Police Commissioner Marcus Castro Nunes Maia, head of the Special Resources Office
of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police
The expression ‘asymmetric threats’ is no more than an attempt to
apply a new label to issues that can be traced back to the conflicts that have
ravaged the history of humankind. These actions use non-linear methods of
conflict, often with simple techniques, emphasizing the strategic and
psychological levels and with high ideological appeal.
A structure based on autonomous networks, clandestine activity, lack of
complexity, versatility, and the ability to adapt are inherent characteristics of
asymmetric threats. Irregular methods are factors that give small groups strategic
advantages over the world’s large military and political forces. Therefore, the
agents of these clandestine organizations look for vulnerabilities to exploit them
in order to maximize the effects of their actions and attain their objectives,
whether these are political, economic, cultural, or religious.
The modernity attributed to these new concerns, with regard to both security
and defense, is derived in large part from the effects of globalization, as a
consequence of improved communication and logistics capabilities. The spread of the
asymmetric threats’ ideas and interests were strengthened, allowing them to instill
a politics of fear, not only in the enemy strictly speaking, but also in the state
and its population, which, by a transverse route, has direct repercussions on the
strategic and operational decisions of state forces.
The same globalizing effect brings public-safety issues, more precisely those
related to local police, closer to world affairs, due to the increasingly close
links among peoples, cultures, and commerce. In the context of an extremely
connected world, we can confirm the main forms taken by asymmetric threats:
terrorism and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).
Terrorists often use TCOs to establish ways to finance their activities and
hide their financial resources and their capabilities. In addition, the use of
criminal logistics allows the versatility and surprise that terrorist actions
Consequently, the commission of common crimes – trafficking of weapons,
drugs, or people, illegal immigration, identity theft, money laundering, homicide,
etc. – is often necessary in order to achieve the group’s material and ideological
Conversely, TCOs, despite their less ideological aspect, use actions with
terrorist characteristics in order to destabilize the efforts of legal forces to
repress and prevent the crimes they commit. This is so much the case that the
expression “narcoterrorists” was coined on the basis of this idea, to exemplify this
kind of action.
In this way, we confirm a point of intersection between between terrorism and
common crime, especially that committed by TCOs. It is around this point that
public-safety and defense forces at all levels of government unite in the fight
against asymmetric threats, each acting on the basis of its own expertise and
contributing to the tasks of repression and, mainly, prevention.
In this scenario, the investigative police play a fundamental role, since
they, due to their institutional jurisdiction, act in relation to the main facets of
the logistical network: in other words, any and every means used by asymmetric
threats to achieve their goals, from raising money (trafficking of drugs and
weapons, intellectual-property crime, and money laundering) to obtaining human
resources (human trafficking and immigration) and materials (smuggling and
counterfeiting), as well as planning and, at times, the execution of those
Consequently, it is in the local police environment that the
confrontation with terrorism and TCOs must take place, without trying to evade their
institutional jurisdiction, therefore, and taking advantage of their expertise, their
preexisting information networks, and, mainly, their intelligence services.
It is important to emphasize that the failure of the preventive or
repressive mission may unleash actions or countermeasures that will make it even
more difficult to combat asymmetric threats or may even strengthen their ideas
and/or claims, by way of the war of information. For this reason, due to the
sensitivity of the objective of the action to be carried out, professional
organizations and trained personnel, firmly committed to the result, are
However, the difference nowadays is that the enemy has multiple faces and
methods (terrorism, insurgency, war of information, weapons of mass destruction,
cyberattacks, etc.) by which to reach the desired strategic goals, with less effort
and fewer resources and without the need to engage in direct armed conflict.
In order to carry out all the activities inherently related to achieving the
proposed goals, terrorist threats have flexibility and a clandestine structure of
contacts, strengthened by the effects of globalization and often with the ability to
act autonomously. Simplicity and efficiency are also characteristics derived from
flexibility, since, perhaps due to lack of resources or to the simple fact of
favoring deception, or both, they make it possible to unleash large-scale attacks
with almost imperceptible movements.
The dissemination of fear, terror, and confusion among people and
institutions, promoted by terrorism, is one way of directly and indirectly
influencing them, controlling them according to their interests. Consequently, the
media and public opinion may be swayed by violent acts, even if involuntarily,
strengthening an excessive feeling of insecurity.
Often, terrorism can also be analyzed as a form of propaganda for the
ideological foundations of a radical group, such as, for instance, the Jihad, in
which several armed groups use faith and martyrdom to justify the fight against the
so-called ‘infidels.’ This, in turn, disseminates the same fanaticism and radicalism
among other groups or simply among individuals, including in other countries with
different political and social realities from those of the original group, even
leading to the commission of extreme acts of violence against others and
Transnationality is also a point in favor of terrorist groups and detrimental
to security forces, since preparatory actions and violent acts may be initiated in
one country and their goals and effects impact others. As a result, preventive and
repressive actions are impaired by the obstacles posed by borders, sovereignty, and
Crime and TCOs
Terrorism can never be considered an isolated threat, much less be analyzed
through a purely ideological prism. Separating terrorism from common crime would be
a great mistake, since they are interconnected, even if only in the material and
logistical aspects of corruption and the acquisition of financial resources. The
scale of the activity can vary from petty crimes to more serious ones, with the
existence of a symbiosis between TCOs and terrorist groups as a result. Their
structures and operational methods are also similar; however, their ideological
aspects and motivations still differentiate the two, even as it is the case that
they can act in opportunistic or systematic partnership, in order to meet their
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for instance, maintain
close relations with international criminal organizations and terrorist groups,
profiting immensely from drug trafficking, extortion, hostage ransoms, and other
sources. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2011 World Drug Report affirms
that cocaine trafficking in Colombia alone brought in profits of approximately 496
million dollars, with a good portion of that believed to be under FARC control.
In Afghanistan, the main redoubt of the Al Qaeda organization, opium
production, according to the same report, was worth 438 million dollars in 2009 and
605 million dollars in 2011. The southern part of the country accounted for almost
all the opium production, with almost half of it concentrated in Helmand province.
As a rule, the terrorist organizations in that area contribute to the production of
drugs by providing protection, and in return, receive resources in exchange for this
We also see that transnational organizations have begun to expand their
spectrum of activity, diversifying their illicit activities, from drug trafficking
in the strict sense to the trafficking of weapons and people, smuggling, corruption,
money laundering, and cybercrime.
Lastly, the importance of a change of paradigm in the repressive/preventive
approach is confirmed, moving away from a focus on the individual/criminal/terrorist
to one on structural/organic criminal activity, since many illicit activities
nowadays are engaged in by different groups of people, and even if these individuals
are identified and neutralized, activities on the margins of society would continue.
Consequently, no matter how important an individual arrested is in the
criminal hierarchy, this person will be quickly replaced. For this reason, greater
attention and efforts directed toward impacting the structure of these
organizations, limiting the flow of cash, material, and people, are needed.
We know that organized crime has its tentacles in every country of the hemisphere, but we also have to start getting things in order starting from within, with various specialized elite units and counter-intelligence on organized crime and its ramifications, due to the nature of the subject. This is in order to achieve the goal, minimize organized crime regardless of its strength as well as have good communication throughout the entire region. As far as intelligence goes, tighten the net around organized crime.