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Trafficking and Terrorism: Partners in Crime
June 29, 2017

This post is part of a series called “Let’s Get Intersectional” where we highlight all the ways in which trafficking is related to other industries and areas of concern. From economic development to minority rights, mental health issues to climate change, human trafficking affects and is affected by a wide variety of concerns—and to tackle one area means to grapple with the other, and vice versa. Today’s piece is on the relationship between trafficking and international terrorism and the ways in which the two feed each other.

The trafficking of humans and terrorism seem like two different policy spheres, and often are approached and treated as such, but they are increasingly interlinked. Terrorist groups like ISIS/ISIL engage in human trafficking, and the organized crime groups that traffic humans also aid and abet terrorists. Here are just a few of the ways they feed each other:

Trafficking as a Source of Terrorists’ Funding

As Western governments have sought to combat terrorism by cutting off supplies of funding, terrorist groups like the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL and Boko Haram have had to turn to other illicit ways to fund their operations. Trafficking women and children from the villages they capture is one lucrative way they’ve been able to diversify their revenue. They sell these women and children on the open market as sex slaves or forced day laborers. It’s not just militant Islamic groups who do this. For example, a separatist group, the PKK (Kurdish Worker Party) in Turkey has been a source of trafficking and terrorism, and Marxist guerrillas in Nepal have trafficked women and children to India. Anywhere that violent conflict, corruption, and systemic exclusion of minorities exists is ripe for the exploitation of people for financial gain and violent means.

Trafficking as Recruitment

Terrorist organizations have also used human trafficking as a means of acquiring more militants. For example, Boko Haram has been using girls and Pakistani terrorists have used children who have been kidnapped as slaves in suicide bombings. Trafficked boys and young men are forced into labor as soldiers, as part of the armed struggle.

Another way this tactic might operate is when terrorist organizations recruit women from the West. The strategies they employ to recruit women from the West as soldiers might be viewed as classic entrapment and trafficking techniques.

Trafficking as Terror Tactic

Human trafficking is also a weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal. Combined with rape, the beheadings of children with axes, pillaging, and bombings, terrorists have used the kidnap and sale of women and children as a method of “demoralizing the conquered.” It decimates entire communities and reduces resistance.

Nadia Murad, a victim of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh sex trafficking and terrorism and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has said girls as young as 8 were taken as sex slaves. She herself had been gang raped in a practice called “sexual jihad.” In her words:

“It was a genocide,” she said of the campaign against Yazidis by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “They sought to force us to deny our religion, as they considered us to be nonbelievers. And they killed men and enslaved women, and abducted children in order to transform them into terrorists.”

Trafficking as the Result of Terrorism

As as been obvious with the current crisis of refugees displaced by terrorism and sectarian violence in places like Syria, when people are terrorized, they try to flee–by any means necessary. If proper government channels aren’t in place, desperate people turn to underground channels–where they are easy targets for exploitation. Their desperation makes them easy prey to traffickers who extort exorbitant costs for the promise of safe passage. But passage is not always safe and they may end up running from terrorists only to end up in the hands of traffickers who then sell them into sexual slavery or other types of forced labor.

Trafficking Networks Facilitate Terrorist Movement

As Western governments have brought down intense scrutiny on terrorist activity, terrorists have begun to turn to human smuggling networks to pursue their aims. The organized crime networks that smuggle humans (as well as drugs and weapons) have long developed the expertise and access necessary to provide concealed passage, forge documents, and move money and material across black markets. Terrorists are able to tap into these organized crime networks, and for the right fee, secure what they need to move and operate.


Beware The Assumption…

…That What Happens in One Region of the World is Unrelated to Others

“Trafficking affects virtually every country in the world. The largest numbers of victims come from Asia, with over 225,000 victims each year from Southeast Asia and over 150,000 from South Asia. The former Soviet Union is now believed to be the largest new source of trafficking for prostitution and the sex industry, with over 100,000 women and children trafficked each year from that region. An additional 75,000 or more are trafficked from Eastern Europe. Over 100,000 victims come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 50,000 are from Africa. Most of the victims are sent to Asia, the Middle East, Western Europe and North America. The U.S. Department of State has estimated that at any given time, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the trafficking pipeline, being warehoused by traffickers, waiting for new routes to open up or documents to become available — and their primary targets include the United States, the European Union, and Canada.” (Source: Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center, George Mason University)

With technological advances in an increasingly globalized world, crime and terrorist networks span the globe and can move quickly across borders. Turning a blind eye to hot spots for either terrorism or trafficking on the other side of the globe becomes less and less defensible as the results end up on our doorsteps, affecting us at home–wherever home may be. However, serious efforts to curb terrorism helps reduce trafficking and vice versa. Collaboration across governments, across law enforcement agencies, and across non state actors like NGOs, church and community centers becomes ever more indispensable.


Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She is half American, and half Thai.

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