May 29, 2008

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, singles out criminal networks in West Africa as an emerging security challenge.

Pointing to a recent case of fugitive Mauritanian terrorists who “followed routes and employed networks indistinguishable from the ones used by organized crime in the subregion,” Dr. Pham proceeds to survey the activities that West African criminal networks engage in, including drug smuggling, human trafficking, contraband, and illegal exploitation of natural resources. The article concludes:

However, the linkage between crime and terrorism may go beyond merely financing opportunities for the latter in the activities of the former. As former Central Intelligence Agency case officer and psychiatrist Marc Sageman (in his 2007 book Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21 st Century) and other researchers have pointed out, the hierarchical structures of many transnational terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have been considerably “flattened,” enabling greater freedom of initiative. The same phenomenon has been witnessed among other illicit organizations, including crime syndicates. The result is that both terrorist and criminal cells are largely forced to find their own funding sources as well as obtain their own documents, transport routes, and safe houses, while perhaps still looking the erstwhile central leadership for inspiration. Consequently, the boundaries between criminality and ideological extremism have blurred as operatives seek alliances of convenience. While whether there will be a transformation of the two types of groups into a hybrid category as some scholars have predicted remains to be seen, the fact is that there is a considerable emerging overlap between terrorists and criminal organizations in places like West Africa, a development that makes both a greater challenge to regional and international security.

To read the full text of the article, “Criminal Networks in West Africa: An Emerging Security Challenge,” click here.