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Narco-terrorism and drug trafficking on rise in the world

Afghanistan, Global Network on Extremism and Technology, Narco-terrorism, Medellin Cartel in Columbia, Medellin Cartel, Columbia


Narco-terrorism and drug trafficking on rise in the world

There is alarming rise in narco-terrorism and drug trafficking throughout the world. Narco-terrorism is a term that explains drug trafficking cartels/organized crime groups which resort to terrorism to achieve their aims. Narco-terrorism can happen in many contexts. As we know, drug cartels some times succeed in infiltrating into the state affairs and economy thus resulting in pushing those countries towards a failed state and narco-economy. 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. Afghanistan, for example, is one such state.

According to a recent report published by the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, in the 1990s, scholars were confined mainly to the question of whether there will be a convergence between international terrorism and transnational organized 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 organized 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 organizations and transnational organized crime groups? Moreover, how do we analyze the political motives of international terrorist organizations apart from a pragmatic economic capacity widely known as ‘terrorist financing?’ Illicit economic and logistic channels could serve both international terrorist organizations and transnational organized 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 organizations and transnational organized crime groups. Transnational organized crime groups tend to expand a global illicit marketplace, especially due to their vast wealth. With their evolution as a transnational crime empire, organized crime groups try to infiltrate politics or can opt to have political motives. The term narco-terrorism entered the debate when drug traffickers/organized crime groups resorted to terror tactics such as assassinations and bombings, using terrorist-like organizations 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 organization. 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 characterized by corruption, and organized 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 organized 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 organizations and transnational organized 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 organization 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, harboring transnational organized 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, organized crime networks and criminal markets rapidly acquire an unprecedented global foothold, rooting from the relative lawlessness and impunity in many parts of the world.

Counterterrorism researchers have note that international terrorist groups as well as Islamist militancy outfits such as Hezbollah and transnational crime rackets such as D Company (run by notorious terror don Dawood Ibrahim) have established connections with the agenda of running international terrorism and transnational crime.


According to Boyce, “a cooperation between drug “traffickers and terrorist groups […] is possible”. In 1995, Ward used the term term “gray area phenomenon” to indicate the connections between drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime, noting how various criminal activities cross their boundaries, coming together to achieve shared objectives.

As Shelley et al., noted, “the interaction between terrorism and organized crime is growing deeper and more complex all the time”.


Later in 2014, Shelley (2014) concluded the obvious, “Crime, corruption, and terrorism are increasingly entangled, emerging as ever greater threats”.

Researchers have developed several concepts such as crime-terror nexuscrime-terror convergencecrime-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 organizations economically. This criminal empire has its tentacles in global economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Alarmingly, organized crime is fast becoming the state’s vocation due to public sector corruption worldwide.



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 organized criminals with links to terrorism. How do organized crime groups reap the benefits of the Internet and digital technologies? The online presence of organized crime groups reveals two integrated characteristics: (i) symbolic, and (ii) pragmatic, as part of their online identity. The symbolic character laid forth by organized crime groups is a trendsetter aimed to glam up a dark reality, presenting a fictitious, romanticized, glamourized, and glorified front to an otherwise ruthless criminal empire. This trend-setting, glamorizing, 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. Organized 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 organized 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 organized crime; and how these two phenomena contribute to a global criminal empire.

Follow Shoaib Choudhury on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib

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An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow him on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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