The Links Between The Radical Right And Organized Crime
Dr. Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences) at the European University Cyprus.
It has been known since at least the turn of the millennium that international terrorists have been collaborating with organized crime groups (OCGs), especially in transnational trafficking and counterfeiting (as noted in US Attorney General 2008; UNODC 2004; Waring 2009; Waring, 2013, 156-157). The OECD, International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, and Union des Fabricants issued similar reports over the 2003-2005 period. Trafficking, counterfeiting, bank robbery, kidnapping for ransom, as well as bank fraud, money laundering, online scams and other white-collar crimes, are as attractive to terrorists as they are to OCGs.
Whereas terrorists are motivated by funding their ideology and agenda, OCGs are motivated by greed. Nevertheless, the protagonists (whether criminals or terrorists) share in common the characteristics of pathological determination and amoral calculation.
This article explores the evolving links between OCGs and not only far-right extremists who carry out terrorism but also the broader radical-right spectrum, not all of whom engage in violent acts.
Organized Criminals and Terrorists – Different Motivations?
Organized criminals seek to maximize the extraction of financial or material gain by illicit means from any target entity or activity, and this frequently involves longer-term control, coercion, violence, manipulation, subversion, and corruption of relevant systems, procedures, and personnel, often trans-nationally and regionally and even globally. Greed is the overall motivation, and any apparent latter-day ‘Robin Hood’ ideology is usually a whimsical and narcissistically deluded attempt by a particular OCG leader to portray themselves as a populist ‘savior’ against a supposedly corrupt state or establishment.
I have witnessed such absurd posturing by a well-known OCG leader in a particular European country where he ran protection rackets, money laundering, illegal gambling premises, prostitution, and other criminal activities. Victims I knew confessed to paying him protection money so as not to have their businesses or personnel attacked by him, while at the same time also confessing to seeking his favors to protect them from other predators or nuisances. He saw himself as the community’s Mr Fixit, a fast and efficient alternative to approaching an allegedly laissez-faire police force and corrupt authorities.
At one stage, he even tried with great fanfare to stand for parliament on a populist ticket, but was thwarted by the necessity to obtain a clean police ‘due diligence’ report as being a person of good character. The police chief, with equal fanfare, refused to issue one.
OCGs generally use violence only when they perceive the necessity in order to meet a particular operational objective, and not as an ideological necessity. Indeed, OCGs prefer to keep as low a profile as possible and therefore violence is used sparingly, if at all, as it attracts unwanted attention and publicity. Terrorists, however, crave public attention and notoriety to promote their ideology, and violent overthrow of the state is their stepping stone to a new order. OCGs rarely want to undermine or overthrow the state since a live but corrupted state enables them to function with relative impunity.
OCGs typically actively seek to corrupt the state’s governance structures and systems so as to benefit their objectives but not enough to destroy the state as their ‘golden goose’. Notable exceptions are the ultra-violent drug trafficking cartels and so-called ‘narco-terrorists’ in Central and South America, who have directly challenged the authority of the state and engaged in major gun battles with police and armed forces and effectively control whole provinces e.g. in Mexico.
Nevertheless, there is also evidence of a growing number of hybrid collaborative entities such as terrorist groups that enthusiastically engage in OCG conduct themselves as well as collaborating with OCGs, e.g. for decades up to August 2021, the Taliban in Afghanistan directed the opium poppy and heroin production business and trafficking to other countries, as well as extorting illegal taxes and duties from local populations. It remains to be seen what the new self-declared Taliban government in Afghanistan will do regarding its drug production and trafficking business and other criminal and terrorist activities, and how it will fight off ISIS-Khorasan, its major extremist rival and enemy on both the terrorism and drug trafficking fronts.
An Evolving Collaboration Between OCGs and Terrorists
From the mid-1990s to 2015, the terrorist groups collaborating with OCGs were predominantly Islamists such as Salafists and Al Qaeda (Liang, 2016, 84-88). Over that period, one of my close colleagues who ran multi-jurisdictional field operations against OCGs across the Far East, Middle East, and Europe had hard intelligence on their links with such terrorist groups.
For example, one of his informants was a known Middle Eastern terrorist who periodically held joint meetings on strategy, operations, and funds transfer with regional OCG counterparts. Meetings were in Cyprus, a very convenient location for unobtrusive engagement. In these earlier years, far-right extremists in the US were also collaborators with OCGs but on a smaller and more piecemeal scale than Islamists. The recent CARR Insight by Michael Colborne suggested that the radical right has since become a much more salient source of terrorists who collaborate with OCGs.
The evolving character of such relationships is captured in the ICCT paper by Alex Schmid (2018), which identifies in detail the similarities and differences between OCGs and terrorist groups as perceived in his 1996 study and as updated in the 2018 study. Schmid found that the six similarities and eight differences still appeared to hold true, although in 1996 he saw terrorism and organized crime as two distinct phenomena whereas by 2018 convergence of various kinds had become much more evident. Schmid identifies four types or levels of interaction between OCGs and terrorist groups:
- Opportunistic collaboration as a weak nexus (e.g. terrorists buying firearms on the black market from OCG arms dealers).
- A regular association involving tactical and pragmatic collaboration, based on common interest (e.g. protecting trafficking routes and operations)
- Alliance formation i.e. a pact-based, strategic relationship involving a mutually advantageous symbiosis (e.g. jointly trafficking drugs and splitting the profits; jointly trafficking arms, some of which are kept by the terrorists, while jointly splitting the profits).
- Convergence whereby both sides merge in terms of personnel, resources, logistical and/or operational activities.
While convergence is relatively unusual, the first three levels are more common.
Schmid also notes that whereas, according to studies in Europe, most senior terrorists are clinically normal from a mental health perspective, many of those vulnerable to recruitment into terrorist networks are not. However, caution is required regarding the apparent designation of terrorists as predominantly clinically normal, since there is something self-evidently abnormal about anyone predisposed to use violence for ideological or political ends.
For example, there is a known relatively high prevalence of autism among radical-right extremists (leaders and followers). The psychopathology of extremists is extensively reported in e.g. BBC (2020a), Casciani (2020), Dean et al (2018), Melle (2013), and Zmigrod et al (2021), which supports caution on apparent mental normality.
Further, it would be highly misleading to infer that somehow, by virtue of pursuing an ideology, terrorists are nobler than mere criminals whose motives are entirely based on greed. At a psychological level, whatever the variables and nuances at the level of an individual, terrorists and organized criminals share a common trait, namely a pathological, ruthless determination to get what they want, backed up by overriding amoral calculation and a callous disregard for anyone harmed in the process. Neither category has any remorse or guilt about what they do.
Many of them revel in the notoriety and power it attracts. As noted elsewhere in relation to ISIS terrorists, Waring (2018, 152): “Despite their rhetoric about ‘fighting for Islam’, the evidence so far suggests that the vast majority comprise a motley group of criminals, psychopaths, sexual predators, paedophiles, misfits and opportunists who merely chant Islamic rhetoric without conviction in order to make them appear somehow justifiable.”
Radical-Right Links with OCGs
Much of the literature on terrorist links to OCGs focuses on Islamists and, as Colborne implies, evidence of radical-right links with OCGs is harder to pin down. However, from what is known, the evidence suggests that the general characteristics of the psychological predisposition of extremists in general, and to Islamist extremists in particular, apply equally to radical-right extremists. The driving beliefs, ideologies, and agendas of diverse extremists may differ, and differ again from those of organized criminals, but the underlying psychopathy of all is similar.
The study by Zmigrod et al (2021) indicates how authoritarians and others with a domination imperative and a ‘losing control’ anxiety (which would include both organized criminals and extremists) share common psychological traits that have a cognitive biological basis, whereby exponents have an innate inability to tackle complex cognitive tasks unless they ‘simplify’ them.
For example, an extreme radical-right nativist solution to the complex problem and issues of mass migration and integration is to stop all immigration, remove democratic rights and protections of all ethnic, religious, and other minorities, and ultimately expel them or even kill them. In an OCG world-view, anything they traffic (whether people, arms, or drugs) is simply merchandise; drug addicts are merely consumers; human misery arising from OCG activities is just inconsequential collateral damage. Reductionist dehumanization is the common characteristic of extremists and OCGs.
As noted in a recent CARR Insight, the radical right present a virtual continuum of illiberal world-views and degrees of authoritarianism, within which operates an allied spectrum of self-styled entities ranging from ultra-conservative but non-violent all the way through to terrorists, each with their own shades of ideological and socio-political objectives within the radical-right ‘brand’. It would be misleading to imagine that only radical-right extremists involved in terrorism engage with OCGs.
As Belli (2011, 21-24) reported, a considerable amount of criminal activity occurs in the US involving individuals and small business owners who are generally non-violent radical-right supporters, whereby they engage in financial crimes as a libertarian protest against the state. Sometimes the perpetrators cooperate in networks with other sympathetic radical-right lawbreakers.
In addition to the primarily small-time criminals who defraud the state and the finance sector, at least partly for radical-right motivations, one must also consider the potential for higher-level corporate owners and executives to engage in dubious and possibly criminal financing activities for the benefit of radical-right entities and causes. Such actors, in a neo-liberal globalized economy, with new IT and communications facilities emerging all the time, and new unregulated domains, have exploited this environment to the full extent in pursuit of greed, and have been described as operating a plutocratic insurrection. Moreover some, and perhaps many, of them also have radical-right sympathies and may well be disposed to channel finances, legitimately or not, to the radical right.
Research by Waring (2021a, 71-74) into large-scale corporate and foundation funding of radical right interests revealed that 22 such US funds had combined declared annual revenues of US$532m and that combined fund values of the largest five came to nearly US$4bn. A conservative total figure for all such US funds, which probably exceeds 100, suggested combined fund values of US$10bn and combined annual revenues of at least US$1.3bn.
Jane Mayer (2016; 2017) described these funds as “dark money”. The mutual interests of and synergies between the far-right and such corporate and family foundations demonstrate how the vast wealth of particular individuals and families, their corporations, and their tax-exempt foundations and trusts, support the social and political objectives of the radical right. Some of the corporate leaders and family oligarchs controlling such funds are themselves known far-right supporters. See also T.J. Coles (2019; 2020), Josh Halliday et al (2018) and Tom Keatinge et al (2019).
What is less clear is to what extent OCG money may have found its way into such funds, perhaps as donations by criminals who are ideological supporters and/or for money laundering. If it has, how much of such proceeds of crime is unwittingly accepted by the fund controllers, how much is tacitly accepted by aware but ‘blind eyes’, and how much is knowingly and enthusiastically accepted?
Countries Where OCG/Far Right Collaboration Has Occurred
Intuitively, it may be assumed that links between OCGs and the radical right exist in most, if not all, countries. In some countries, such links have attracted state, public and media attention e.g. Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, and US.
The German Interior Minister reported specifically in May 2021 on right-wing extremist activities linked to criminal acts, stating that 23,064 criminal acts by them in Germany in 2020 were the highest level for at least 20 years. These included murders, violent assaults, criminal damage, death threats and hate crimes. Moreover, he noted that new coalitions were forming between ordinary protesters, conspiracy theory followers, anti-vaxxers and violent extremists, thus extending the criminal footprint more broadly across the radical-right spectrum.
In December 2020, Austrian police seized large quantities of automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives, and hand grenades destined to arm far-right extremists in Germany. Five men with links to neo-Nazi groups were arrested. The Austrian Interior Minister cited a connection between right-wing extremists in Austria and Germany and organized crime, specifically drug trafficking from Germany and using the profits to buy arms.
In Italy in 2019, nineteen far-right extremists were arrested as part of a long-term investigation into attempts to create a neo-Nazi party called Partito Nazionalsocialista Italiano dei Lavoratori (Italian National Socialist Workers’ Party). Among those arrested was a leading member of the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta organized crime group, who had prior criminal convictions and had been a member of the far-right Forza Italia.
‘Ndrangheta links have also been cited in an RAI3 investigative TV report concerning allegations of systematically rigged public contracts by the radical-right Lega Nord governing party in Lombardy relating to Covid-19 serological tests. The report alleged that Lega Nord collaborated with entrepreneurs linked to ‘Ndrangheta so as to favor a particular company. Following the broadcast, not only did Lega Nord forcefully complain about fake news and unacceptable exposure of private e-mails, but so too did other far-right organizations such as Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia. This case highlights not only the links between OCGs and the radical right but also the scope for corruption and abuse of state governance that such links create.
The far-right in Greece has a long history which Tsoutsoumpis (2018) traces from 1945 onwards. Far-right groups engaged in violence and frequently colluded with, and even operated as, organized criminal gangs. The most notable contemporary far-right political party in Greece, Golden Dawn, was founded in 1980 as a movement.
Particularly in the 1980s and 90s, the police and state security services were corrupted by far-right infiltration and sympathizers, who frequently carried out extra-judicial operations against targets of the far-right and collaborated with far-right groups. During the 1990s, Greek OCGs flourished and “Many gangs overlapped with, and often recruited from, far-right groups and hooligan organizations.” Such networks benefitted from ties with senior politicians and police, as well as with Serbian and Russian far-right groups also involved in organized crime. This environment continued into the 21st century and during and after Greece’s several financial crises from 2007 onwards.
Golden Dawn exploited popular desire for salvation from calamity by setting up local unofficial fiefdoms apparently to protect the poor and vulnerable. This ‘Robin Hood’ cloak portrayed Golden Dawn overtly as the savior of the people against the elites but with a covert objective of creating the conditions for an elected authoritarian state under its guidance. Moreover, these fiefdoms in effect controlled existing crime structures and used them for Golden Dawn’s ends. Tsoutsoumpis cites a report by Greece’s National Intelligence Agency that these criminal activities included blackmail, protection rackets, human trafficking, and prostitution. Other far-right groups have also collaborated with OCGs.
In October 2020, Golden Dawn’s leader Nikos Michaloliakos and six colleagues (all former MPs) were found guilty of running an organized crime gang, and other former MPs were convicted of joining it. A party supporter was found guilty of murder and 15 others were convicted on conspiracy charges. Some of the convicted leaders fled abroad to evade prison but were eventually extradited in 2021 to serve their sentences. Golden Dawn is no longer a viable political party.
According to Belli (2011, 21-24), sole proprietors and small business owners who support radical-right ideology persistently engage in tax fraud, tax evasion, bank fraud and money laundering on grounds of both ideology and greed, and are often connected into networks of similar activists and professional support. Some of the radical-right perpetrators are themselves employed professionally as e.g. accountants, tax return preparers, strategy advisers, business consultants, lawyers, real estate agents, and mortgage brokers. While mostly such white-collar crime is non-violent, Belli reports a number of cases of violence by radical-right tax evaders, including murder.
One of the highest-profile professional examples was Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign manager, who in two separate trials in 2019 was convicted of multiple charges of multi-million dollar tax evasion, filing false tax returns, bank fraud, failing to report foreign bank accounts, witness tampering, conspiracy, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, and lying to the Justice Department (Waring 2021a, 51). Sentenced to a total of nearly 7½ years in jail, he was pardoned by President Trump in December 2020 during his final months as president.
Another example is Steve Bannon, the high-profile radical-right agitator and former strategy adviser to President Trump, who in August 2020 was indicted with three others on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud. These charges related to defrauding hundreds of thousands of ‘crowdfunding’ campaign donors to the ‘We Build the Wall’ private fund to help build Trump’s much-vaunted wall between the US and Mexico. It was alleged that Bannon personally received over US$1m in concealed payments from these donations. As with Manafort, Trump pardoned Bannon (the day before his last day in office) but his alleged co-conspirators remain on federal indictment. Meanwhile, all four were indicted on May 25, 2021 on the same allegations by New York state prosecutors.
During his term of office, President Trump was also charged twice by Congress under the broad ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ mantle for alleged wrongdoing while President. One Congressional prosecution related to his alleged role in instigating the far-right mob attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 (see below). Both prosecutions failed but other investigations have continued into the business activities of the Trump organization and his family members. While the New York Attorney General has focussed on civil wrongdoing and the Manhattan District Attorney has been investigating criminal matters, recently they announced collaboration. The range of topics under investigation include insurance fraud, financial fraud, bank fraud, and tax evasion. Charges are reportedly likely soon.
It is highly likely that far-right extremists in the US (like counterparts in e.g. Germany, Austria, Greece and Italy) have engaged with OCGs in order to fund and furnish their activities, such as the acquisition of arms, ammunition, and explosives. Further, evidence is emerging that some of them have also taken on the vestiges of criminal organizations in that they collude in the planning, organizing, incitement and perpetration of criminal conduct.
The most recent high-profile example is the radical-right insurrectionist attack on the Capitol Building in Washington on January 6, 2021. This violent attack, in which a number of people were killed and considerable damage done to property, came after other attacks and plots elsewhere, including a plot by 14 far-right extremists in 2020 to kidnap and possibly murder Michigan State Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Following these accumulating cases, the US Justice Department is reported to be considering using existing anti-racketeering legislation against the instigators, organizers, funders and planners of such crimes.
Radical-right extremists and organized criminals exhibit a common pathological determination to get what they want, an overriding amoral calculation, and a callous disregard for anyone they harm. The driving beliefs, ideologies and agendas of diverse extremists may differ, and differ again from those of organized criminals, but the underlying psychopathy of all is similar. These common characteristics facilitate both their engagement and collaboration, sometimes on a client-principal basis and sometimes as partners-in-crime. Some non-extremists on the radical-right also engage in financial crimes, in line with their libertarian, anti-taxation, anti-government, uncooperative world-view. Overall, the links between OCGs and the radical right also highlight the scope for corruption and abuse of state governance that such links create. In the worst cases, radical-right political parties actually become OCGs.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR's network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.