Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

What links organised crime with the radical right?

There are serious gaps in our knowledge about how violent extremists get their hands on weapons and money

Michael Colborne
16 July 2021, 8.10am
Far right supporters commemorate the death of Benito Mussolini on 2 May 2021
Piero Cruciatti/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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In the 1970s and early 1980s, Italy was plagued by a spate of violence and deadly terrorist attacks – the so-called “Years of Lead” (anni di piombo).

While the violence came from both the radical left and radical right, neo-fascist militant groups like New Order (Ordine Nuovo), National Vanguard (Avanguardia nazionale) and the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari; NAR) made particularly brutal use of violence and terror against their enemies. Right-wing violence culminated in the 1980 Bologna massacre, a terrorist bombing by NAR members at the city’s train station that took the lives of 85 people.

Groups like NAR had help from Italy’s criminal underworld. NAR had links with the Banda della Magliana, a Rome-based criminal outfit, and the two would be involved in protection rackets, arms trafficking and murder together. In the 1970s, the ‘Ndrangheta, a huge organised crime syndicate with its roots in southern Italy, allegedly had links with both New Order and National Vanguard.

These are just a few examples of how the relationship between organised crime and the international radical right – particularly the most extreme and violent fringes of the radical right – is nothing new.

In fact, the trend continues to this day.

Earlier this year, German police arrested members of a neo-Nazi criminal network allegedly involved in money laundering as well as drugs and arms trafficking. Greece’s Golden Dawn was ruled a “criminal organisation” by a Greek court in October 2020, with its members involved in everything from money laundering to murder. In December 2020, Spanish police arrested radical right extremists allegedly involved in arms and drug smuggling, while in 2019 Italian police arrested a number of individuals who planned on forming a neo-Nazi party, including a leading ‘Ndrangheta member.

In countries with weak rule of law, the tentacles of organised crime can weave their way into the fabric of the state

Why would the radical right, particularly its most extreme elements, get involved with organised crime? There are, of course, a number of reasons, one of which involves something I’ve mentioned several times already: arms trafficking.

Market forces

Radical right extremists who want to arm themselves can’t easily do so through any legitimate means. Even in countries with lax gun laws like the US, radical right extremists generally can’t just buy up military-grade weapons and hardware without garnering unwanted attention from the authorities.

With a huge market for smuggled weapons around the world – sources for these weapons include places like the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine – and the involvement of a number of organised crime groups in this smuggling, it’s no surprise that radical right extremists would find themselves part of the game. It’s also no surprise, then, that in the wake of radical right terror attacks in recent years, authorities appear to be paying increasing attention.

Another reason for radical right involvement with organised crime is financing. How radical right groups get their money and their funding is, as has been noted by journalists covering the radical right (myself included), an issue that itself requires much more attention.

Not all radical right extremists require some significant form of financing, nefarious or otherwise; it doesn’t necessarily cost much money to write, draw and post hateful propaganda on Telegram for instance. But for radical right extremists with ambition, the costs can add up. For example, well-designed websites with professional-grade video, replete with flashy logos and almost-corporate branding, aren’t things one can buy up with a few pennies lying around.

In countries with weak rule of law, the tentacles of organised crime can weave their way into the fabric of the state. The phenomenon of state capture – a form of corruption where private actors, from politicians and businesspeople to criminals, influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage – has been documented in places like Serbia, Turkey and other countries.

When radical right extremists join the game and themselves become part of the phenomenon of state capture – something seen in Ukraine, for example, where much of the radical right is alleged to have the patronage of the country’s powerful interior ministry – they give themselves a means of being protected from prosecution, an opportunity to act with greater impunity and, above all, a pathway to increase their status and influence.

We don’t know nearly as much about the relationships between organised crime and the radical right as we should

In short: if having friends in high places can protect you and help you profit as a radical right extremist, even when those friends aren’t on the right side of the law, why wouldn’t you take advantage?

The gaps in our knowledge

We still don’t know nearly enough about the connection between organised crime and the radical right. We know reasons, actual and potential, for why this connection has existed in the past right up to the present day. We know in detail about circumstances in specific countries and contexts (for example in Greece with Golden Dawn), but we don’t know enough about how the phenomenon works across borders and different social and political contexts.

Part of this, I’d argue, is our fault as journalists, researchers and academics who study the radical right. With our respective beats too often compartmentalised and specialised, matters related to organised crime remain too much on the other side of a fence for us. As a journalist who focuses on the radical right, my colleagues who investigate organised crime do seem sometimes to be investigating another world. But that needs to change.

Despite prominent headlines, we don’t know nearly as much about the relationships between organised crime and the radical right as we should. It’s critical that academics, researchers and journalists who focus on the radical right pay much more attention to the phenomenon.

None of this means we all need to try and become instant experts on the subject – I know I’m not about to become a wizard at tracking international cash flows, for example. It does mean, however, that we need to become better at collaborating and crossing our own borders, so to speak, when it comes to better understanding the radical right.

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