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The Rise of Narco-Terrorism in the Age of the Internet

The Rise of Narco-Terrorism in the Age of the Internet
13th June 2022 Dr. Chamila Liyanage
In Insights

Narco-terrorism is a term that explains drug trafficking cartels/organised crime groups which resort to terrorism to achieve their aims. Narco-terrorism can happen in many contexts. Transnational organised crime groups can use terrorism as part of their illicit activities. Drug cartels/criminal groups may infiltrate the state and economy, creating a failed state and narco-economy, resulting from narco-wealth saturating politics and economy. The state power can embolden the use of terrorism to achieve criminal aims. Narco-terrorism can also be behind the phenomenon of the mafia state, in which state officials are involved in an illicit criminal enterprise, often resorting to terrorism against their opponents. The link between narcotic wealth and terrorist financing shows how a criminal enterprise can contribute to terrorism. All these phenomena show how criminals opt to use terrorism to achieve their aims or crime groups and terrorist organisations opt to interact; the latter case is explained as crime-terror convergence. Worryingly, narco-terrorism contributes to building a worldwide illicit economy, where criminality and terrorism collaborate for practical purposes. It decays the rule of law, threatening liberal democracy and the post-World War II rules-based international order. 

The rise of global authoritarianism also accelerates crime-terror collaboration, contributing to a global illicit economy. Authoritarianism is fundamentally criminal as it is not governed by the rule of law and tends to harbour criminal enterprises. Authoritarianism emboldens global criminality in an assault against the rule of law. Current troubling phenomena such as failed states, kleptocracies, mafia states, and authoritarian regimes provide the necessary lawlessness and impunity where narco-terrorism, terrorism, transnational organised crime, terrorist financing, and global illicit economy find geopolitical safe-havens. This article analyses the growing phenomenon of mafia-terror convergence and narco-terrorism, and how it uses the Internet and blockchain technologies with the backing of an online narco-culture. 

Evolution of Narco-Terrorism 

In the 1990s, scholars were confined mainly to the question of whether there will be a convergence between international terrorism and transnational organised crime, given that the two phenomena are considered fundamentally different. This difference is understood as originating from ‘motives’ rather than ‘methods’. Definitions of terrorism are awash with references to ‘political motives’, while organised crime is defined as having ‘economic motives’. However, the question is how these different ‘motives’ would translate in practice. How do we understand the pragmatic illicit operational ground shared by both international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime groups? Moreover, how do we analyse the political motives of international terrorist organisations apart from a pragmatic economic capacity widely known as ‘terrorist financing?’ Illicit economic and logistic channels could serve both international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime groups. We must focus on the role of the global illicit economy and its infrastructure to understand how it serves both criminality and terrorism.  

Observably, researchers have created a somewhat rigid conceptual separation on ‘motives’ between international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime groups. Transnational organised crime groups tend to expand a global illicit marketplace, especially due to their vast wealth. With their evolution as a transnational crime empire, organised crime groups try to infiltrate politics or can opt to have political motives. The term narco-terrorism entered the debate when drug traffickers/organised crime groups resorted to terror tactics such as assassinations and bombings, using terrorist-like organisations with de facto territorial power, duly guarded by armed militias. The drug war fought against the Medellin Cartel in Columbia is an apparent reference for the characteristics of a conflict involving a narco-terrorist organisation. Have criminal cartels/groups stopped there? Usually, they first interfere with the state, then clash with the state, and finally infiltrate the state, using their economic prowess to buy-off support. 

When thinking about the rise in failed, mafia, kleptocratic or authoritarian states characterised by corruption, and organised crime groups vying to infiltrate the state, one questions how to rigidly separate political and economic ‘motives’. Both political and economic motives go hand in hand as there is an inescapable inter-dependence between the two in practice; you cannot achieve political motives without recourse to economic means, and vice versa. This ground reality is visible in the evolution of transnational organised crime groups as they infiltrate weak states and control political power to serve their interests. This development should have shattered the rigid conceptual separations between ‘methods’ and ‘motives’ as both international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime groups would evolve by growing into each other’s domains, motives, and methods for practical purposes.

Currently, there is an evolution of narco-terrorism compared to the former hay days of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, a narco-terrorist organisation prototype. The rise of narco-kleptocracies, in which the corrupt state is involved in illicit criminal enterprises, occurs in the context of the global decline in democracy. Kleptocracies wipe out the democratic space, creating safe havens, harbouring transnational organised crime networks, and facilitating criminal markets. Both mafia states and authoritarian regimes also contribute to wiping out the global democratic space. In its 2022 report, Freedom House states how autocratic norms lead, paving the way to democratic decline. As a result, organised crime networks and criminal markets rapidly acquire an unprecedented global foothold, rooting from the relative lawlessness and impunity in many parts of the world.    

Collaboration between International Terrorism and Transnational Organised Crime

Researchers have long since noted that international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime groups converge even though they hold onto different motives. As Boyce (1997) states, a cooperation between drug “traffickers and terrorist groups […] is possible”. Ward (1995) uses the term “gray area phenomenon” to indicate the connections between drug trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime, noting how various criminal activities cross their boundaries, coming together to achieve shared objectives. As Shelley et al., (2005) note, “the interaction between terrorism and organised crime is growing deeper and more complex all the time”. Later, Shelley (2014) concludes the obvious, “Crime, corruption, and terrorism are increasingly entangled, emerging as ever greater threats”. Researchers have developed several concepts such as crime-terror nexus, crime-terror convergence, crime-terror continuum, and crime-terror interactions. All these concepts indicate the growing relationship between crime and terrorism. Corruption is the medium which makes a crime-terror convergence possible. To examine crime-terror interactions, we need to understand the rise of lawlessness and impunity in the world against a backdrop of the decline of democracy.   

What is the current picture of crime-terror convergence and narco-terrorism on the ground? Narco-terrorism is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it is part of an ever-growing and increasingly powerful worldwide criminal enterprise, benefiting international terrorist organisations economically. This criminal empire has its tentacles in global economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Alarmingly, organised crime is fast becoming the state’s vocation due to public sector corruption worldwide. In the Corruption Perception Index 2021, two-thirds of the 180 countries “score below 50, indicating that they have serious corruption problems”. Global Organised Crime Index 2021 reveals the troubling fact that “state involvement in criminality is a deeply embedded phenomenon around the world”. With the weakening of democratic values and the rule of law in many parts of the world, countries plunge into lawlessness and impunity, subsidising criminal enterprises. All these indicators point to the exponential rise of corrupt, state-sanctioned, global criminal enterprises. These unmissable developments contribute to the rise of mafia-terror convergence and narco-terrorism as part of a much wider global criminal conglomerate. How does this ground reality come to reflect on the Internet?  


The versatile criminal enterprise behind narco-terrorism leaves digital fingerprints. The Internet, the dark web, the deep web, encrypted messaging apps, and digital technologies are saturated with the presence of transnational organised criminals with links to terrorism. How do organised crime groups reap the benefits of the Internet and digital technologies? The online presence of organised crime groups reveals two integrated characteristics: (i) symbolic, and (ii) pragmatic, as part of their online identity. The symbolic character laid forth by organised crime groups is a trendsetter aimed to glam up a dark reality, presenting a fictitious, romanticised, glamourised, and glorified front to an otherwise ruthless criminal empire. This trend-setting, glamorising, and reviving of narco-culture is all over the Internet. 

 As the latest innovation, criminals use blockchain technologies such as cryptocurrency. Criminal gangs increasingly use Bitcoin to launder illegal wealth. According to the 2021 report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), The use of bitcoin to launder money is increasing, in particular among drug gangs such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel”. World Drug Report 2021 explains how traffickers quickly adapt to changing circumstances, demonstrating their resilience. Organised crime groups seize new technologies to grow their symbolic and pragmatic fronts. As a result, the virtual illicit infrastructure: narco-web, narco-culture, and the criminal enterprise, continue to grow online. Simultaneously, the global Illicit infrastructure, illicit logistic/economic channels, money laundering facilities, tax heavens, and safe heavens provide unprecedented ability to grow and maintain a globally connected mafia-terror empire. In this way, economic intelligence, intelligence-sharing, law enforcement, and anti-money laundering infrastructure can deter the growing menace of corrupt mafia-style political empires behind both transnational organised crime and terrorism. As a first step to countering these elicit networks, it is necessary to understand the evolving nature of terrorism; how it collaborates with organised crime; and how these two phenomena contribute to a global criminal empire.