News about organized crime groups and terrorist groups appear with an alarming frequency nowadays, and very often it is not sufficiently distinguished and explained what these terms are referring to, or they are even used interchangeably. However, we as future safety and security experts know that both groups aren’t simply the same bunch of bad guys. This article aims to help you to recognize typical characteristics differentiating both groups, what they have in common, and how they are perceived by the public.
Organized Crime Groups (OCGs) – Making the Big Money
OCGs are structured groups of at least three people that exist for a period of time to commit one or more serious crimes. Therefore, Billy and Bob developing a plan to rob a bank are surely criminals but they can’t be called an OCG. The most common organized crimes include illegal drug and tobacco trafficking, organized property crimes (for example, burglaries), human trafficking, or the trade of child pornography online. Moreover, the ultimate aim of all OCGs is the illegal generation of financial profit or other material gains by avoiding police and public attention for as long as possible. The most famous OCGs are large drug cartels or mafia groups.
Terrorist Groups – Killing for Attention
Contrary to OCGs, terrorists have completely different aims as well as motivations and strategies to commit crimes. Terrorists hold an ideology which is the specific interpretation of a religion, belief or other imagination, and thus, they exercise violence to reach politically or religiously based goals. These goals are usually fundamental changes of an existing society according to their ideologies or the creation of a completely new society, and not the generation of financial profits. Moreover, where OCGs pursue strategies emphasizing operations unnoticed by the public, terrorists try to influence people by spreading fear through mass media and public attacks. This means terrorists want to obtain as much public attention as possible and trigger political leaders into taking counterterrorism measures to demonstrate their power. Al-Qaida and ISIS are only two examples of many terrorist groups.
Terrorists and Organized Criminals – A Perfect Match?
Now that these two criminal groups are distinguished, it is important to understand that they aren’t operating in isolation from each other, but also have contact points. For example, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, state-sponsored terrorism declined. However, terrorist groups have found in OCGs alternative financially strong funding partners, or they copy OCGs organized crimes and, for example, sell drugs to fund their attacks. Furthermore, terrorist groups have certain operations that they intend to carry out without public or police attention, such as extending their network through recruitment or the funding of attacks. Hence, they learn from OCGs how to conceal such important processes. Certain factors of modern times facilitate the exchange between these two criminal groups, such as globalization, free transnational movement, new communication and transportation technologies, as well as the liberalization of markets.
Facts and Figures
A very interesting factor when comparing OCGs and terrorists is the public perception of these two threats. When looking at terrorism, the number of overall attacks is declining from a peak of 16,959 incidents globally in 2014, to only 8,495 global incidents in 2019. Only 2,3% of the attacks in 2019 have been conducted in Western Europe, and the fatalities in this region account for less than 1% of all global fatalities caused by terrorism. Therefore, the threat of a terrorist attack in Western Europe is comparably low, and the overall number of criminal incidents is also much lower than those committed by OCGs.
OCGs operate in much broader connected networks and permeate many more sectors of our societies than terrorist groups. A few figures might help to visualize the comprehensiveness of the threat of organized crime: 25% of the OCGs have operated for more than ten years which especially shows their persistence. Moreover, OCGs include more than 180 different nationalities, and 70% of the groups are criminally active in more than three countries, which underlines their global interconnectedness. Lastly, 40% engage in more than one criminal activity and 60% apply a form of violence to operate their businesses.
The crimes committed by OCGs are much higher in number and also more globally distributed. Thus, it is actually much more likely to be negatively affected by organized crimes than being harmed in a terror attack. However, the public usually doesn’t perceive the likelihood of these threats in this objective manner. People in Western Europe are normally much more afraid of terror attacks than of organized crimes although the figures prove that it should be the other way around if we are realistic about it. Therefore, why is the public safety perception so distorted regarding these threats? There are two main reasons for that: First, terrorism is perceived as direct attacks against society, which can target anyone at any time randomly, and therefore directly affect citizens. Organized crimes on the contrary are not perceived as direct attacks to harm society, and many people simply don’t care if a drug cartel smuggles cocaine into The Netherlands as it usually does not directly affect them. Secondly, terrorist attacks usually gain much more public media coverage because of the extreme and random violence terrorists use to spread fear. People usually remember the most bloody and horrific news best, and the media reporting very often about quite rare terrorism incidents conveys the feeling that terror attacks happen more often than they actually do.
I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t take terrorism less serious. However, I want to point out that organized crime is a threat that is usually executed unnoticed until one is not directly affected, and therefore the awareness of it needs to be equally high. I retrieved most of the information I used from an online course called “International Security” by the Erasmus University Rotterdam. As a student, it is possible to attend one course per year on Coursera free of charge, and I can only recommend this one. If you are interested in more facts and figures, take a look at the Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment by Europol or the Global Terrorism Database.