A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

START researchers present work on transnational criminal organizations, terrorism and radiological/nuclear (RN) smuggling

Late last month the Monterrey Terrorism Research and Education Program at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies hosted a conference exploring the nexus of terrorism and trafficking. At the conference, a team of START researchers presented their work on transnational criminal organizations, terrorism and radiological/nuclear (RN) smuggling.

Expanding on research from START's "Transnational Criminal Organizations, Terrorism and Radiological or Nuclear Smuggling: Exploring a Potential Nexus in Central America and the Caribbean (TCOTRN)" project, Michelle Jacome argued that currently, the nexus between terrorist and transnational criminal organizations is and has been minimal. She said their relationship currently represents a low threat when it comes to a possible collaboration to smuggle RN materials.

Conversely, START's Suzzette Abbasciano focused on the future threat such a relationship could pose. Based on the findings of the TCOTRN project, Abbasciano argued that given the existing commonalities between terrorists and transnational criminal organizations, their potential collaboration should not be dismissed.

"While the current convergence threat is low, and likely has a low probability of occurring, it is a high consequence threat," Abbasciano said.

"And therefore, it's necessary to be aware of the continuously changing nature of criminal and terrorist organizations to at least keep pace if not stay ahead of the game, instead of dismissing the possible threat until it manifests itself when our focus is elsewhere."

Both Jacome and Abbasciano noted how the project demonstrated how criminal organizations could serve as a logistical support service provider for a terrorist group.

"It was enlightening to see how START's work and research portfolio fits into the big picture," Jacome said.

"Our work stood apart in bringing to the table the topic of chemical, biological and RN weapons - not just in the form of research but also in the tangible tools such as our GIS mapping component and our threat assessment tool of transnational criminal organizations."

In response to a need identified by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) for empirical research on the nexus of transnational criminal organizations, terrorism and RN smuggling, START's team of scholars and specialists undertook extensive research and analysis. The research included qualitative and automated open-source data collection, field research, model and tool construction and application, policy review and geospatial analysis. START conducted TCOTRN over a two-year period concluding in September 2012.

Under the leadership of TCOTRN's Principal Investigators Gary Ackerman, Peter Reuter and Phil Williams, the primary objectives of the project included:

  • Identifying transnational criminal organizations and networks operating in the Central American Region (including the Caribbean) capable of engaging in RN smuggling;
  • Determining whether there are existing or potential links between these TCOs and nuclear smuggling or terrorism;
  • Analyzing potential smuggling routes and methods that could be used by transnational criminal organizations smuggling RN materials on behalf of terrorists; and
  • Exploring vulnerabilities and suggesting possible modifications to enhance the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.

"I believe that our findings depicted the widely acknowledged current state of affairs in Central America and the Caribbean in regards to a crime-terror nexus," Abbasciano said. "However, in START style, with our threat assessment we were also able to shed light on potential future threats linked to the evolution of the crime-terror nexus in the region."

Jacome and Abbasciano presented alongside a distinguished panel of the leading scholars, including Williams, Jeffrey Bale, John Picarelli, BG Russel Howard, James Forest, Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, Jonathan Marshal and Bob Mandel. Rohan Gunaratna was the keynote speaker.

"This conference was an excellent opportunity to see the work being carried out by our peers," Jacome said.

"More important, the conference provided a space where we could discuss possible future collaborations as well as common themes in our research and ideas."

To learn more about TCOTRN, download the project fact sheets.