The Evolution of Insurgent Identities: Why Terrorist Groups Turn into Criminal Enterprises

Members of the FARC. Photo Credit: Federico Rios for the New York Times

By: Yuri Neves, Columnist

While the connection between terrorist/insurgent groups and criminal organizations has been extensively discussed and debated,[i] less has been written on the fluidity of these identities. Why terrorist or insurgent groups abandon their political ideologies and simply pursue economic motives is an area ripe for exploration. Criminal organizations and violent extremist groups share many similarities; they rise up in areas with similar conditions, use the same tactics, have sophisticated structures, commit criminal acts, and at times cooperate with each other. The fundamental difference between them is a political ideology, or lack thereof. By examining the causes that compel terrorist groups to turn their attention to criminal enterprises, policymakers can design more effective means to counter violent non-state actors.

One factor that can trigger the shift from terrorist/insurgent organization to a simply criminal group is weakness. If the government is cracking down on a terrorist/insurgent group, the group may not have the resources to carry out additional attacks. Furthermore, the terrorist organization would prefer to bide its time and regroup rather than antagonize the state into further attacks. In this case, the shift may be temporary rather than permanent.

Another factor that can provoke a change in organizational identity is the elimination of a key leader. This phenomenon can be seen in the case of Abu Sayyaf, an ISIL affiliate in the Philippines. While this terrorist group is now firmly committed to an ideological goal, in the past it has wavered between being an insurgency fighting for Moro Independence and a criminal gang focused on kidnapping for ransom. One such shift occurred following the death of its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani. After Janjalani was killed in a shootout with Philippine police, two members, Abu Subaya and Ghalib Andang, took on a more prominent role. These two men were known for their criminality. Under their leadership, the group conducted some of its most well-known kidnappings, including the 2000 Sidapan and 2001 Dos Palmas resort kidnappings.[ii] After their deaths, Abdurak Janjalani’s brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, took control of the group. Janjalani was a more ideologically oriented leader. Consequently, the Abu Sayyaf’s  focus once again turned towards terrorism. While the kidnappings continued, now the hostages were beheaded rather than exchanged for ransom. In 2006, history repeated itself. After Philippines forces killed Khadaffy Janjalani, more criminal elements within Abu Sayyaf took control of the group and kidnappings for ransom rose once again.[iii]

Another factor that can lead to criminalization is a decentralization of command. When insurgent groups decentralize, parts of the organization sometimes revise their priorities, and focus on money making activities. This can be seen in segments of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) prior to the peace deal, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, and the Afghan Taliban.[iv] When units within the larger group have reduced contact with their leadership, they receive less ideological indoctrination, have to self-fund, and are not as beholden to prohibitions against engaging in certain kinds of criminal activities. While the main group might still have strong ideological convictions, large sections of the organization can completely transform into a purely criminal enterprise.

Similarly tied to decentralization is the splintering of terrorist/insurgent groups. The signing of a peace treaty is typically a positive step towards stability; however, there is the ever-present threat that a group may splinter and resume fighting. The splinter group may continue to use political violence, such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), or it may simply turn to crime. The latter scenario has been particularly relevant in Colombia. The majority of Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL) demobilized in 1991 and entered mainstream politics. Yet a dissident faction, led by Victor Ramon Navarro Cervano (AKA “Megateo”), continued to partake in drug trafficking, abandoning any pretense of its Marxist ideology.[v] A similar progression is currently underway with the recently demobilized FARC. There have already been several reports of dissident elements of the FARC continuing to utilize its former drug trafficking routes, but without expressing any of the underlying political motivations that once characterized these activities.[vi]

By studying the mechanisms that can cause an ideologically motivated group to transform into a criminal organization, governments can better understand the implications of such a change and how to mitigate its effects. With this in mind, governments should insist that leaders of these terrorist/insurgent organizations take concrete steps towards demobilization prior to agreeing to any peace agreement. Specifically, a peace deal should include a stipulation that if any large contingent of the group continues to engage in criminal activity, for political purposes or otherwise, then the agreement shall be declared null and void. While this may complicate future negotiations, it will spare the state the headache of signing a peace treaty with a group only to then have to go combat well-trained, heavily-armed splinter groups that form after.

A better understanding of this terrorist to criminal group transformation will also help with de-radicalization efforts. If an insurgent or terrorist group experiences high levels of criminalization, it could indicate that it is not very ideologically motivated and its members are susceptible to defection. If money is the primary motivation, then government initiatives that focus on economic reforms, job training programs, and other forms of financial relief could potentially persuade members to leave the group. By studying the mechanisms that cause such shifts within violent non-state actors, governments can better prepare policies to weaken them or mitigate their negative impacts.












[i] “The Organized Crime and Terrorist Nexus: Overhyping the Relationship.” Stratfor, April 20, 2018,

[ii] Mckenzie Obrien, “Fluctuations Between Crime and Terror: The Case of Abu Sayyafs Kidnapping Activities.” Terrorism and Political Violence 24, no. 2 (2012): 320-36.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Oscar Palma, “Transnational Networks of Insurgency and Crime: Explaining the Spread of Commercial Insurgencies beyond State Borders,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26, no. 3 (2015): 476-96.

[v] “EPL,” InSight Crime, August 06, 2018,

[vi] “Ex-FARC Mafia: The New Player in Colombian Organized Crime,” InSight Crime, March 29, 2018,


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