Terrorism, Crime, and Corruption

In the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, Paul Pillar, reviews Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism, by Louise I. Shelley. The book is a serious effort to look at “the nexus between terrorism and other forms of criminal behavior,” and Ms. Shelley has compiled an encyclopedic set of examples.

Where Shelley goes beyond most earlier work on the topic is not only in the sheer volume of the evidence she has amassed but also in adding corruption to terrorism and crime to produce a trifecta of interrelated bad behavior. The malevolent cycle on which she focuses involves corrupt government officials facilitating organized criminal activity which it turn aids terrorist operations. Her principal argument is that such connections are a major part of understanding why terrorists are able to do what they do, but that such understanding has too often been lacking and government enforcement efforts have too often been siloed approaches toward each of the three problems of terrorism, crime, and corruption, with insufficient attention to connections among the three and in particular to the corruption angle. The patterns she describes prevail especially in less-developed countries, but part of her message is that the problem is global and infects developed countries as well.

Taking advantage of criminal behavior, including official corruption, is the primary way that terrorist organizations sustain themselves and pay for their violent activities. These behaviors can take many forms, from drug trafficking to dealing in stolen goods, identity theft and smuggling cigarettes, to providing false identification papers and trafficking in humans.

As Pillar explains, Ms. Shelley wants a more comprehensive approach to counterterrorism that takes fuller account of how terrorism is financed. Yet, while impressed with the research in the book, Pillar remains skeptical about its recommendations:

Shelley wants governmental authorities to develop comprehensive strategies that treat terrorism, crime, and corruption together rather than through what she sees as current stovepiped approaches. We can applaud any increase in understanding of the connections she describes but still wonder what practical difference a consciously comprehensive strategy would make. Fighting crime and corruption are, after all, worthy and important objectives even if there were no connection with terrorism. As with so much else in public policy, this is in large part a matter of competing priorities amid limited resources. A strategy that covers everything risks being a strategy that prioritizes nothing, especially when “everything” runs the gamut from graft in a state agency in the United States to trade in counterfeit DVDs in Russia.

To know whether you agree with more with Shelley or Pillar, you’ll want to read the whole review. And if you want “a primer on the whole world of transnational, profit-making crime,” you’ll want to read the whole book.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.