The Nexus

The Nexus: War, Insurgency and Criminality

Operational Experience from Bosnia to Iraq

RUSI. June 2009

Our COIN doctrine sets out the requirement to separate insurgents and terrorists from their sources of support, physical and moral. One of those sources of support is their finance and I intend to highlight this aspect in my talk today. The nexus, the coincidence, of violence and organised criminality has become something of a feature of post-modern wars. I see no sign of it diminishing but equally I see no sign of it being recognised and tackled in a systematic manner. It matters, because the two evils feed off each other: violence creates insecurity, the absence of the rule of law, and plenty of willing participants, while criminality provides money to buy fighters, to corrupt what remains of legitimate governance, and provides access to the proliferation of cheap weapons so readily available on the world markets. It throws up leaders, or sets of leaders, representing a criminal/political/ideological/economic constituency which does very well out of instability and therefore sees no need to give up fighting. It is a particular feature of insurgency but it is by no means limited to non-state actors. It is one of the factors therefore that gives longevity to wars, produces collusion between opposing parties for criminal purposes, blurs the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, and makes the interventionist, humanitarian desire to protect civilians and minorities terminally difficult. If one accepts that failed states and ungoverned spaces are the parents of extremism, terrorism and insurgency, and that the nexus will seek to perpetuate them, then our perspective on countering insurgency and terrorism has to take it fully into account, recognising from the outset that this will require a coordinated multi-agency approach with proper command and control and legal authorities. Let me pass on to a few examples before making some general observations at the end.

Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the IRA

Received wisdom – largely urban myth – used to claim that it was in US cities like Boston that the IRA raised the money to buy its arms, ammunition and explosives; passing the tin, if you like, around the expatriate Irish communities. This sort of fundraising, although useful for propaganda purposes, in fact brought in very little solid money; it was always in Ireland and from Ireland that the IRA funded its operations. Using its cell structure to branch into criminality from an early date – not later than 1972 – the IRA probably became – and remains – one of the largest and richest organised crime gangs in Europe with an estimated annual income of up to £200 million. It established links with other criminal gangs in Britain and Eastern Europe and has been heavily involved in counterfeiting – especially travel documents – tobacco, fuel and drug smuggling, pirate CD and computer software trafficking, international money laundering, as well as major robberies like the December 2004 £26.5 million Northern Bank raid. This does not even take into account the routine sums raised from black taxis, protection rackets, minor robberies, kidnapping for ransom and liquor distilling. The IRA’s claim that it resisted drug trading does not hold up for long: take the murder of Martin Cahill in 1996, portrayed as a discipline killing. In fact, it was a drug-related murder, part of a feud between IRA and INLA factions for control of the cocaine trade in Dublin. Bill Tupman of Exeter University coined the term “IRA plc” to describe an organisation run as an international business. Indeed the IRA has never been a stranger to what those of us who served in Northern Ireland used to refer to as “ordinary decent crime”.
None of this was ever touched by the British Army, it was left to the Police to deal with as if the business of raising money was somehow separate from what that money was used for. I have heard it said that closing in on the finances of individual IRA men was one of the factors that led to the start of the peace process, but I am not so sure when I see the extent of IRA plc today. And what are all those former terrorists going to do for a living, now that Sinn Fein is so respectable that it is condemning the Real IRA as traitors? No prizes for guessing.

Sierra Leone, Liberia and the RUF

Like many revolutionary movements, the RUF had begun with the highest of motives, a revolt against the corruption of Siaka Stevens’s one party state that had squandered every asset that Sierra Leone had at the time of its independence. However, the movement quickly became hijacked by criminals and psychopaths and you know enough about their record. By the time of our intervention in 2000, they numbered about 4,000 fighters and many more hangers-on. They had a fearsome reputation, based on their ability to terrorise unarmed civilians. They controlled about 40% of the country, including the diamond rich area of Kono District. They were well armed, but their supply lines were tenuous. Many of their fighters were boys, who had been forced into the movement and would desert when they could. They had no social, religious, moral or political motivation that I could see, only a culture of greed. Greed and terror are, in my experience, a poor motivational basis for an insurgent movement. Their strategic centre of gravity was without doubt the support of Liberia, from which it drew weapons and supplies, many of which originated in Libya. The President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, exemplifies the role of a state actor in the nexus, having made around $400 million from the exploitation of diamonds, timber, rubber, and minerals from rebel held areas of Sierra Leone in exchange for his backing of the rebel leaders. There was also considerable Ukrainian involvement: Ukrainians flew helicopters for Charles Taylor, supplying the rebels in Sierra Leone, they operated aviation companies in SL, they have trained and fought alongside the rebels, and they had a contingent in the UN force in SL – quite a network.

The link with Liberia was also however the insurgency’s critical strategic vulnerability because of its liability to interdiction. The RUF’s operational centre of gravity was therefore the control of the diamond producing regions, their source of money from which to buy weapons and pay their followers, and its critical weakness again the vulnerability to isolation and interdiction. As long as they held this area, the rebels were able to launch offensives against the Government and perpetuate instability. During 2001, a combination of UN diplomacy and pressure from the British-led Sierra Leone Army, plus effective interdiction of the supply lines by Sierra Leonian irregulars – the CDF – enabled a new and effective Pakistani brigade to occupy the diamond mining areas and oblige the RUF to enter the process of DDR – disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration. Not too long afterwards, the forces unleashed through the irregular activity, through its cross-border tribal connections, brought about the destruction of Charles Taylor. Insecure borders are not always a bad thing!


In Afghanistan, many criminal groups either collaborate with the Taliban, or take advantage of the circumstances of insecurity. Even northern warlords, power-brokers and officials opposed ideologically to the Taliban will smuggle contraband one way over the border and weapons the other, taking their cut. There is a system of almost franchise, where criminals are either paid or allowed by the Taliban to carry out robbery, smuggling and kidnapping in exchange for a share of the profits.

The most obvious aspect of the nexus is heroin trafficking. We know that around $250 million from this business found its way into insurgent hands last year, (1) buying weapons and fighters. Drug money also fuels corruption among government officials and police officers, and corruption allows the Taliban to project a credible alternative to the government and in turn, undermines all that we do. The sums are huge: to buy off a major border control post on the Afghan/Iran or Afghan/Pakistan border for the safe passage of a major shipment of heroin can involve up to half a million dollars. By the way, the size of the sums involved has not stopped local commanders complaining of shortages of money and ammunition so maybe they too suffer from the effects of corruption!

But in poppy-free provinces, corruption and the nexus move where they can: in Logar for example, to chromite smuggling; in Nuristan, timber. The threats to security in Kabul and other major cities are little less to do with insurgency than with organised, or at times institutionalised, crime; although some kidnap victims are sold on to insurgents and the insurgents will in turn pay criminals for carrying out assassinations. The abduction and occasionally the murder of foreign journalists and NGO workers in Kabul make headlines. Such kidnappings provide money and publicity either from foreign governments or employers: one of the four in November 2008 was ransomed for $1 million. However the real issue of kidnapping is not that of a few foreigners, but the far larger number of Afghans being kidnapped, which passes unnoticed in the Western media. These kidnappings are entirely criminal and target the children of the newly rich and wealthy businessmen. The pattern of activity follows that which we saw in Herat, where it reached almost epidemic proportions in the Summer of 2008. What makes it possible, at least in part, is the climate of instability and lawlessness brought about by insurgency.

In Kabul there is also the struggle for dominance between the Tajiks who dominate the police (and therefore squeeze) on the one hand and other ethnic groups seeking to control the taxation of traffic, protection rackets on businesses, extortion from security firms and creaming off a share of the foreign aid. One Afghan friend looked at me pityingly when I complained: “why are you so surprised that there is more criminality and corruption?” he asked. “There is so much more money.”

There are plenty of other examples around. NATO is waking up to the trade in human beings, almost always linked to transnational, organised crime, which was first addressed at the Istanbul summit in 2004, because of its effect on collective security. (2) The deteriorating situation in Mexico where the government is literally at war with drug cartels is causing serious concern in Washington, as well it might. More than 1.500 people were killed in the first three months of 2009 in drug-related violence, chiefly in and around the city of Cuidad Juarez, a major distribution node for the narcotics traffic into the USA. (3)

Responses to the Nexus

It seems to me that in almost every modern and post-modern campaign, we have encountered the nexus and yet each time we do so, it takes us by surprise. We respond to it on a case-by-case basis, instead of treating it as an integral part of the threat. Our responses tend therefore to be localised, limited, and legalistic – and sometimes successful. In the past, when faced with this sort of problem, we have changed the law to make our responses effective: look at Malaya, Northern Ireland, Columbia.

The interdiction of narcotics illustrates rather bleakly the current struggle to adapt to a changed world; and the way that human rights law, which protects individuals, can be used to protect criminals and insurgents and so undermine the needs of collective security for states and peoples. International law prohibits military attacks on civilians and civilian objects even where both might properly be described as criminal, therefore in Afghanistan and elsewhere, military forces cannot attack narco traffickers and producers unless they are demonstrably insurgents. In practice, this means that the target’s narco and insurgent activity is so intertwined that it is impossible to distinguish them. Thus direct action against individuals, facilities or items engaged with the narco trade simply because it is narcotics is illegal: Narcos per se are not on the approved target list, nor are they within the Rules of Engagement – they are in law civilians. And there are some nations, including the USA, that have domestic legal or policy constraints that do not allow military forces to engage in law enforcement, even when conducting coincident military operations overseas, although this position is moving.

If we are serious about attacking the nexus, therefore, there may need to be a fundamental legal shift that describes narcotics or other commodities – diamonds in Sierra Leone – within a defined area as insurgent war materiel, liable to attack as if it were a stock of weapons or explosives, thus setting a legal precedent for the future and including the nexus as part of the in-theatre target set for the military.

But as with many other aspects of countering insurgency and violence, a purely military response is unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by civil effect, especially in developing the rule of law and the legitimate economy, without which military activity becomes the means of enforcing the appearance of stability, of putting off the issue, when the problem has long ceased to be a military one. If military success is not translated into a shift of activity onto economic or political lines, unemployment will be rife and criminality will fill the vacuum as it did in the Balkans after Dayton.

If only it were as simple as that. As experience with the IRA showed, the nexus spreads well outside the theatre of operations, requiring an international, multi-agency response. Drug money is probably dwarfed as a source of revenue for Islamic extremists by money coming from the Gulf: with a high oil price, there is more money available there than there has ever been before and certainly some of it is finding its way into the wrong hands. The laundering of Afghan drug money starts with the network of traditional money handlers, Hawaladar, who keep almost no written or computerised records, who operate outside the formal banking system, and who are therefore very difficult to track. In the weeks before the assault on Musa Qualeh, perhaps $20 million a day was being fed out of Afghanistan into Pakistan through their hands to avoid seizure.

From Pakistan the network goes through the Gulf, into Djibouti and Islamic Africa and well beyond. The tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, an intersection of three countries with poorly controlled borders, is a case in point. Here, a lack of resources, and competing economic interests which taken together reduce greatly the rule of law. The area has served in the past twenty years as an operational and logistic centre for international terrorist groups as well as transnational criminal organisations. This area has a population of approximately 700,000 people, including roughly 30,000 inhabitants of Arab descent. The Arab community, which constitutes one of the largest immigrant groups in the region, is predominantly Lebanese, especially in the towns of Ciudad del Este which is the hub of drug and human trafficking, and the smuggling of goods, weapons, contraband and counterfeit products. Estimates of how much money passes through the area each year vary enormously but clearly run into tens of billions of dollars.

As well as Colombian, Mexican, Brazilian and Russian criminal organisations – and the Mafia of course - some of the terrorist organisations known to be present in the area include HAMAS, Islamic Jihad al Muqawamah, Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organisation, Hezbollah and Al Qae’da. Among the best understood operations in this area, thanks to the involvement of various US agencies, is that of Hezbollah. Its connection with local criminal activities was through the "Barakat Clan" – an inter-related group of Lebanese residents of the TBA involved in both criminal activities and terrorism-financing. The clan revolved around the financial operations of Assad Ahmad Barakat, co-owner of one the largest shopping centres in the area, which was used as a front to finance Hezbollah and recruit supporters for the organisation. On raiding Barakat's apartment in 2004, the police found Hezbollah material and propaganda, including tapes praising martyrdom operations and speeches of Hassan Nasrallah. The U.S. Department of the Treasury later identified Ahmad Barakat as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist .

Al Qae’da is as ever more shadowy, but in 1995 al-Qaeda leader Khalid Shaykh Muhammad spent twenty days in Brazil visiting al-Qaeda sympathizers. In 1996 the Brazilian Federal Police discovered that Lebanese explosives expert Marwan Al Safadi, who participated in the 1993 World Trade Centre attack in New York City, lived in the TBA in the 1990s. Other suspects included Lebanese native Ali Nizar Darhoug, along with his nephew Muhammad Daoud Yassine, both accused of raising millions for al-Qaeda and Hamas.

This sort of enclave is not unique: the Clogher/Jonesboro area of Northern Ireland was a similar story albeit more limited in the 1980s. There has been a response in that Police activity has often been intense; but getting convictions or extraditions has been hard. There is “Three plus One” – the three South American states concerned with the TBA plus the US in a joint criminal intelligence gathering operation aimed at following up the 1999 UN Convention for the suppression of terrorist finances – but it has no authority to enforce compliance measures and little apparent sense of urgency. One has to conclude therefore that to date, the international effort to combat these terrorist finance networks has been a failure. The longer it continues, the longer these networks will supply the people, equipment, expertise and motivation to destabilise fragile states. Therefore, do the developed nations of the West, faced with a massive financial crisis at home, have the willingness to take this on in the interests of stability through intervention? In an age of globalisation, which criminality has embraced with relish, can we put in place a comprehensive approach to tackling the nexus. Do we have the determination, the wherewithal, and do we feel threatened enough to do it, or will we simply keep being surprised?


© Jonathon Riley, 2009. This is the text of a speech at RUSI which was later published in the RUSI Journal.

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