Works cited:

Badri-Maharaj, S. (2016). Cocaine trafficking between Latin America and West Africa | Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from

Brems, P. (2009). Blood Antiques. Retrieved from

Callimachi, R. (2014). Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror—The New York Times. Retrieved November 22, 2019, from

Caulderwood, K. (2015). Drugs And Money In The Sahara: How The Global Cocaine Trade Is Funding North African Jihad. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from

Counterfeiting and Terrorism. (2016). Retrieved from

Encyclopedia of Terrorism. (2006). Retrieved from Credo Reference website: file://localhost/Users/irenecrestanello/Zotero/storage/KNU95DLR/0.html

Fanusie, Y. J., & Entz, A. (2017). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Retrieved from

Fanusie, Y. J., & Entz, A. (2017). Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Retrieved from

Fanusie, Y. J., & Entz, A. (2017). Al-Qaeda’s Branch in Syria. Retrieved from

Gunaratna, R. (2002). Inside Al-Qaeda: Global network of terror. Retrieved from

Hanson, V. (2015). Looted Antiquities: Economic Opportunity for Terrorists (Dominican University of California). Retrieved from

Koush, A. (2011). Fight Against the Illegal Antiquities’ Traffic in the EU : Bridging the Legislative Gaps. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply