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Transnational Organised Crime Groups in a Changing Socio-Political and Socio-Technical Landscape

The internet has not only changed the ways that crime is organised and committed, especially transnationally and online, but it has also changed the nature and meaning of the organised aspect of organised crime.

This article seeks to explore the ways that the internet has changed the crime organisation behind criminals, especially the development and organisation of transnational organised and virtual crimes? In seeking to answer these questions, we introduce a framework of models as ideal types for understanding these changes. It is a framework that reflects the evolution of organised crime from sustainable through to ephemeral patterns, with a range of hybrids sitting in between.

The internet has transformed the organised crime imaginary and the ways that crimes are organised and committed both online and offline.[1] One major challenge is in identifying these transformations. What are the changes that have taken place, which conditions are still the same and which are fundamentally the same, but have been modified, extended or globalised. Nowadays, there are many different forms of criminal organisations and terrorist networks, with different distinguishing features, but we try to abstract their key characteristics and set them out in a model in order to explain how new and emerging trends in criminal groupings.

We found that the models respond to contemporary socio-technical and socio-political changes and shifts in behavioural norms. In fact, Individuals often adopt new behavioural norms when seeking alternatives to the options they face in their everyday life. In the socio-technical environment, for example, new forms of communication are rapidly changing the expectations and opinions of sections of society by either collecting them together or and polarising them. Thus, the new socio-political environment is also creating new behavioural norms within it to a point where a ‘new social normal’ has emerged where conventional understandings no longer apply in ways that they once used to. Hence the surprise at the Trump vote, Brexit, Arab spring etc.

Such a shift of paradigms is also reflected in new criminal behaviours and criminal organisation that straddle the borderline between what was once more clearly marked as distinct organised crime and terror networks behaviours. See, for example, the crime-terror nexus described by Makarenko and others which use everyday criminality to generate fear and achieve terror or organised crime goals. This disruption means that organised crime organisations and terror networks are not understood today with the same sense of polarity that they once were, compromising current strategies which seek to prevent offenders getting more deeply involved in crime, or enable law enforcement to pursue them. Or even to mitigate impacts and effects of actions or prevent them altogether.

We identify three models as ‘ideal types’, characterised by sustainability, ephemerality and hybridity. Sustainable models are groups which share a common goal and often geographical location, collective ideals and a perceivable structure to achieve it and sustain it, often offsetting liabilities down the structure. Importantly, their central goal, above all else, is to maintain their existence and sustain the lifestyles of their members whilst increasing their power.

Ephemeral groups are short-lived and tend to be collectives of offenders working together to commit a crime and then reform with either the same people and or others in order to commit another one. They tend to be connected only by an idea or value, for example, to commit a crime or act of terror and do not have a sustainable goal. Because ephemeral groups are those who assemble for just one or few criminal actions and then they dissolve, they tend not to be linked to any territory. If there is a structure, this is not always perceivable and/or very flexible when compared with those of sustainable groups. They transcend typical geographical boundaries, as they are bonded by the value or financial gain.

Hybrid models are a blend of sustainable and ephemeral models. Hybrid groups are those where a small central group sustains the ‘mission’ as articulated in a central idea and value set, but empowers other individuals or groups ideologically and at a distance, possibly – though not always – funding cells to achieve the collective aims. Hybrid models can be both distributed and partly geographically located, they can also be physically or virtually structured (new distributed networked) models. This is where a nexus between crime and terrorism can be found, where the use of everyday criminality comes with the intention of spreading terror.

By splitting those models into a framework of sustainable, ephemeral and hybrid ‘models’, we hope that the activity of researchers and practitioners is guided and systematized. This has been done, not only in terms of the internal and external structure of the organisations (Bourdieu’s Field and Habitus), but also taking into account the ways that they achieve their goals through exerting power in different ways.

This approach can not only help provide an understanding of when an offender’s thoughts turn into actions, because the point where the crime takes place means that prevention activity is replaced by the investigation process. But also helps to differentiate between types of actions, for example, differentiating organised crime group activities from those of terrorist networks in terms of raising funds to commit acts of terror that will shift public opinion and the political goals. In addition, it helps take into account the role of the individual and the role of the group in shaping the individual’s actions and also resolving those ones on behalf of society.

Note: This article is based on Wall, D.S. and Musotto, R. (2017) Modelling Organised Crime Groups and Terrorist Networks, D2.2 TAKEDOWN and Wall, D.S. and Musotto, R. (2018) Understanding Transnational Organised Crime Groups as Social Networks in a Changing Socio-Political and Socio-Technical Landscape, forthcoming.


Roberto Musotto and David S. Wall (University of Leeds)


[1] We identify trans-national organised crime as being those criminal groups which spread their operations and activities across jurisdictional and national borders. In this sense, terrorist networks have many similarities with transnational organised crime groups particularly where such groups need to fund their principal activities through others.