A Thief, a Dirty Politician, and a Suicide Bomber Walk Into a Bar …

Yes, terrorists conspire with criminal networks and corrupt officials. But that doesn’t mean cracking down on crime and corruption will stop terrorism.

It is easy to think of bad things going together, and of bad people doing multiple types of bad things. Sometimes such patterns are real and not just a matter of cognitive consistency. It is a reality with terrorism and crime, even though terrorism is inherently a political act and most crime is more about enrichment. Terrorists are heavily involved in a wide variety of crimes. You probably don’t realize just how heavily and how wide, however, unless you have read Louise Shelley’s Dirty Entanglements. The book is an encyclopedic treatment of the subject. Whatever ways terrorism and crime have ever intersected are likely to be reflected somewhere in this book. The author has scoured for examples from all over the world, from material cited in more than 1,500 endnotes. It is almost enough to make one believe that these two forms of bad behavior always go together.

Dirty Entanglements:
Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism

by Louise I. Shelley
Cambridge University Press, 380 pp.

The connection between terrorism and crime ought not to be surprising, given that kidnapping people and killing them—the sorts of things terrorists do—are themselves crimes. This simple fact has sometimes gotten lost in the years since the 9/11 attacks amid ideologically driven efforts to define terrorism and counterterrorism as “war” rather than as a matter of criminal justice. A propensity to break the rules and commit one crime has always been associated with a propensity to commit other crimes, and not necessarily crimes of exactly the same type, which is why there are career criminals and recidivism. A nexus between terrorism and other forms of criminal behavior has long been both acknowledged and also the subject of some serious study.

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.

Dirty Entanglements can serve also as a primer on the whole world of transnational, profit-making crime. Shelley takes the reader on a global tour of criminal operations that include not only the familiar trade in illicit drugs but also operations that deal in counterfeit goods, stolen antiquities, smuggled cigarettes, violation of intellectual property rights, and much else. While taking the tour, one can lose sight of how the connections with terrorism sometimes get thin, if they exist at all. The overall message is that this voluminous illicit activity is part of a worldwide entanglement of the three different forms of bad behavior; the detailed messages that particular terrorist operations have been facilitated by particular crimes or corrupt conduct is sometimes weaker.

At a few points, Shelley stretches to make the connections. She mentions, for example, trips to Las Vegas that the 9/11 pilot-hijackers made in the months before their attack. It is still not entirely known what they did there; Shelley suggests that the purpose of the trips was money laundering. Her main basis for saying so is that Las Vegas has casinos and that casinos have sometimes been used for money laundering. She does not explain how routing money through a Las Vegas casino would have done the hijackers any good in paying the bills for their operation or why any laundering of money would have been necessary for this sort of one-off operation in which the perpetrators would all die. The exhaustive official investigations have concluded that it was more likely that Las Vegas, with its large and diverse tourist trade, was a convenient place for the hijackers, who had been living in different parts of the country, to meet safely and inconspicuously.

Occasional stretches notwithstanding, Shelley successfully makes her case that there are indeed many connections around the world between terrorism and other criminal operations, and that in a significant number of them some sort of official corruption plays a role in facilitating the crime. She also usefully illustrates the variety of ways in which crime that in other circumstances would be only about making money can serve terrorist purposes. The obvious and preeminent way is by helping to finance terrorist operations and the maintenance of the groups that conduct them. Another is to provide services, such as false documents, that by their nature are outputs of criminal enterprise rather than legitimate business. Yet another type of connection occurs when the effect of the criminal activity on larger populations advances other terrorist objectives. Specifically, some Islamist terrorist groups have viewed narcotics trafficking as a way not only to raise money but also to undermine Western societies where the drugs are consumed.

Shelley persuades us, through the quantity and variety of her material, that there is a whole lot of nasty and illicit activity out there and that terrorists are involved in a significant part of it. Putting this finding in a larger perspective is a different matter. Shelley considers her work to be part of the literature on globalization and, as she puts it, the decline of the state. It is true that the freer movement of people, money, information, and ideas that is associated with globalization has facilitated the operations of both international terrorists and transnational crime in the same way it has facilitated the worldwide operations of legitimate business. This does not imply, however, that links among terrorism, crime, and corruption are inherently stronger in a more globalized world. Some of the strongest such links are within the boundaries of a single nation. Afghanistan provides some current examples.

Terrorism is the one sort of illicit business, out of the three that are the subject of this book, that is of greatest public and policy concern. Understanding links to the other two can help us to think about the causes and consequences of terrorism and about better ways to combat it. Shelley touches on the consequences when addressing a subject such as the society-debilitating effects of the terrorist-related drug trade. Her discussion also is a useful reminder that terrorism involves many ingredients besides the evil ideological allure of terrorist leaders, and that reducing terrorism is not just a matter of dispatching with force those leaders and their most dedicated followers.

Crime and corruption are not root causes of terrorism, however. People do not become terrorists because they are able to make money smuggling cigarettes or because corrupt officials make it easier for them to make money illicitly. Crime and corruption are at most operational facilitators of terrorism. That leaves open the question of how much difference they make regarding how much terrorism there will be in the world. Many terrorists are resourceful. If they cannot get money and other operational necessities one way, they are apt to find them some other way.

Shelley weaves corruption into the 9/11 story by recalling that two of the hijackers used as identification fraudulent driver’s licenses obtained from bad apples in the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles whose main customers were illegal immigrants. She invokes the broken-windows theory of crime fighting in arguing that curbing what may seem to be minor offenses such as selling phony driver’s licenses is important in preventing big offenses, including terrorist attacks. One can accept that point and acknowledge that in counterterrorism every little bit helps, including everything that makes a terrorist’s task even slightly more difficult or inconvenient, while also realizing that the level of integrity in the Virginia DMV is not likely to be one of the more important variables in determining how much terrorism hits the United States.

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.

Paul Pillar

Paul Pillar is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.