Arab Spring a Windfall for Transnational Crime

November 25, 2014

Neil Thompson

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Three years after the onset of the Arab Spring, headlines are still focused on the security threat of revolutionary Islamist militant groups. But we may be overlooking the rise of new social forces which are equally threatening to global security: Middle Eastern transnational criminal networks.

In many places, the revolution promised by the Arab Spring has failed or ended half-way. The resulting toxic combination of broken economic and political systems, geographical proximity to lucrative European black markets, and a youthful and often traumatized population is an open invitation for criminal groups to fill the vacuum of state authority. Similar circumstances produced generational crime waves of extraordinary virulence in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Latin America, which those areas are still coping with today. It is quite possible that the Middle East is poised to follow in their footsteps.

What factors expose the Middle East to a rise in the strength and power of organized transnational criminal networks?

There are two ominous sets of factors facilitating their growth: situational factors and recruiting factors. Situational factors are those encouraging the economic growth of organized crime groups, and recruiting factors are those facilitating individuals’ entry into criminal organizations.

Here are some situational factors currently present in the Middle East:

  1. Porous borders & geographical proximity to contraband markets. The Middle East is already a hub for human-trafficking operations to Europe. States such as Lebanon and Morocco have also been major sources of supply and smuggling routes for illegal drugs in the past. Not much has changed in this regard, except perhaps that today distracted regional governments perform an even weaker job of border security.
  2. Penetration/cooperation of existing central & local authorities. Aggravating the region’s unfortunate proximity to the lucrative contraband markets of Europe is a lack of effective governmental authority throughout the Middle East, which fuels the corruption that allows criminal groups to subvert the institutions meant to control them.
  3. A war economy/large black market sector. The prevalence of a large informal economy throughout the region, combined with a growing war economy in certain conflict zones, is a boon to black market operations. The hawala money changing system is one example of informal businesses that can facilitate criminal groups’ opportunities for growth.
  4. Lack of effective law enforcement. Law enforcement in the region, already in an abysmal state, is still politicized and too often focused on persecuting political dissidents or ‘anti-terrorist’ security operations.

And some recruiting factors:

  1. High youth unemployment. The Middle East has a youthful population and persistently low rates of economic growth. Given the low barriers to criminal economic growth outlined above, a flow of recruits to some of the few economic agents offering lucrative employment opportunities is guaranteed.
  2. High availability of military arms and trained individuals. From Russia to Columbia, the demobilization or disbandment of armed organizations has created a pool of individuals who may struggle to adapt to civilian life and who also possess skills useful in the criminal sector. As the Arab Spring fades we will start to see this process in the Middle East. The emergence of Algerian militants as major players in West Africa’s criminal underworld after the end of the Algerian civil war in 2002 is a case in point.
  3. Social and psychological trauma. A rootless and fragmented social situation prevails in parts of the Middle East, where conflict has created many alienated and disturbed individuals. Such dangerous and isolating conditions are fertile ground for the creation of criminal gangs, many of which have their beginnings in partisan groups formed for self-defense, which can provide their members with a sense of belonging.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list; other factors from around the region such as better communications technology and environmental stress (especially on water) could also be added.

The unsettled end of social upheavals are often marked with a crime wave as individuals turn skills learned during war to private use. Given poor economic prospects, a large black market economy and with large numbers of guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers and secret policemen looking for new opportunities as the Arab Spring dies down, the chances in the region for an explosive growth of organized crime groups are huge. Central authority in Libya, Iraq and Syria has already broken down; in Egypt, Algeria, and Lebanon it is compromised or weak. In a globalizing world, the networking impulses that have created transnational supply chains for contraband goods stretching thousands of miles are sure to blur the distinctions between state and non-state actor, law enforcer, rebel and criminal.

The persistence of tribal or clan-based identities in much of the region does geographically limit some present criminal operations to their group’s territory, for example the farming families involved in the drug trade in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Yet Lebanon has also produced the clandestine-organized, highly-structured and certainly international Hezbollah movement, one of the world’s most sophisticated and successful non-state actors. If modern Middle Eastern societies are able to create high functioning transnational militant networks, their criminal elements are clearly capable of doing the same. There is no reason to suppose the emergence of factors favorable to the growth of mafia-type groups in the region will not spread to impact on the West in the future. Globalization means that while our decisions still have a huge impact on conditions in the Middle East, that process is a two-way street today.

Alas, the present conflation of Middle Eastern criminal activity with Islamic terrorist networks hampers Westerners’ ability to recognize today’s preexisting regional organized crime rings as independent agents. Unlike their Latin American, Italian, Balkan and ‘Eurasian’ (FSU) cousins, Middle Eastern criminal enterprises attract little Western attention. They are often still the poor cousins of security threats, their illegal activities cloaked beneath the aegis of hostile regional governments or militant groups. But the day is coming when they will no longer need their sponsors and can form their own independent organizations. If the Western intelligence community is not to be taken by surprise as it was by Eurasian organized crime in the 1990s, it would do well to start preparing some hefty files now on Middle Eastern underworld figures. They may soon need them.


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Filed under Politics, transnational criminal networks

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