Exploring the "Crime-Terror Nexus" from Below Raphaël Lefèvre

For many Lebanese, the name of Shadi Mawlawi is associated with organised crime and terrorism, given his dual involvement in weapons smuggling and his senior role within the al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafi-jihadist terrorist organisation, the Nusra Front. And yet, in the deprived neighbourhood of Qobbe, in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli, where he resided before escaping in 2015, many residents still view him as a “hero” who “protected the district”. In fact, far from being a remote warlord or jihadi ideologue, Mawlawi was deeply embedded in the social structure and the value system of the neighbourhood. There, he not only provided security and social services to impoverished locals but, by acting as neighbourhood leader, he also embodied the identity, grievances and social ties of solidarity which traditionally characterise the most deprived districts. Although his criminal and terrorist activities quickly turned him into Lebanon’s most wanted man, these activities were embraced in his neighbourhood, where they fit traditions of violent masculinity, urban unrest and rejection of authority, and resonated with a longer history of interaction between criminal and revolutionary groups that had gained popularity in the 1970s. And, when the Lebanese army finally arrested Shadi Mawlawi, the outburst of popular anger which seized Qobbe was such that he had to be released right away.

The story of Mawlawi epitomises the urgent need to understand the progressive merger of criminal and terrorist milieus, practices and narratives as well as their growing embeddedness within the most marginalised urban communities. This phenomenon is far from unique to the neighbourhood of Qobbe. Two other of Tripoli’s most impoverished districts, Bab al-Tebbaneh and Mankoubin, have also become home to locally-rooted movements of contention. Violence in these areas is often at once criminal and political, resulting in gangster-like terrorist behaviours and in new, bottom-up synergies between the traditionally distinct worlds of organised crime and terrorism. Preliminary data I obtained from the Lebanese Interior Ministry suggests that two-thirds of 152 Tripolitans arrested for terrorism-related charges in 2016/2017 were from these three neighbourhoods, and that the overwhelming majority were or had been involved in criminal activities. Therefore, there appears to be a “neighbourhood effect” in how crime-terror interaction arises and takes root. It seems crucial to explore this phenomenon at a time when other deprived urban communities are emerging as spaces where transnational organised crime (TNOC) arises and intersects with extremism, from Manchester’s Moss Side to Brussels’ Molenbeek.

By investigating how Tripoli’s deprived districts are becoming a privileged milieu for TNOC and a safe space for interactions with extremists, my work engages with the growing academic and policy discussions on the roots and nature of the “crime-terror nexus”, which refers to the organisational and operational overlaps between criminal and terrorist networks. The fact that the term was only coined in 2001 by political scientist Tamara Makarenko reflects the embryonic nature of the literature on this fundamental topic. Scholars have observed the concept’s growing importance not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and Latin America, and categorised known instances of cooperation between criminal organisations and terrorist cells. Yet, despite these notable efforts, Makarenko herself has acknowledged the ”limited” nature of the progress made in this academic field of inquiry. This is both because it is situated at a crossroads of disciplines and because it is difficult to develop the necessary networks to access rich qualitative and quantitative data.

Through a recently funded ESRC project, I hope to make two key contributions to studies of the “crime-terror nexus”. First, on the basis of the extensive networks I have developed during my doctoral and postdoctoral research trips to Tripoli, the project will provide an evidence-based look into the “crime-terror nexus” in Qobbe, Bab al-Tebbaneh and Mankoubin. Second, a bottom-up approach will introduce new dimensions, such as the spatialities and temporalities of the “crime-terror nexus”. Indeed, it is striking the extent to which both criminal and extremist networks are rooting themselves in specific urban spaces in Tripoli by drawing on social ties, practices and narratives that resonate with local residents, and by playing to much older histories of cooperation between criminal and revolutionary networks in the city. The combination of my expertise in contentious politics with that of my co-investigator, Caroline Rooney (University of Kent), in cultural anthropology and criminality in political contexts, will see the project carry out the first truly interdisciplinary and empirical study of how TNOC groups root themselves in deprived neighbourhoods and interact with extremist networks.

The question of the embeddedness of the crime-terror nexus seems more crucial than ever before, yet scholars have noted that it is notoriously absent from the debate. At a time when deprived districts from Tripoli to Manchester to Brussels are emerging as safe spaces for crime-terror interaction – with devastating consequences on local, national and international levels – our empirical research will help better understand and approach the bottom-up dynamics at play.


Raphaël Lefèvre is a Senior Research Fellow at DPIR


Photography credits: Shutterstock; Aissam Kakri - "untitled image"

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