Organised Crime and Violent Extremism: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?


  • The difference between organised crime and violent extremism is at times difficult to discern.
  • Extremist groups will often be motivated by money in order to sustain themselves; financing often comes through illicit activity.
  • Untangling the distinctions between these groups is necessary in order to respond and programme accordingly, for both governments, donors, and practitioners.

As we start to learn more about the nature of violent extremism (VE) in East Africa, new questions emerge about the links and relationships between violent extremist organisations (VEOs) and other non-state armed groups, such as gangs or organised criminal networks. Understanding the nexus between these groups, how they operate alongside each other, or even in support of each other, and rely on weaknesses of the state or vulnerabilities of potential recruits is needed to identify clear strategies that undermine the influence, networks, and power of these organisations.

What is known about the links between organised crime and VE?

So far, not much. Anecdotal evidence about relationships between criminal entities – including smuggling and trafficking networks and criminal gangs – continues to emerge, but deeper investigation into these connections and relationships has not occurred in a way in which conclusions can be drawn, or concrete action points identified.

In Kenya, a story recently emerged about returned Al Shabaab fighters in Kwale and Mombasa counties joining criminal gangs; a young man who was gunned down during a robbery alongside two other known criminals was a suspected returnee, and the local security apparatus is uncovering further links between returnees and criminal gangs along the coast. Conversely, however, the BRICS I report on the at-risk in Kenya showed inconclusive evidence on the connections between gangs and VE, though noted that ex-gang members are more vulnerable to recruitment given their loss of social connection and support.

Other research conducted by Wasafiri under the BRICS I programme in Tanga, Tanzania, along the border with Kenya, also shares anecdotal evidence about the nature of criminality and extremism in the region and speculates about links between armed groups in Kenya and criminal organisations in Tanzania. Allegations that groups in Tanga have been involved in both drug smuggling and financing Al Shabaab in Somalia have emerged, but at the same time, research has not been able to uncover overt connections between extremist groups and organised criminal networks even though evidence continues to mount that the groups exist alongside each other and benefit from limited state reach in certain areas.

Al Shabaab is also known to fund itself through money laundering and other illegal financial transactions, as well as through smuggling and taxation of sugar and charcoal in Somalia, leading some to view Al Shabaab as a “hybrid” organisation whose focus shifts between extremist and criminal activity.

And further south, in northern Mozambique, a just-published post by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies cites unverified claims that jihadists in the region benefit from illicit regional trade of precious stones, timber and other resources. Furthermore, allegations of government corruption in the illegal exploitation of the vast resources in the region is said to undermine local residents’ confidence in and support for the state, a weakness that both criminal entities and the emerging (and still nebulous) extremist groups can take advantage of.

While much speculation remains around the links between VEOs and organised crime, a trend is beginning to emerge. VEOs will always be, at least in part, motivated by the need to make money to sustain themselves and expand, and that money often comes from illicit and covert activity. Rather than trying to differentiate between extremism and crime, we should instead be focused on following the money, gaining a deeper understanding of cross-border movements and financial flows, and identifying links to global markets to better understand localised conflict dynamics.

So, where do we go from here?

As the research discussed above suggests, the lines that differentiate these groups are, at best, blurred, and what is known about them, including sources of financing or support, recruitment tactics, and relationships with local communities, is still rather limited. But why does it matter?

For a few reasons:

  • Clarity on the ways in which these groups rely upon and support each other, or work against and in competition with each other, and what factors feed or hinder their growth lead to more effective approaches that address the conflict system as a whole, rather than merely treating the symptoms (be they VE, gangs, militias, etc.).
  • For donors and development actors, understanding the linkages helps to develop more effective and targeted programming. If there is a relationship between criminal groups and VEOs, or if they recruit from the same pool of individuals experiencing similar vulnerabilities, then programs that seek to only address vulnerability to extremism could inadvertently push individuals into criminal activity, or vice versa, leading to a “whack-a-mole” problem. That is, a lack of clarity on the relationship between these entities can leave us chasing the problem, rather than proactively getting ahead of it and addressing the underlying drivers.
  • If VEOs and criminal networks are in competition with each other, however, there are numerous implications for the stability of the areas in which these groups operate and the ways in which government would seek to engage with the problem. Equally important is how communities perceive and relate to different groups; in the power vacuum that inevitably emerges when state presence is limited, communities’ alliances can shift between criminal organisations, VEOs, or others, who may offer services and protection, or demand allegiance through a heavy-handed approach.

While considering regional or global illicit trade networks, these implications also suggest the need for a highly localised understanding of the various dynamics at play within the system in which VEOs and criminal gangs operate. The nature of the criminal activity, strength and relevance of extremist presence in a given area, and relationship between communities and the state, amongst myriad other factors, all come into play in determining how to evaluate and understand the local conflict system. To respond accordingly and positively influence insecurity, practitioners and governments need to untangle the web.