This module is a resource for lecturers  


Definitions and terminology



At the international level, there is no consensus on the definition of terrorism but there are 19 international instruments dealing with terrorism. Indeed, many States have relied on these international instruments, decisions by international courts and existing national legislation to define terrorism within their own borders and regions (see Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Counter-Terrorism). Some scholars sustain that the definition of terrorism evolves over time and varies according to country, geographical region and political needs.

At the international level, in addition to the 19 universal legal instruments, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and General Assembly (UNGA) have issued multiple resolutions in connection with terrorism and developed the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted by Member States in September 2006 and reviewed by the UNGA every two years. The Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the first one to provide a common strategic and operational approach to counter-terrorism, was initially coordinated by the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF). The CTITF was organized through Working Groups which provided support to the counter-terrorism efforts of 38 international entities. From June 2017,  coordination of  the international entities is done by the recently created   United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) through a new  arrangement: The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact (UN Global Compact), signed on 23 February 2018. The UNOCT is tasked, inter alia, to provide leadership on the UNGA counter-terrorism mandates. The Strategy is composed of 4 pillars: 1) Addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism; 2) Measures to prevent and combat terrorism; 3) Measures to build States' capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations system in that regard; and 4) Measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism (for a more detailed review of the Strategy, see Module 3 of the E4J University Module Series on Counter-Terrorism). As the legal framework on terrorism is vast and contained in a large number of instruments, the UNGA has explored the adoption of a comprehensive convention on terrorism for some time now.

In the absence of an international definition of terrorism, attempts to define the concept have been made by some scholars and regional and international organizations (see Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Counter-Terrorism). For instance, the European Union-funded Counter-Terrorism Monitoring, Reporting and Support Mechanism (CT MORSE) defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims." (Reitano, Clarke et al, 2017). Tamara Makarenko's 2012 project on the nexus incorporated the following definition of terrorism: "the conduct of premeditated violent acts or the threat of violence that is perpetrated by members of an organized group, designed to create fear in an adversary or specific segment of society" (Makarenko, 2012).

Bruce Hoffman has defined terrorism as "the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change" (Hoffman, 1998) and the Global Terrorism Database, which is developed and maintained by the United States National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), defines a terrorist event as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation. There are also earlier attempts, going back decades, to establish the parameters for a definition of "terrorism" (see Weinberg et al, 2004 and Crenshaw, 2000). A broad definition proposed by Walter Laqueur for example, involved the "illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective by targeting innocent people" (Laqueur, 1977).

In addition, several regional instruments have adopted a definition of "terrorism" or "terrorist act", which are analysed in Module 5 on Regional Counter-Terrorism Approaches of the E4J University Module Series on Counter-Terrorism.

In the framework of the United Nations, there are several notions of "terrorism" that provide very useful guidance on its content. One of them is contained in General Assembly resolution 49/60, which aims to criminalize certain armed activities considered to be "terrorist" in nature. In particular, it specifies that "[c]riminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them". (Para. 3)). For further detail on the United Nations approach to the concept of terrorism, see Module 4 of the E4J University Module Series on Counter-Terrorism.

Despite the lack of an internationally agreed definition, the United Nations recognizes a number of non-State groups as terrorist organizations, on the grounds of their involvement with terrorist acts (e.g. the Taliban were designated as a terrorist group by Security Council resolution 1267 (1999), following their refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden and his associates for their roles in the August 1998 attacks on the United States Embassies in Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania). In 2011, under Security Council resolution 1989 (2011), the Council divided the "Consolidated List" of individuals and entities associated with the Taliban and Al-Qaida into two separate lists: the "Al-Qaida, or 1988 List", and the Taliban List. Finally, under resolution 2253 (2015), the Security Council expanded the listing criteria to include in the Al-Qaida List individuals and entities supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al Nusrah Front (ANF).


Organized Crime

Much like within the terrorism framework, the United Nations oversees a number of treaties that deal with transnational organized crime, notably the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (hereinafter: Organized Crime Convention). The Organized Crime Convention is supplemented by three Protocols on crimes often carried out by organized criminal groups: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Trafficking in Persons Protocol); the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (Smuggling of Migrants Protocol); and the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol). Furthermore, the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 does not address transnational organized crime as such, but the illicit activities commonly carried out by organized criminal groups. Finally, the United Nations Convention against Corruption, adopted in 2003, specifies and recognizes different forms of corruption, and it provides a legal framework to criminalize and combat a crime widely committed by organized criminal groups around the globe (on the topic of corruption, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants and trafficking in firearms, see Module 3 and Module 14 of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime, as well as the  E4J University Module Series on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants).

Much like the concept of terrorism, there is no single uniformly accepted definition of organized crime. The Organized Crime Convention does not define organized crime as organized crime's illicit activities are often changing and a definition would quickly become out-dated. Instead, it defines an organized criminal group as:

[A] structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit. (Art. 2 (a))

A structured group is broadly defined as one that does not require any formal hierarchy or continuity of its membership. Therefore, loosely affiliated groups without any formally defined roles for its members or any developed structure or hierarchy are also included. A serious crime means any offence punishable by at least four years imprisonment (article 2 (b)). The purpose of the organized criminal group to obtain directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit was included in the Organized Crime Convention to exclude groups with purely political or social motives. At the same time, the other material benefit was intended to include sexual gratification through, for example, the receipt or trade of materials by members of peer-to-peer networks sharing online child exploitation material or cost sharing among the network members (UNODC, 2006) (on this topic, see Module 1 of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime).

The approach adopted in the Convention's definition has been criticized by some scholars (see e.g. Salinas de Frias, 2017 and Fredholm, 2017), who have considered it limited in that States parties have broad discretion as to how organized crime is defined in national legislation, which in turn might lead to disparity in national implementation. On the other hand, like terrorism, organized crime also evolves over time, is not static, and varies from region to region. For that reason, the focus of the Convention is on the actors of organized crime - the organized criminal group - rather than the illicit activities.

The Organized Crime Convention also lays out a definition for the transnational aspect of organized crime. The Convention in its article 3 defines transnationality:

[A]n offence is transnational in nature if:

  • it is committed in more than one State;
  • it is committed in one State but a substantial part of its preparation, planning, direction or control takes place in another State;
  • It is committed in one State but involves an organized criminal group that engages in criminal activities in more than one State; or
  • It is committed in one State but has substantial effects in another State. (Art. 3 (2))

Although the scope of application of the Convention is limited to crimes that are transnational in nature, it also specifies in article 34.2 that the transnational element and the involvement of an organized criminal group are not to be considered elements of those offences in domestic legislation for criminalization purposes. Therefore, States parties are called to pass legislation which does not include the transnational elements, in order to avoid possible loopholes in domestic systems.

This Module focuses particularly on terrorism and organized crime rather than less serious criminal offences.However, it is necessary to recognize an ongoing trend toward individualized / independent, small-scale criminal acts to fund terrorist activities, rather than large-scale, top-down facilitation of criminal operations by terrorist factions (Oftedal, 2014; Reitano, Clarke, 2017).


Linkages between organized crime and terrorism

The focus of this Module is the linkages between organized crime and terrorism. Some scholars interested in unpacking how, and the extent to which, organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations interact often refer to linkages or links as demonstrating a "nexus" between the different types of groups (see, e.g. Albanese, 2012 and Alda 2014). While there is certainly no one way to define these linkages, some academics contend that a "nexus" is only one of a number of different types of interactions. The theoretical approaches to examining the various types of linkages are considered in a dedicated section of this Module.

Generally, studies of the linkages examine how criminal and terrorist groups engage in mutually beneficial activities and also seek to look more broadly at the larger social environments and networks in which terrorist and organized criminal groups operate (Neuman et al., 2016). In this context, it is relevant also to mention that there are researchers questioning the existence of a nexus between organized crime and terrorism and discounting that a cooperation exists between organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations (see Picarelli, 2006). Some of these authors focus on the lack of trust between such groups as a natural barrier to their cooperation; others on the fact that both groups are generally risk-adverse and would be reluctant to assume the added risk of collaborating long-term; perhaps the most frequent objection to the existence of a nexus is that these groups inherently have different objectives (of a financial nature for organized criminal groups and of a more political nature for terrorist organizations). These authors maintain that this would prevent a stable cooperation (Picarelli, 2006; Shelley et al, 2005).

This Module aims to investigate the existence of any type of linkages between terrorism and organized crime in the broadest sense possible and thus refers to the existence of linkages, rather than a nexus.

The linkages for the purpose of this Module

For the purposes of this Module, any reference to the "linkages" is intended to encompass any interaction between terrorism/terrorist groups and organized crime/organized criminal groups that demonstrates a relationship between them. This includes, though this list is non-exhaustive: terrorist groups involved in organized criminal activity; organized criminal groups committing acts of terrorism; terrorist and organized criminal groups cooperating through their engagement in criminal activity; transformations involving organizational links and similarities, or even convergence; and competition between both types of groups necessitating contact between them. 


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