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Organized crime leaders and terrorists cross paths in cyberspace

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The nexus between organized crime and terrorism can be tenuous and sometimes hard to see. And there can be copycat appropriation of methods and means used by terrorists for fundraising. But that nexus is growing so fast in the cyberage, we ignore it at our peril.

That was the takeaway from a panel of current and former high-level law enforcement and intelligence officials at the 23rd Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law held Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C. The session was co-sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security; the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law; the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law; and the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

One of the biggest problems, said panelist Tom Fuentes, former FBI assistant director for international operations, has been knee-jerk reactions at the highest policy levels that hastily throw bodies and funds at emerging terrorism problems without consideration for what might happen in abandoned areas of enforcement.

Some routine white-collar fraud and similar crimes that have gone uninvestigated, Fuentes said, “proved later to be critical to the fundraising activity of terrorist organizations, or the fundamental fundraising for international organized crime groups.”

Indeed, New York law enforcement agencies recently investigated ordinary criminal conduct that later turned out to likely be funding terrorist activities, said panelist Douglass B. Maynard, the New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

An investigation into sales of stolen baby formula upstate grew into a yearlong-plus probe by several law enforcement agencies that uncovered an even bigger, $55 million operation smuggling untaxed cigarettes from Virginia—all tied to a massive money-laundering scheme.

Some of the 16 co-conspirators indicted in Brooklyn Supreme Court last May on state racketeering charges in People v. Basel Ramadan were found to have ties to prominent terrorists, including Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was behind the 1993 bombings at the World Trade Center and now is in federal prison.

Investigators didn’t realize the far-reaching implications of their initial efforts. And two of the men jailed while awaiting trial were indicted again in October and accused of plotting the murder of a witness against them, Maynard said.

While it’s difficult to know where the money went (and to investigate overseas), he said, when “sometimes you act before you have perfect information, you have an opportunity to disrupt the group that gives you concerns.”


The addition of cybertools to organized crime can seem like steroids in sports, whether they’re driven by a mix of religion and politics or simple greed. For example, said panelist Luz Nagle, a former judge in Medellin, Colombia, and now a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., “to move drugs today, organized crime is hacking shipping containers.” Nagle teaches courses dealing with international criminal law, terrorism and national security.

The hackers invade computer systems for managing container shipments. Recently the Netherlands and Belgium seized large amounts of heroin and cash in such a case. The hackers used “spear phishing”—email fraud targeting specific groups of people—and malware attacks for entering shipping company computers and “changing the locations and delivery times for the containers with drugs,” Nagle said.

As much of our work and lives have moved online, it was inevitable that organized crime and terrorists would follow, said panelist M.E. “Spike” Bowman, former senior counsel for the FBI’s national security branch, because it is “easier, safer, cheaper to try to steal money electronically than it is to try to rob a bank or set up a traditional fraud scheme.”

Bowman said “it has evolved in a very short period of time to something that is more than just violence and racketeering, but something that’s become very personal to all of us.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “The Terror-Mob Crimes Link: Organized crime leaders and terrorists cross paths in cyberspace.”

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