The Terror Market: Networks and Enforcement in the West

By Gunaratna, Rohan | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Terror Market: Networks and Enforcement in the West


Gunaratna, Rohan, Harvard International Review


As underground economies provide unprecedented opportunities to generate resources, terrorists and criminals in the global south seek to ideologically and operationally penetrate their migrant and diaspora communities living in the global north. Terrorist groups, managed by recruits, have established underground and aboveground infrastructures in North America, Europe, and Australasia. These networks not only develop plans, train fighters, and purchase armaments in their home countries; they also attract financing, ideological backing, and manpower through broad support mechanisms in the West.

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Terrorism itself is supplied and demanded. The market for terrorism will remain vibrant until governments learn to address its two sides effectively.

Supplying Terror

The sweeping changes in the international strategic environment at the end of the Cold War fundamentally transformed terrorist organizations. Post-Cold War terrorists were the beneficiaries of increasingly porous borders, wider patterns of migration, a revolution in cheap forms of communication via the internet, unrestrained access to saturated arms markets, and growing privatization of security. By exploiting the greater ease of international travel and increasingly sophisticated and secure means of communication such as encrypted email, terrorists have found it much easier to develop ideological, financial, and logistical links with like-minded organizations.

The access to a saturated weapons market, availability of user-friendly weapon systems, and abundance of former military trainers available for hire by terrorists have escalated the intensity of contemporary conflicts. Terrorist capabilities have also increased due to the widespread availability of and easy access to dual-use technologies. For instance, Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere use global positioning systems, secure communications, night-vision equipment, range-finders, and satellite phones purchased in the West.

To acquire weapons and for other fundamental purposes, politically and religiously motivated terrorists will increasingly depend on economically motivated criminal groups. The underground criminal markets in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will increase terrorist capabilities by providing access to unconventional weapons.

The underground criminal and terrorist infrastructures overlap. Although their motives differ, their means are the same. Linkages with criminal networks enable terrorists to generate funds through the sale of narcotics and procure explosives. In the 2004 Madrid bombings, a few conventional criminals indoctrinated by terrorist ideologues provided extensive assistance. When they were surrounded by police in Leganes, Spain, on April 3, 2004, they decided to sacrifice their lives.

Terrorist groups increasingly seek to establish links with organized crime groups or to engage in organized crime themselves. The favorite forms are people trafficking, the drug trade, and fraud, which help to fund their operations. There is a growing coalescence, even a resemblance, between certain transnational criminal groups and terrorist networks. As these groups become more organizationally sophisticated, low-risk, high-profit ventures replace high-risk, high-profit ones.

Since 9/11, the international community has been trying to control the movement of terrorists, weapons, and dual technologies by tightening border controls regulating financial flows and transactions by monitoring financial institutions, and disrupting terrorist recruitment, procurement and training. Collectively, these actions seek to address the supply side of terrorism.

Reservoirs of Demand

There has been comparatively little effort to understand the demand side of terrorism. In a global village, irrespective of location, the support enjoyed by a terrorist group will determine victory or defeat. …

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