For-Profit Terrorism

The illicit economy is on the rise. Counterfeits, drugs, people and information all flow throughout our porous, evermore borderless world.

Editor's note: The following is adapted from an address National Interest Executive Editor Justine A. Rosenthal delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars on June 12, 2007. For a summary of the event, click here.

We have long held the image of the white-linen-suited drug lord as the symbol of the illicit economy, but our newest members of the financial underground are quite differently clad. These are the terrorists who used to fight for revolution and now fight for greed. Terrorists who fought for statehood and now kidnap for profit. Terrorists who spoke of liberation but now raze villages to meet their bottom line. The illicit economy is on the rise. Counterfeits, drugs, people and information all flow throughout our porous, evermore borderless world.

Terrorists have always needed to finance their violence, and considering the fact that they function at the fringes of society, this funding has often come from illegal enterprises. But now that money can become such a temptation it can often override ideological motivations. Such groups continue to use their ideological rhetoric to mask their drive to profit both because it can help them continue to recruit and because it can help them avoid being persecuted and prosecuted as criminals (Terrorists can often cut far better deals with the government than drug lords.)

For-profit terrorists are not pure ideologues (though some may remain more true to the cause than others), and they aren't purely criminals-because they continue to use political rhetoric as a front for their illegal activities. For the most part, for-profit terrorists start out with some real (and sometimes valid) political motivations. But when they shift their priorities and become pure profit-seekers, they turn into this new breed of terrorist.

There are three main catalysts that transform terrorists' motivations from the political to the financial: destruction of the leadership structure; political changes that debunk the ideological basis of the group; and opportunities for financial gain so great that they subsume ideological motives.

Leadership is often an important cohesive for terrorists. Since the mainstay of so many groups is young recruits, a visionary leader that can control and guide the organization becomes the tie that binds. When leaders are assassinated or incarcerated, their vision may die with them, changing political dynamics only expedite the process. But, when facing a leadership vacuum, only groups familiar with the spoils of war and with the pre-existing infrastructure to sustain criminality head down the path towards for-profit terrorism.

Abu Sayyaf (ASG) is one such band of terrorists. ASG began their life as a Filipino-Muslim secessionist terrorist group. Though independence for the Philippines' Muslim minority remains an official goal, the death of their founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, in 1998 left the group without a clear ideological purpose.

After the death of Janjalani, the group moved deeper and deeper into kidnapping, increasing their efforts by almost 400 percent. Pre-1998, the group engaged in six kidnappings; post-1998, in 21. Their success in receiving high ransom demands pushed the group further down this profiteering road. Of late, it seems like ASG may be returning to their pure Islamist roots. But, this points out two important additional dangers of this phenomenon. First, they have partly become guns-for-hire. So, they may be willing to act out just about any violence for the right price. And second, Al-Qaeda and Jemmah Islamiyaah (their two main co-conspirators) now have a fully-funded and pretty malleable group as a partner.

Similarly, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)-although it is unclear whether or not this group continues to function-originally sought Islamic rule across several Central Asian nations, starting with dismantling the secular regime in Uzbekistan. Central Asia's porous borders afforded the group control of many of the drug smuggling routes throughout the region. The IMU was involved in the opiate trade from the beginning, but treated it as a means to their ideological ends. However, depleted leadership and fighter ranks engendered a shift towards maintaining a hold over 70 percent of the drug trade in the Caucusus and smuggling routes, rather than on the rise of Islam.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is an African example of a politically driven group quickly corrupted by the lure of profit. Founded as a proxy of the corrupt Liberian leader Charles Taylor with a mandate to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone, the lucre from diamond mines became too great a temptation to resist. Sierra Leone provided a perfect setting for profiteering; a country with little law and order but vast natural resources. Within months of the RUF's initial attacks, their assaults increasingly targeted diamond and mineral mines. Money seduced the RUF; their politics were soon overwhelmed by the compulsion to profit.

Observe the recent crisis in the Gaza Strip. The Bedouins on the Sinai Peninsula largely responsible for providing Hamas with AK-47s may argue that they resent state control, but rampant poverty and little in the way of economic opportunity lies at the core of this ideological profiteering conundrum. What is happening in the Egyptian and Gaza underground is nothing new, but it is a part of a prevalent and evermore dangerous phenomenon: a vibrant black market mixing with ideological opportunism.