Crime and Warfare: An Anatomy of Terror

Austin Bay

8/20/2008 12:01:00 AM - Austin Bay

One reason the debate question, "Is terrorism warfare or crime?" irks me is that it is patently both.

Take Colombia's sad experience as a particularly prima facie example. All but the most ritually blind Marxists now concede Colombia's "leading insurgent army," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is a narcotics cartel with a residual political agenda. Of course they wouldn't mind being the Colombian government, which may or may not differentiate them from American mafiosos, but during the decades of Colombia's heinous violence, whatever social idealism powered FARC has decayed. In Colombia, Marx became Murder Inc.

The Colombian people knew it. In early February 2008, The New York Times quoted a Colombian citizen who was participating in an anti-FARC demonstration held in downtown Bogota. "The FARC made themselves into criminals a long time ago," declared Martin Orozco, identified by the reporter as a surgeon. "We are simply tired of this (i.e., FARC's violence)."

In some ways, this is old truth rediscovered the hard way. There's often a fine law between smuggling and rebellion -- the line is there but thin. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) -- which became a de facto ally of the United States and NATO in 1999 -- had intimate connections with Balkan smugglers and organized criminal groups. This intelligence analyst's rule of thumb holds true for Macedonia, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, Chad, Sudan and even Iran.

It certainly holds true for Iraq, where small crimes empower al-Qaida's mass murder. In an interview last week, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, told me: "We have, in fact, put considerable emphasis on how al-Qaeda, in Iraq, generates resources. And they do it, again, like a mafia does, that we would be familiar with. It's through extortion of successful businesses; extortion of money for protection rackets, or what have you; insisting that a cell phone business, for example, give them a cut of their profits or they'll blow the cell phones down -- cell phone towers down; taking a cut out of the cement business, the real estate business, the financial businesses and so forth."

The "special groups," which connect to Iran, also connect to local crime in Iraq. More often than not, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia operated as a criminal gang in neighborhoods it controlled in eastern Baghdad and southern Iraq. Again, this isn't news. In August 2004, I had open source reports cross my desk in Baghdad where Iraqis referred to the Mahdi Militia as "gangsters." Don't blame that on translation from the Arabic to English. I personally heard an Iraqi describe Sadr's militia as criminals.

Stopping the crimes financing the terrorists won't defeat terrorist organizations. However, focused counter-crime operations will crimp their finances and, to use a term I heard a police counter-terror officer use, "pressurize" the terrorists' environment. Petraeus' "Anaconda Strategy" in Iraq employs a number of anti-crime measures and anti-corruption measures, each one applying pressure to a terrorist organization.

The Taliban tried a similar cell phone tower extortion racket, but it backfired. StrategyPage reported on June 15 that the Taliban were expanding "their extortion campaign, demanding that businesses pay 'protection money' to avoid being attacked" and an effort by the Taliban "to control cell phone use has quickly evolved into just another extortion campaign."

In several rural areas in Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a campaign to shut down cell phone service at night. However, tribes in the area (who are often pro-Taliban) wanted "the cell phone service in order to stay in touch with friends, family and the few government services that are available." The Taliban attacks angered the tribes, which "demanded that night service be restored. It was. But then, noting that there were several cell phone companies operating in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban went to the different companies and offered not only 'protection,' but damage to a competitor, for a price."

There is a case to be made that the Taliban's strategic depth isn't Pakistani territory. Sure, tribal connections protect the Taliban, but money powers the organization, and increasingly that money comes from criminal enterprise and specifically the opium trade.