Organised crime and terrorism Part I: Godfathers and bombs – organised crime and terrorist tactics

This introductory piece is the first in a four-part series exploring the relationship between organised crime and terrorism in a 21st century security environment. 

By: Andrea Varsori

Source: Interpol

The general understanding of how criminal organisations work implies that the leaders of those groups are mostly discreet, business-minded folks[1]. After all, criminal organisations have one, big task that influences their entire agenda: they want to make money. They are criminal because they use illicit means, like coercion or bribes, or because they deal in illegal goods, or both. According to this view, most of the time profit is their major objective. Rivalries and fights may start when there are misgivings on who gains the most from a deal, or when rivals start to use coercive means to gain control of greater shares of the market. Still, according to this view, the most reasonable Dons know that indiscriminate violence is a tool to be used only in very peculiar occasions. Normally, it is at best useless, or at worst outright dangerous.

Nonetheless, violence is fundamental for mafias and gangs in most cases. Criminal organisations use it to extort money from legitimate firms; to safeguard the secrecy of important information; to punish those who do not fall in line. They can also sell violence, to create ‘protection rings’[2] or to assert monopolies. Most importantly, they can play a leading role in limiting potential violence: that is, they structure a widespread, individual, anomic violence into something more organised, more ready to exploit economies of scale, and definitely more dangerous. At their best, mafias can mimic the state or rule where the latter does not arrive, establishing their own practices and rituals. Thus, an efficient criminal group learns to administer violence to impose a set of rules: it sets itself as judge, jury, and executioner; it masters violence, so that only the threat of action is enough to quell any opposition.

To the wise godfather, then, terrorism is arguably the nemesis. In its most brutal, spectacular form, which nowadays has taken the form of the threat of Daesh, it is a double-edged knife for a criminal organisation. This knife, however, has the sharper edge facing its own user. A criminal group stands to lose from the use of terrorist tactics: terrorism forces the state to focus all attention on the authors, as it constitutes the ultimate danger to a state’s authority and legitimacy. Also, indiscriminate violence often generates a huge backlash from the civil society: thus, criminal organisations, which thrive and prosper in an underworld of secrecy and corruption, may be crushed by the reaction to a terrorist event.

This does not mean that terror and crime can never be partners. More often than not, terrorist organisations adopt ways and techniques from the criminal world. The most obvious application is for financing[3]: terrorist groups have long been dealing in extortion and blackmail (as for the IRA in Northern Ireland[4]), or in illicit trade (as for the FARC in Colombia[5], or the Taliban in Afghanistan[6]), in order to get the money to further their political activities. Seeing it happen the other way around, however, is quite rarer.

This series will focus on this latter type of the crime/terror nexus. Why should a criminal organisation use dangerous terrorist tactics? Which kind of objective is it pursuing? Is this an entirely new phenomenon? We will deal with these questions all along the three parts of our Series. First, Martin Stein will explore the bombings of 1992-93 in Italy and their role in the struggle between the Sicilian Mafia and the Italian State; then, the Bombay bombings of March 1993 will be covered, and how one of the most famous Indian dons, Dawood Ibrahim, was part of the plot to hit India; finally, Joe Atkins will review the cases of mass killings and ‘disappearances’ in Mexico, exploring how terror is widely used as a tool to assert control on a frightened population. The varied scope of these articles will highlight different aspects of the link between criminal organisations and the use of terror. In Italy, bombings were part of a precise strategy to intimidate the Italian state; in India, the attacks were motivated by religious reasons and by Ibrahim’s intent to appear still as the protector of Bombay Muslims; in Mexico, terror seems to constitute a ‘normal’ part of ‘cartel justice’, thus delivering worrying parallels between ‘narco-warriors’ and fundamentalists.


Andrea is an MPhil candidate at the Department of War Studies. His research project focuses on security issues in mega-cities: in particular, he is interested in the role of the urban environment in shaping organized criminal and political violence. He tweets at @Andrea_Varsori






[1] The outmost example of this perspective is the economic analysis of organized crime, whereas the criminal organisation is analysed as a particular type of firm. See Fiorentini, G., S. Peltzman (eds.), The economics of organized crime, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 87-108. A view of criminal organisations as risk-averse groups that prefer to hide or corrupt rather than fight is also used in political science. See B. Lessing, Logics of Violence in Criminal War, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 59(8), 2015, p. 1497.

[2] D. Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia: the business of private protection, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1993.

[3] For the broader issue of the financing of terrorist organization, see the Winter 2015 Strife Series: .

[4] J. Burns, Dealing in the business of fear, Financial Times, 7 January 1992.

[5] P. Chalk, The Latin American Drug Trade, Santa Monica, CA., Rand Corp., 2011, pp. 15-18.

[6] A. Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, London, Hurst Publishers, 2009, pp. 7-22, 150.

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