Interviews | Security | Central Asia

Untangling Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia

Interview with Mariya Y. Omelicheva and Lawrence P. Markowitz.

Catherine Putz
Untangling Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia
Credit: Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

The linkage between organized crime and violent extremism — the crime-terror nexus — is not so simple a theory as it appears. In their recent book, Webs of Corruption: Trafficking and Terrorism in Central Asia, Mariya Y. Omelicheva and Lawrence P. Markowitz explore the nexus in the Central Asian context and find that the nature of state involvement plays an underappreciated role in shaping if and how criminal networks and terrorist groups converge. In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, Omelicheva and Markowitz, professors of political science at the University of Kansas and Rowan University, respectively, discuss moving beyond assumptions about the prevalence of the intersection of criminal and terrorist networks and toward a more nuanced understanding.

Your book really throws a wrench into simplistic theories about the convergence of organized criminal groups engaged in the drug trade and terrorist networks. When and how did discussion of a “crime-terror nexus” arise in the first place?

Ironically, we began our study of linkages between crime and terrorism in Eurasia strongly influenced by arguments asserting the prevalence of the crime-terror nexus around the world. This still prevailing narrative explains the convergence of criminal and terrorist milieus by referring to three key factors. First, terrorist groups saw a reduction in their traditional sources of funding, such as state sponsorship and charitable donations, leading them to turn to criminal activities for raising revenue. Second, technological advances, the ease of cross-border movement, and developments in commerce and finances have significantly improved operational capabilities of both criminal and terrorist actors and allowed them to forge mutually beneficial relations. Third, the proliferation of locations with weak or fragile state institutions have also contributed to the emergence of the crime-terror nexus. 

As scholars of political violence, authoritarianism, and security challenges in Central Asia, South Caucasus, and Russia, we suspected that the countries of these regions would provide fertile ground for criminal-terrorist convergence. At the same time, we felt that the presumed linkages between crime and terrorism were poorly understood, both in their inherent complexity as well as their diversity across and within countries. Thus, before conceiving of the book, we designed a long-term project on trafficking and terrorism in Eurasia in which we would critically and systematically examine the nature of trafficking-terrorism connections, their sources, and governments’ responses to the threat of drug trafficking and terrorism. 

In the introduction, you write that many of Central Asia’s “features of underdevelopment… should make the region prone to instability and receptive to the trafficking-terrorism nexus,” yet this is not quite the case. What are those features of underdevelopment and why do you think they haven’t led to the kind of instability feared? 

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None of the Central Asian republics have fully realized their potential for economic development. Characterized by autarkic economic policies, uneven market reform, and stagnant economic growth, these countries were also burdened with institutional and infrastructural weaknesses that led to deteriorating social conditions. These challenges have contributed to widespread dissatisfaction with economies policies, corruption, patronage systems, and nepotism of the ruling administrations. Furthermore, porous borders, weak law enforcement and proximity to Afghanistan turned these republics into convenient drug trafficking routes to markets in Russia and Western Europe. All of these conditions coupled with persistent state repression and reported efforts of global Islamist movements to recruit supporters from the region have led many to expect political instability and the proliferation of ties between criminal and terrorist actors. 

Yet, terrorist  attacks in the region have been extremely rare, small-scale, and entail few casualties. So, the comparative study of the trafficking-terrorism nexus greatly overpredicts levels of terrorist violence in Central Asia. As we discuss in the book, this is partly because many arguments point to poverty or missed economic opportunities as drivers of terrorism. At the same time, scholars of Central Asia, in debunking these facile arguments, have often relied on cultural arguments emphasizing an inherent lack of radicalization in the region’s Islamic faith and practice. In fact, the phenomenon is far more complex.. 

In our book we pursue a two-pronged explanation. First, we examine a range of socioeconomic and geospatial factors to determine the conditions under which trafficking and terrorism are likely to coincide and, therefore, form a trafficking-terrorism nexus. Second, we developed an explanatory model to determine what type of trafficking-terrorism nexus emerges. Focusing on the state’s particular involvement in illicit markets, our argument identified various relationships between criminal and political actors that predominate in some cases but not in others. Some Central Asian regimes have been able to suppress political violence by selectively co-opting local and opposition elites using incentives provided by illicit economies they have come to control. In others, where the state has limited coercive capabilities, organized criminal groups may gain much more by exploiting state weaknesses rather than collaborating with violent actors. In rare cases, other regimes deeply enmeshed in the drug trade and already weakened by civil conflict, have seen independent trafficking groups openly ally with terrorist groups.  

Earlier iterations of theories about crime and terror tend to ignore the role of the state. Is this misguided? If so, why and what role does the state play in the emergence of either/and trafficking or terrorism?

Yes, we are highly critical of the “crime-terror” analyses that exclude the state all together or include it in a simplistic and limited fashion. This second approach focuses on criminals and terrorists as opportunistic and malicious forces weakening the state from outside or taking advantage of state weakness or failure for the “unholy alliances” of criminal and terrorist actors. Not only does this approach limit our understanding of the relationships between illicit economies and violence, it can inadvertently contribute to the legitimization of repressive governmental policies shrouded in the language of counter-narcotics and countertheories.

Our book shows that the networks and relationships of criminal and militant non-state actors are enabled by, if not outwardly controlled by, state officials and state policies. Drug trafficking has enormous corrupting capacity, but the consequences of that corruption vary widely. It can generate rent-seeking opportunities for regimes that greatly enhance their coercive capabilities, leading many regimes to try to concentrate control over the flow of rents on drug trade. The challenge, however, is that the highly lucrative drug trafficking industry has low barriers to entry. Regimes, therefore, must use cooptation to extend control over traffickers by either absorbing them directly into the government, controlling them through intermediaries, or excluding them. Critical to understanding what type of the relationship that arises between traffickers and terrorists are the different “revenue bargains” struck between government and non-governmental actors. When a state consolidates its control over the drug trade, independent trafficking groups have a limited ability to ally with militant actors, which can then be suppressed by the state. When a state fails to consolidate its control over drug trafficking, weakened coercive capabilities and independent trafficking can increase criminality in society and opens opportunities for collaborations with militant actors. 

You lay out a range of relationship steps between drugs and terror — from merely co-existing in a shared space to a full convergence. Which versions are most prominent in Central Asia?

Indeed, the intersections of crime and terrorism can take on a variety of forms ranging from the “appropriation of activity,” when terrorist actors resort to crime or criminal actors deploy terrorist tactics, to organizational linkages, when terrorist and criminal groups forms different types of collaborative ventures, to the full-blown convergence into some kind of a hybrid entity exhibiting characteristics of criminal and terrorist organizations. We argue that the transformations of terrorist and criminal groups are very rare; so are the enduring and short-term alliances between criminal and terrorist actors. This finding goes contrary to the dominant position in the studies of the crime-terror nexus, which assumes that cooperation of is fairly easy enabled by the types of conditions already discussed. Yet, the mere possibility of cooperation between criminal and militant actors does not necessarily lead to their cooperation in practice. There are considerable barriers to the durable terrorist-criminal ties, including those posed by the state collusion in organized crime. 

More common are the operational ties between criminal and terrorist groups. Even there, however, it is important to distinguish the existence of lower-level interactions between, for example, former criminals and members of the militant groups, and the appropriation of criminal activity into the modus operandi of terrorist organization directed by the leadership of these groups. In the end, most of the time organized criminal activity, including drug trafficking co-exist with militant and terrorist activity within the same space. Terrorist groups do not supplant criminal actors, which remain the main participants in the illicit markets. 

Speaking of state involvement: Let’s talk about Tajikistan. Bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan is one route for Afghan drugs to get out of the country. The United States and others have poured millions into counternarcotics training and border infrastructure but the drug trade still thrives. What role does foreign aid — funding, equipment, training — play in exacerbating the problems that stem from the drug trade?

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This is a great question – one that speaks to the bigger issue of the effectiveness of foreign security assistance. The United States and other providers of security aid have been blamed for occasionally exacerbating the security problems that this assistance is designed to address. The aid may alienate the population perceiving the donors as accomplices in the regime’s repression.

Tajikistan exemplifies these concerns. It has used the U.S., Russian, and other countries’ assistance to enhance its capabilities to counter the threats of drug trafficking and militancy. The technical resources and training that Tajikistan’s government received helped the regime to address the trafficking and terrorism problems in the short run. Professionalized policing reduced crime; advanced surveillance capabilities allowed the state to track religious activities, etc. These same capabilities, however, also allowed President Rahmon to consolidate his grip on power and expand his regime’s control across Tajikistan’s regions. And the enhanced security sector capabilities have also significantly undermined governance in Tajikistan by reinforcing the regime’s dependence on “praetorian guards,” by increasing rent-seeking behavior within security and law enforcement agencies, and by fostering a general lack of accountability to the public. These trends alienate the public and religious communities from the government, which tends to abuse its authority, including through unlawful application of force extortion and targeting of religious groups. Collusion of the state in drug trafficking and conflict over the drug trade, which is emblematic of the broader conflict over influence and authority within Tajikistan’s government, have led to defections and clashes (including one defection to ISIS). 

Central Asia has experienced relatively few terrorist attacks and regional governments have often been accused of opportunistically mislabeling crime-related violence as terrorism. In what ways does this complicate responses to either organized crime, terrorist networks, or a convergence thereof?

Indeed, this opportunistic mislabeling of the perceived threats and challenges to regimes as “terrorists” raise the risk of driving those estranged by the regime into criminal activity or toward militant resistance. It also generates the so-called “moral hazard problem,” in which security agents may forgo actions against “real threats” and take action against the “imagined” or “constructed” threats in order to encourage continued foreign investment in their agencies. 

Lastly, in researching for this book, what surprised you the most?

As we assembled and analyzed our data, we were surprised by how significant a role the state plays in shaping the trafficking-terrorism nexus in each Central Asian country. Drug trafficking and militant groups are often viewed as activities strictly carried out by non-state actors, but our research demonstrated that the state’s involvement in illicit economies defines the relationships between criminal and militant spheres far more than we (and many other observers) have previously assumed. As we note above, this has important implications not only for our analysis of trafficking and terrorism, but also the policy recommendations regarding foreign security assistance that follow.