Peace Consulting

$31.5 Billion: Illicit Organized Crime Networks Make Great Fortunes in Conflict Zones, Experts Tell the UN Security Council

By <b><br>Dr Marta Katz-Turi</b>

Dr Marta Katz-Turi

Peace, development and security are the cornerstones for any country. Yet global efforts are increasingly being threatened and sabotaged by criminal networks. Transnational organized crime is invading every level of society and is becoming more diverse in its scope of operations. The growth and convergence of criminal networks has been increasingly taking advantages of governance weaknesses during local conflicts and is sustaining non-stage armed groups and terrorists.

The link between conflict zones and organized crime is undeniable, and this phenomenon is sustaining conflicts worldwide, with illegal exploitation and taxation of gold, oil and other natural resources overtaking traditional “threat finance” sectors, such as kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking. This was the major statement of the experts from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and INTERPOL when briefing the UN Security Council on 7th November 2021.

The address was delivered as part of the annual briefing on UN Peacekeeping operations, led by Alexander Zuev, Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law, at the Department of Peacekeeping Operation (DPKO) and included presentations from UN Police Commissioners, on the work being carried out by Missions in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Haiti.

Mr. Zuev said that the growing risks associated with organized crime, which he described as striking “at the heart of the United Nations’ core business” have been recognized at the highest level of the UN, including Secretary-General António Guterres.

The scale of the money being illicitly generated by organized crime networks in conflict zones is sustaining conflicts worldwide and they have amassed $31.5 billion.

According to the first global report published from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and INTERPOL, by far the largest share of the 31.5 billion dollars, 96 per cent, goes to political actors at all levels, and associated transnational criminal networks. These, therefore, are the main beneficiaries from instability, violence and lack of state capacity for enforcement, and who thus retain an interest in the perpetuation of the conflict. Where crime thrives, there can be no sustainable peace. This money helps fuel violent conflicts.

The report, titled ‘The World Atlas of Illicit Flows’, published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and INTERPOL, is the first consolidated global overview of the significance of crime in conflicts worldwide. The report shows links between illicit tracking routes in conflict zones – in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas – and international terrorism and concluded by stating that the UN needs a coherent, streamlined and strategic approach to addressing organized crime.

Based on public reports and criminal intelligence, the World Atlas identifies more than 1,000 routes used for smuggling and other illicit flows, as well as human trafficking.

Why Are Organized Crime Networks a Threat to International Peace and Security?

Of the 1,114 UNSC Resolutions passed during the period of seventeen years, from 2000 to 2017, 35 per cent mention forms of crime, and in each of the last five years, more than 60 per cent of the UNSC Resolutions have mandated a response to criminal flows and markets.

Organized crime is increasingly undermining peace, security and development and has become a global phenomenon, represented in conflicts zones from Africa to the Middle East and the Americas, and demonstrates a distinct linkage to the response to international terrorism.

Strengthening enforcement, information sharing, and analysis is essential in order to prevent, disrupt and defeat violent armed groups and the organized-criminal actors that create an environment of impunity and instability.


What types of crimes have been committed by the organized crime networks in conflict zones?

The illicit exploitation of natural or environmental resources, such as gold, minerals, diamonds, timber, oil, charcoal and wildlife, is the single-largest overall category of threat finance to conflicts, estimated at 38 per cent of illicit flows to armed groups in conflicts.

When incomes from these natural resources are combined with the illicit taxation and high extortion (26 percent) by the same non-state armed groups, the figure reaches as high as 64 percent.

  1. 38 per cent – Environmental, including illegal exploitation of oil, minerals and gold
  2. 28 per cent – Drugs
  3. 26 per cent – Illegal taxation, extortion, confiscation and looting
  4. 3 per cent – External donations
  5. 3 per cent – Money extorted through kidnapping for ransom
  6. 1 per cent – Charcoal
  7. 1 per cent – Antiquities

Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General, said that “the huge volume of illicit money being generated through the exploitation of natural resources is of great concern. Criminal networks and their activities fuel violent conflicts, which in turn undermine the rule of law.”


1. Environmental Crimes: The Largest Conflict Finance Sector, Generating US $288 Billion A Year

The term ’environmental crime’ is often understood to collectively describe illegal activities harming the environment and aimed at benefiting certain individuals, groups or companies through the exploitation and the theft of, or trade in, natural resources. The term encompasses serious crimes and transnational organized crime, tax fraud, corruption and threat finance. In all these manifestations, environmental crime comes with massive costs to countries worldwide.

  • Environmental crime is now estimated to be equivalent to US $110 to 281 billion annually (2018 figures), an approximate 14% increase from 2016. This is mainly a result of improved estimates and criminal intelligence.
  • Environmental crime is now slightly more lucrative than human trafficking, and is the third largest criminal sector worldwide, moving up from 4th largest, after drugs, counterfeit goods and trafficking.
  • The cost of the impact of environmental crime is rising by 5% to 7% annually, or two or three times the rate of global economic growth.
  • Forestry crimes including illegal logging, valued at US $51 to 152 billion annually.
  • Illegal fisheries: estimated at US $11 to 24 billion.
  • Illegal mining: estimated at US $12 to 48 billion.
  • The illegal wildlife trade: estimated at US $7 to 23 billion.
  • Illegal exploitation and theft of oil: US $19 to 23 billion.
  • Loss of government revenues through lost tax income due to criminal exploitation is equivalent to at least US $11 to 28 billion annually.
  • Environmental crime is increasingly converging with other forms of organized crime, such as drugs, cybercrimes, corruption, tax fraud and money laundering.

The wide range in the values given above reflects the lack of accurate statistics in the field, but these figures are based on the best sources and criminal intelligence from INTERPOL and other places.

The cost impact makes environmental crime the third largest crime category in the world after drug trafficking (US $344 billion), counterfeit crimes (US $288 billion) with human trafficking (USD $157 billion).

Unlike any other known form of crime, environmental crime is aggravated by its impact on the environment and therefore its cost to future generations.



If one looks beyond groups designated as terrorist organizations to include regular organized crime that occurs in and around armed conflicts, the extent of criminal economies is approximately US $24 billion to US $39 billion by turnover, although profits are much lower. Threat finance revenue to terrorism and major insurgencies represents only 4% of the total illicit finance in or near areas of conflict. Despite their high profile, such armed groups operate within an environment where exponentially higher incomes go to transnational organized crime. The armed groups take part in these activities, and feed off the income streams, but they are not the dominant financial players.

Powerful elites, engaged in organized crime, gain from sustaining conflicts and fund non-state armed groups, which undermines the rule of law and good governance. This, in turn, enables these criminal elites to benefit from the instability, violence and lack of enforcement and, hence, subsequently, the exploitation of illicit flows during the conflicts.

Strengthening information and analysis is essential to be able to prevent, disrupt and defeat, before it is too late, both violent armed groups and the organized-criminal actors that provide these armed groups (and themselves) with an environment of impunity and instability.

In order to ensure early prevention and intervention in conflicts, it is therefore imperative to forcefully address the role of organized crime and illicit flows in benefiting non-state armed groups and the powerful elites engaged in criminal activities. These are the findings of the first consolidated global overview of the significance of organized crime in conflicts worldwide, entitled The World Atlas of Illicit Flows, published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and INTERPOL.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the briefing made by Mr. Awale Abdounasir, UN Police Commissioner for the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO, to the UN Security Council during the annual briefing session on November 7th, 2021.

He said that governments of countries weakened by crises too often look at a military solution to fight crime syndicates, whereas the strengthening of the judicial system by making it more transparent and rigorous would be a more appropriate strategy.

I think this would be a step in the right direction.

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