This module is a resource for lecturers 


Interconnections between organized criminal groups and terrorist groups in relation to firearms trafficking


The E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime and the one on Counter-Terrorism cover in depth the wider links between these types of organizations, while this section focuses on the links in terms of firearms.

The developing relationship between terrorism and crime poses significant challenges internationally (Reitano et al., 2017). An earlier study (Makarenko, 2012) identified a number of linkages between OCGs and terrorist groups and Table 7.1 below reproduces their specific links to firearms trafficking.


European Operations

Ties to OCG/Terrorism and firearms


Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, France, FRY, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, UK

  • Likely connections to Balkan-based criminal groups, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta

Generally purchasers of firearms


Italy, Luxembourg, US, UK, Montenegro

  • Al-Qaeda, Albanian Criminal Groups

Trafficking firearms and narcotics

“Dissident Republican Groups”

UK, Ireland, Colombia

  • Ties to organized crime in Balkans
  • Arms for drugs with FARC
  • Ties to Irish mob in the US

Generally purchasers of firearms


Spain, France, Italy, Balkans, Colombia

  • Ties to the Italian Mafia
  • FARC
  • Arms trafficking with OC in the Balkans
  • Arms for cocaine with FARC

Drugs for Weapons (Italy / FARC)


Colombia, Spain, Italy, Balkans

  • ETA

Drugs for Weapons


Italy, Luxembourg, US, UK

  • Al-Qaeda
  • Albanian Criminal Groups
  • ETA
  • FARC
  • IRA
  • Colombian paramilitary groups

Trafficking in firearms

Table 7.1 Firearms links between OCGs and Terrorism Groups (adapted from Makarenko, 2012: 22-23)

A study by Ducquet and Goris (2018) looks at the ways in which terrorist groups in Europe acquire firearms. This report, and Project SAFTE (2018), give some excellent information together with detailed European Union country studies. The report highlights national differences among European countries regarding the source of the terrorist-acquired firearms, as well as the relationship between individual, radicalized terrorists, or terrorist groups with local criminals and organized crime, suggesting the existence of multiple and diverse illicit firearms markets in Europe.

The report also provides ample evidence of the individual terrorist’s criminal or militant past in local criminal gangs prior to radicalization being more decisive in their acquisition of firearms than actual links to organized criminal groups (as the case study of Italy presented in the report shows). 

Makarenko’s (2012) study identified three major groups, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Basque separatist group ETA, and Al-Qaeda, each of which are explored further below. Examples from Asia and Central America will also be considered.


The Camorra

The Camorra is a centuries-old, clan-based organized crime group based in Naples, Italy. By the end of the 19th Century, it was a sufficiently powerful organization to warrant academic interest. Monnier (1863) wrote that the Italian Government was willing to allow the Camorra to act unchecked in return for maintaining law and order in Naples, and twenty years later, Merlino (1894: 468) noted how “The lower classes had become accustomed to the rule of the Camorra, and submitted almost ungrudgingly to it.

Makarenko (2012) links the Camorra to Al-Qaeda and ETA, and a 2005 FBI intelligence assessment claimed: “Criminal interaction between Italian organized crime and Islamic extremist groups provides potential terrorists with access to funding and logistical support from criminal organizations with established smuggling routes and an entrenched presence in the United States” (Wikileaks, 2008: Para. 3).

The Camorra provides safe houses, forged documents and, more relevant to this section, firearms to Al-Qaeda in return for narcotics, which are brought into Italy via the Adriatic Sea (Pontoniere, 2005). Since the Wilson Centre (2011) suggests that Al Qaeda are provided with training bases in Albania by local criminal groups, this route for narcotics would appear to be logical. Commenting on this relationship, Perri and Brody (2011: 49) state: “[t]he Camorra-Al Qaeda alliance is just one of many examples where the distinct line between organized crime and terrorism is blurring rapidly.”

Not only are the Camorra linked to Al-Qaeda in their narcotics business; McDermott (2017: 1),  points out that until their 2017 disbanding, a large proportion of the cocaine production in Colombia was controlled by FARC – “The FARC were the single most important players in the Colombian, and therefore the global cocaine trade. They controlled over 60 percent of the coca crops in the country, charging taxes on production and getting involved in almost every link in the drug chain.” Since then, Camorra’s involvement in the cocaine trade in Europe has evolved to the extent that the group has been “trafficking cocaine to Italy from Spain, as well as directly from South America” (UNODC 2010: 90).

Camorra and ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) were also connected: “By the terms of a 2001 agreement, the Camorra has supplied heavy weapons such as missile launchers and missiles to the ETA in Spain, in return for large amounts of cocaine and hashish” (Curtis and Karakan, 2002: 9).

Latza Nadeau (2016) reports how the Direzione Investigativa Antimafia (Italian Anti-mafia Police): “have made three major arrests in the last 12 months [2015-16], during which they have confiscated major weapons arsenals that included Kalashnikov rifles, submachine guns, body armor, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition that were ready to be sold to terrorist connections. They even found a price list for a wide variety of weapons available for prices ranging from €250 to €3,000 that was printed in Arabic, French, and Italian.

The Camorra as an organized criminal group is demonstrating a level of flexibility and willingness to collaborate and cooperate with terrorist groups (including those whose stated aim is to destroy the machinery of the State, which the Camorra has learned to support). However, it will ensure their continued dominance over the narcotics and firearms trades in Naples for many years to come.



ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) is a terrorist group which formed in the early 1960s to gain independence for the Basque region of Northern Spain and South West France. The majority of its attacks took place in Spain, and over its campaign it killed more than 800 people. According to the Global Terrorism Database, ETA carried out almost 500 attacks using firearms (either alone or in combination with other weapons), which resulted in the death of over 450 people and the injury of over 200 more. Firearms are therefore an important tool in ETA’s arsenal.

To obtain these firearms, ETA relies quite significantly on theft, indicating the importance of stockpile security. Ducquet and Goris (2018: 150, footnote 1) report that “Some unconfirmed media reports have also claimed the alleged existence of arms-for-drugs exchanges between the Camorra and ETA in the 2000s, in terms of which ETA is believed to have exchanged drugs obtained from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for weapons with the Camorra.”

Despite agreeing to a ceasefire – “[I]n April 2017 [the group] surrendered eight arms caches containing 3.5 tonnes of arms, ammunition and other material to the French authorities within the framework of its disarmament process” (Ducquet and Goris, 2018: 136, footnote 1) indicating the group’s commitment to move away from armed violence – it is still listed as a terrorist group by the UK, US, EU and other States. Its move away from armed insurgency may pose other law enforcement problems; as Makarenko (2012: 31) notes, “[t]he greatest current threat associated with ETA is that elements of the group have shifted their focus towards OC activities – similar to what developed with IRA factions in the 2000s.”



Until the rise of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda was the touchstone for references to fundamental Islamic terrorism.

Corbi (2012: 18), writing before the current conflict in Yemen, suggested that the weakened border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia continued to present a “challenge to eradicating the arms trade” and Al Qaeda’s established presence in the Arabian Peninsula posed a threat to both States.

In 2016, The Guardian reported a complex weapons-smuggling route involving the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and an Egyptian human trafficker with alleged links to Al Qaeda. The 160 weapons seized appeared to have been deactivated and sold legally, and were in the process of being reactivated (Townsend, 2016).

In a disturbing development, CNN broadcast a “10-minute audio message illustrated with videos of past terrorist attacks” in which Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden was urging Al Qaeda sympathizers to launch “lone wolf” style attacks on the West and saying “If you are able to pick up a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many” (McConnell and Todd, 2017: 1). This echoes a similar broadcast from 2011, in which the Washington Post reports “showed an al-Qaeda spokesman urging fellow militants to buy guns in the United States” (Hawkins, 2017: 1), and the CNN report that shows the spokesman saying “Let us take America as an example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You could go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check, most likely without having to show an identification card. So, what are you waiting for?

This illustrates one of the key problems of trying to regulate the trade of firearms/SALW to loose-knit terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda; the organization is not closed and is actively seeking to radicalize and influence people who may not be on any watch list and who may not have had any known connection to the group.



Thailand faces a combination of extensive legal and illegal gun ownership, significant organized criminal activity centred on the narcotics trade, and an ongoing insurgency in the south of the country. It does not have a significant production capacity for SALW, but with $2million of arms exports in 2017 and $310million of arms imports in the same year, the net flow of weapons into the country is significant (SIPRI, 2019). In terms of linkages between organized criminal groups and terrorist groups in relation to firearms, Deutsche Welle cites a former Foreign Minister of Thailand, Kasit Piromya, as saying: “No one has taken responsibility, no one has really taken up the issue” (Domínguez, 2016: 1).

Because Thailand is located in a region which has suffered periodic unrest, firearms are smuggled into the country from Burma and Cambodia and many handguns are imported on fake licences and sold on to third parties (Tanyapongpruch, 2001: 602). Some of those third party buyers are participants in the Muslim-Malay insurgency, and in 2015, the death toll in the insurgency had reached 4,000 (Bangkok Post, 2015).


Central America

Angelovski and Marzouk (2017: 1) reported that a driver for the Kosovo embassy in New York was arrested for attempting to traffic weapons from Kosovo to Mexican drug cartels, while “maintaining ties to the Cosa Nostra and to Albanian organized crime figures in New York and the Czech Republic.”

According to the Small Arms Survey (2013: 286), the cartels use firearms at three levels:

  • Tactical (to protect shipments);
  • Strategic (to control routes and intimidate rivals); and
  • Grand strategic level (to create a climate of fear more conducive to trafficking).

Since the sale of firearms to civilians in Mexico City is only possible from one outlet operated by the army, the majority of firearms used by the cartels have been trafficked into the country. Stratfor Worldview argues that “90 per cent of firearms used by the Mexican drug cartels come from the United States” and points out that the 90% relates to the firearms successfully traced by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and represents only 12% of the firearms seized (Stewart, 2011: 1). Nonetheless, the Mexico-US border represents a significant entry point for firearms into the country.

Although these case studies have focused on groups, it is worth noting the existence of the semi-autonomous “lone wolf” type terrorist, who is not directly linked with a group, but consider their actions to have been inspired by the ideology of a group. Bajekan and Walt (2015: 1) explain the correlation between the rise of firearms use and the rise in “lone wolf” style attacks: “guns require less expertise to use than bombs. Making and transporting a bomb requires effort and communication, which in turn leads to a higher risk of being discovered by the authorities.” The Institute for Economics and Peace (2015: 54) states that lone wolf style attacks “account for 70 per cent of all deaths in the West from 2006 to 2014.” Whilst it is true that guns require less expertise than bombs, there has also been a rise in Europe of low-tech terrorist attacks, such as those in Nice and Berlin in 2016, Stockholm, London and Jerusalem in 2017, and possibly Münster in 2018.

Next: Gangs – Organized crime and terrorism: an evolving continuum
Back to top