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While transnational crime and terrorism both pose threats to the security of the homeland, there are significant differences between them as well as similarities. Explain in detail how transnational crime and terrorism are different from one another and how each poses a threat to the security of the United States. Of the two, which do you consider to be the greatest threat to the security of the U.S.? Explain, with specific examples, why you believe this to be so.

Book options:

Newson & Jarmon Chapter: 4-5

Read or view at least two (2) of the following:

Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime (.pdf file)

What Lockdown?


Why Domestic Terrorism is an Underestimated National Threat

Should the U.S. Designate Racial Violence as Terrorism?




Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Heightened Threat.pdf

Supplemental Resources: Useful Articles for Citing in This Week’s Discussion Forum

Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Law Enforcement Strategy for Homeland Security (.pdf file)

FBI – Transnational Crime


Meeting the Challenge of Transnational Crime (.pdf document)

Council on Foreign Relations – What is Terrorism?

Eight Signs of Terrorism

ODNI Counterterrorism Guide


Sifting Domestic Terorism from Violent Extremism and Hate Crime.pdf

Pathway to Violence.pdf


Significant Cases:

Human Trafficking


Major Events

Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime:
Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization
By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
This article proposes a “paradigm shift” in the means and methods of combating transnational
criminal activity. It contends that global illicit flows, engineered by organized crime on a massive
scale alongside lawful trade and travel, represent a principal challenge to public safety and civic
order. It proposes further that the Westphalian territorial state system, with its complement
of multilateral regulatory and law enforcement organizations, is not equipped to meet the
challenge effectively. The article advances a series of propositions in support of developing
a revised approach to confronting transnational criminal activity.
Suggested Citation
Bersin, Alan and Lars Karlsson. “Lines, Flows, and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised
Approach to Countering the Underworld of Globalization.” Homeland Security Affairs 15,
Article 6 (December 2019). www.hsaj.org/articles/15514
In this article, we develop a new framework for combating transnational criminal activity.
We argue that global illicit flows, perpetrated by organized crime, in the interstices of lawful
trade and travel, embody a critical and debilitating non-state security threat in today’s world, one
that the Westphalian international system of sovereign states remains ill-equipped to confront.
Accordingly, we seek to generate a wider discussion in the field regarding a revised approach to
this threat that is situated within a global framework of collaborative law enforcement which
incorporates, in appropriate fashion, certain military and counter-terrorist strategies.
The propositions we advance in support of a revised approach to countering transnational
crime and its globalized web-enabled criminals include: (a) terrorism is one species of
transnational crime; (b) the criminal justice model of arrest, prosecution, conviction and
incarceration is a partial and insufficient response to transnational crime; (c) national
security and law enforcement functions should be viewed analytically as a “public security”
continuum rather than disciplines separated by bright lines; (d) countering transnational
criminal organizations effectively may require development of a hybrid law enforcement/
military capacity and new strategic and tactical doctrines, including safeguards against abuse,
to govern its deployment; (e) joint border management within nations and between them,
coordinated with the private sector, is required and inter-agency cooperation and multilateral
institutions must be strengthened in accordance with new international norms and (f) North
America, a region construed as extending from Colombia to the Arctic and from Bermuda to
Hawaii, could develop in the future, together with the European Union, as an initial site for a
model pilot of the new approach.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
A New Border Paradigm:
Westphalian Lines and Global Flows
Borders traditionally have been viewed as lines in the sand (and on a map) demarcating the edges of
sovereign states (or empires) according to the Westphalian system dating from the 17th century. The
Peace of Westphalia in 1648 generally is considered as the start of the modern territorial state system.
The Westphalia treaties concluded the Thirty Years War in Europe and set in motion a system
whereby sovereign states began to co-exist alongside longstanding imperial regimes. This new
system established principles such as mutual respect for national border boundaries and the
territorial integrity of states, acknowledgment of the plenary authority exercised by a sovereign
within its jurisdiction, covenants not to interfere in other states’ internal affairs, and the legal
equality of states within the international system. As European influence spread globally, so too
did this territorial and horizontal concept of sovereignty and the prerogatives which attach to it.
Today, sovereignty asserts itself aggressively at states’ borderline boundaries by determining
who and what may enter or exit the geographic space and when, and the conditions under
which, they may do so.1 This exercise of sovereignty at national borders has long been a means
for governments to assert and maintain internal political control. At the same time to generate
revenue, states levy customs and travel fees on the cross-border movement of people and
goods. Borders today therefore should be conceived of both as lines marking sovereignty and
as entry/exit points of flow.2 This new understanding of borders as lines and flows challenges
the Westphalian conception of borders as “hard” boundaries around the territories of sovereign
states. In other words, borders must be managed as flows and interdependent networks rather
than solely as jurisdictional lines to be endlessly fortified.
To be clear, we are not suggesting that sovereign borders have become irrelevant or unimportant.
But because of accelerating technological innovation, time and space have been dramatically
compressed such that global flows today are non-stop, and in many cases, instantaneous.
Globalization is the cumulative effect of these trends: a 24/7/365 movement of capital, labor,
cargo, people, goods, services, ideas, images, data, and electrons continuously around the world.
These flows today are directed by actors independent of states. Often, they are the decisions
of multinational corporations, transnational criminal organizations, and other non-state actors.
For this reason, they sometimes are referred to as “borderless” or “stateless”.3 Nonetheless, they
continue to flow toward and over Westphalian border lines, have their principal effects within states,
and are regulated by the governments operating there. This presents us with a palpable collision
of two historic trends: the sovereign power to regulate cross-border flows remains exclusively
national, while the flows themselves—lawful and illicit alike—increasingly are transnational. Both
trends accelerated mightily after World War II with the post-colonial rush to nationhood that has
created 193 sets of separate sovereign borders and the technological innovation that has multiplied
exponentially the volume and speed of movement that makes for the so-called borderless world.
The under-development of effective international cyber governance has made the collision between
Westphalian border lines and global flows inevitable and has exacerbated its impact.4
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
As the process of globalization expands, the concept of “borderless” is enlarged to encompass
the unprecedented flows of all kinds that cross national border lines continuously, often
instantaneously. These include the multiple categories of virtual flows across cyberspace.
Borders in a globalized and digital world, then, are most usefully conceived as incorporating
flows toward and across lines marking national sovereignty. This new border paradigm, linking
jurisdictional lines to global flows, includes the unlawful flows that trade on the dark web and
comprise the underworld of globalization.5
The Underworld of Globalization:
Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs)
Globalization includes illicit flows on a massive scale. The TCOs generating the bulk of
them comprise gigantic business conglomerates that are shadow reflections of multilateral
corporations like Shell, Huawei, Gazprom, Samsung, and Google. These illicit enterprises
use modern institutions and means, including cyber space and cryptocurrencies,6 along
with the contemporary international banking system. But they often capitalize as well on
ancient smuggling routes like The Silk Road. The United States National Security Council
(roughly) estimates $1.3 Trillion to $3.3 Trillion is involved in money laundering perpetrated
by transnational criminal enterprises; $750 Billion to $1 Trillion in narcotics trafficking; $170
Billion to $320 Billion in illicit firearms trafficking; $21 Billion in human trafficking; $500 Billion
in counterfeit and pirated goods; $20 to $40 Billion in environmental crimes including illegal
wildlife trade; and $10 to $12 Billion in fraudulent credit card transactions. The total proceeds
of transnational organized crime are estimated at $6.2 Trillion or about 10 percent of the Gross
Global Product. This amount approaches the total 2017 Gross Domestic Product of all the
countries in Africa ($2.9 Trillion) and South America ($3.99 Trillion) combined. Bribery of corrupt
officials is estimated to involve up to $1 Trillion.7
These illicit economies exercise enormous concentrated power. In the period since the end
of the Cold War – one of transition to a new series of geopolitical rivalries and relationships
– transnational criminal activity has increased significantly and the non-state organizations
involved have grown correspondingly in power and influence. At the same time, as observers
have noted, by dispersing power and capacity so broadly, globalization will continue to weaken
the state, relatively speaking, and the monopoly of violence and legitimacy on which sovereign
control has been premised for centuries.8 The unlawful economies of TCOs and the criminal
activities that sustain them remain, we submit, in the circumstances of this vacuum, a grave
contemporary challenge to public security and civic order.
TCOs function in the seams between the boundaries of states. In the context of globalization,
they operate successfully, and largely with impunity, within these gaps between national
law enforcement jurisdictions.9 These are the dark places where organized crime thrives.
The growing proliferation of the internet of money10–through blockchain and other digital
technologies—and the encryption of communication devices further shroud criminal
transactions and the individuals and organizations which engage in them.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
The global Westphalian framework of national sovereignty established in the 17th century
is less and less suited to deal with the magnitude and methods of transnational crime
operating today. The international community is unable to manage and regulate the massive
contemporary volume of unlawful flows in accordance with the traditional lines of national
borders and the sovereign power of states exercised independently. Non-state actors—including
both multinational corporations and transnational criminal organizations—often operate
entirely beyond the reach of government.11 The TCOs, functioning in the shadowy netherworld
of globalization, in short, outstrip the capacity of both national and international law
enforcement agencies and organizations to control that dangerous space. Governments cannot
successfully fight cross-border crime from behind national borders which transnational criminals
do not recognize or often ever physically cross.12 Ports of entry into countries managed by
individual states are the last line of defense against dangerous people and dangerous things; not
the first line they traditionally have been considered. There is a demonstrable need to develop a
revised approach that addresses the resulting vulnerabilities in the contemporary international
system of law enforcement.
The Contours of a New Counter-Network Approach:
Terrorism Is One Species of Transnational Crime
The principal motivation for conducting terrorist activity is to create political change while
organized crime is pursued primarily for illicit economic gain. For analytic purposes in the context
of border management and security, however, their similarities transcend their differences and
suggest they be viewed as distinctive types of illicit transnational criminal activities. Terrorism
from this perspective constitutes one species of transnational crime along with human trafficking
and migrant smuggling, narcotics production and distribution, firearms trafficking, and the piracy
of intellectual property, among many other staples of illicit market activity.
Crime and terror groups employ similar means and methods albeit for their different purposes.
Criminal organizations use narco-terror tactics of violence to intimidate local populations
and government officials. Similarly, jihadist terrorists engage in criminal activities designed
to generate revenue as Hezbollah has done with money laundering in the tri-border zone of
Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil and elsewhere, as al-Qaeda did in mediating the blood diamond
trade in Charles Taylor’s Liberia, and as D’aesh more recently has done with the theft of oil in
Iraq. Occasionally the nexus has been even closer where groups, seeking to replace existing
state authority, at the same time are engaging routinely in organized criminal activity. The FARC
in Colombia and the Sendero Luminoso in Peru are prime illustrations of this phenomenon as
was the maritime piracy of the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia.
To characterize terrorism as a sub-species of transnational crime is not to minimize the
problem but rather to place it in context and into perspective. There are several reasons
to reconceptualize terrorism in this way. First, the harm done by terrorism is random and
terrifying to be sure but results in far fewer fatalities and concrete loss than numerous other
threats and factors of risk. Second, the terror threat continues to evolve but the sources of
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
jihad generating it – whether al-Qaeda or D’aesh – have been substantially weakened by the
national military and intelligence campaigns waged against them. A third compelling reason to
treat terrorism as a sub-species of transnational criminal activity is that such characterization
would facilitate incorporating the military and intelligence community’s approach to countering
terrorism into policing/investigative strategy aimed at combating transnational crime. Certain
of these tools, techniques, means, and methods, are relevant to the broader TCO challenge and
have proven reasonably effective in the counter-terror context. 13
The Blurred Boundaries of Public Security:
Internal Security and National Defense,
International Affairs and Domestic Affairs,
and National Security, Border Security
and Law Enforcement
States remain the building blocks of geopolitical calculation and activity in the contemporary
world. However, transnational factors increasingly dominate what matters in the internal
as well as external security theatre. Homeland or Internal Security has become inherently
transnational. There is hardly anything – human-made or natural14 – that adversely affects the
homeland of states today which does not now have a cause or effect that is generated abroad
from outside their border lines. This has led to the so-called “pushing out” of borders. The
U.S. government and other governments regularly place civilian law enforcement officers and
military personnel abroad to protect the homeland against threats of terrorism, pandemic
disease and cyberspace intrusion.15 The central mission of police attachés from the Departments
of Justice and Homeland Security stationed abroad, for example, is to prevent the import of
crime and to intercept security threats at their point of foreign origin before they cross into
the United States and become a domestic threat. This is accomplished by the attaché network
through capacity building, information sharing, and occasionally, operational coordination with
host country partners.16 This “externalization of borders”17 is breaking down old dichotomies
and definitions by which policymakers and analysts in the past drew distinctions with a
difference. A complete distinction between “national security” and “homeland security”
for example, increasingly is questioned and the same appears to be true regarding “foreign
affairs”18 and “domestic affairs.” Homeland Security-centric activities abroad similarly blur
traditional bright line boundaries between “national security” and “law enforcement” on the
one hand and “law enforcement” and “border security” on the other.19 The subject matter and
objectives of these missions more frequently overlap and may more usefully be considered
going forward as falling within the broader rubric of Public Security. This type of adjustment
in nomenclature is a leading indicator of a “paradigm shift”20 or dramatic transformation in
existing conventional wisdom.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
Integrated Counter-Transnational Crime
Fighting is Required
Divided and fragmented management of borders is an anachronistic artifact of the Westphalian
System. What is required, internally, is a whole of government strategy that utilizes and applies
five dimensions of official power: intelligence collection and analysis; military capacity; law
enforcement response; financial sanction; and diplomatic partnership with foreign government
authorities.21 The military approach to identifying and defeating networks through counternetworks may have much to commend itself to law enforcement.22 The separation between
military and domestic law enforcement exists because there are dramatic philosophical and
cultural differences between these institutions in both the conception and execution of
their core missions. The police officer acts to maintain law and order through the arrest of
offenders as required while the soldier defends the nation, when necessary, through the killing
of enemies. Accordingly, policy makers should not underestimate the legal, policy, and moral
challenges to accomplishing the necessary, reasoned reconciliation of these differences.
In order to accomplish a synthesis between law-enforcement capacity and certain aspects of
a military/intelligence community approach, policy-makers must understand and accept the
proposition that terrorism is one variant of transnational crime.23 This activity, whether for
terrorist or mercenary aims and objectives or both, is conducted by non-state actors which
operate in the spaces, not only between states, but also in the seams between their domestic
national security and defense, and law enforcement establishments, and their respective “stovepiped” authorities and operations. The growing ties between various terrorist organizations
and TCOs highlight the substantial threat embodied in the crime/terror nexus. The logic of their
growing affiliation, based on revenue generation, appears self-evident.24 Moreover, we also see
an increasing identity of interest between certain state actors in the intelligence realm, seeking
to exploit the accessibility and relative anonymity of TCOs, including terrorist organizations,
to achieve their geopolitical aims.25 This growing adverse hybrid and asymmetric threat
appears to require that a similar hybrid counter-mission be developed between and among
law enforcement, intelligence and military communities. This effort, in turn, would require the
elaboration of strategic doctrine and the creation of a blended public- security force that can
deliver law enforcement approaches tailored to counter-TCO operations. This mixed force of
warrior/lawmen and women would resemble Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S) led
by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), but with considerably amplified and appropriately
constrained authorities, mission space, training and resources.26 Like the Coast Guard and
JIATF-S, in their current counter-narcotics mission, this force would operate exclusively abroad
in the kinetic enforcement dimension of its hybrid function; it would respect the requirements
of posse comitatus which limits authorized use of the military in domestic affairs to extreme
emergency circumstances.
We must, in short, reconcile the legal, methodological, operational and cultural approaches of
police officers, security agents and soldiers and do so within the parameters of an accountable
and satisfactory rule of law.27 The political and legal conundrums that have accompanied the
United States incarceration of prisoners of war at Guantanamo, and the efforts to try some
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
of them in federal criminal court, demonstrate the degree of difficulty to be encountered as
we attempt to place round new policy pegs into square old holes and vice-versa in order to
supplement an outdated Westphalian regulatory and enforcement system.
Beyond the Criminal Justice Model:
Disruption, Prevention and Protection
The law enforcement paradigm – the criminal justice model – has sought to adapt proactively
to the phenomenon of TCOs through the utilization of conspiracy doctrines and racketeering
statutes such as RICO in the United States—and in Europe. However, these tools by themselves
can be unwieldy and are geared principally to imprison the individuals who operate and run
organized criminal organizations. The criminal justice model is focused on proving past conduct
in a court of law through the rules of evidence. Developing a case (usually over several years)
presumes, in fact depends upon, the continuation of criminal activity so that enough evidence
can be amassed and presented to a jury at trial. This is antithetical to a Disruption Model,
whose objective, systematically and continuously, is to degrade and dismantle TCO operations.28
The strategy must employ but acknowledge forthrightly the limitations of the decapitation
strategy.29 A decapitation approach which seeks to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate the heads
of organized crime can only succeed as part of a larger, more comprehensive approach that
involves attacking all vulnerabilities of the transnational criminal organization. As a single tool,
decapitation is destined to fail. When a mob boss is taken down, he inevitably is a sorry sight,
deflated in dejection because as Sebastian Rotella pointed out (fictionally) in Triple Crossing,30
the power has already passed out of the former chieftain to those who succeed him. Because
the revenue stream remains intact, the criminal incentive to sustain operations and maintain
continuity is pronounced. To defeat a TCO, its business model must be compromised and then
broken through disruption and dismantlement. This effort must encompass both the production
and distribution of TCO products as well as interdiction and seizure of their personnel and
monetary proceeds and systematic disruption of their communication networks. Nothing short
of a unified strategy of persistent erosion against the TCO business core will suffice. This rarely
occurs currently.
We urge, therefore, an organized and focused discussion, among governmental authorities,
scholars, and practitioners, to reconceptualize the law enforcement/homeland security
mission to combat transnational organized criminal activity. The law enforcement and
national security activities of homeland security should be reframed in terms of protecting
public and citizen security through safeguarding global supply chains and international travel
zones. The reformulated model would set forth an internal security agency’s enforcement
method which eschews exclusive reliance on the traditional criminal justice system for arrest,
prosecution, conviction and incarceration. Instead it would seek to counter the underworld
of globalization by focusing on the disruption and degrading of criminal operations and
the dismantling of TCOs. The “disruptive” approach combines the analysis and exploitation
of data geared to suspicious activities of TCO networks with interference, interdiction and
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
investigation. Its goal is to identify the “pressure points” in a targeted criminal ecosystem and
then design and execute on the best law enforcement and crimefighting counter-measures.
The new approach would rely on a variety of tools and sanctions in addition to traditional
criminal justice system techniques and penalties.
Multilateral Organizations – Public and Private
— Must Be Strengthened for Purposes Both of
Enhanced Data Sharing and Coordinated Operations
Our approach to protecting globalization31 – with its extensive global supply chains and burgeoning
international travel zones — requires significantly enhanced collaboration among public safety,
state security, and police agencies at the international as well as national levels and between the
private and public sectors. The operational weakness of multilateral organizations – from the
United Nations to Interpol and the WCO, IMO and ICAO32 – in the face of transnational threats is
palpable. The current situation reflects the stubborn resistance of Westphalian national politics to
change and the inability of states to relinquish voluntarily even a small portion of their sovereign
power. Only Europol, in the context of the European Union (EU) and the “shared sovereignty”
its member states have implemented partially, has taken significant steps in the direction we
advocate here. Europol genuinely facilitates cooperation and coordination among police and
border management agencies within the EU. Nonetheless, even here, there are substantial
limitations in terms both of geographic reach and investigative focus.
As a consequence, information and intelligence sharing and operational coordination between
national authorities and transnational law enforcement agencies, and with the private sector,
remains woefully deficient. The result is that the global criminality of TCOs, unlike that of
terrorist organizations, remains barely challenged today by the international community.
This dire diagnosis requires a radical prescription. The post-World War II approach to tailoring
multilateral action in (virtually complete) deference to national sovereignty has run its course.33
We need bold new thinking and the enunciation of transnational principles to govern a precise
reengineering of strategy and doctrine. These in turn could lead to new theories of action that
can elaborate revised tactics and strategies, devise strong modern mechanisms of collaboration,
and develop a politically viable way forward. In sum, we need to create a global counter-TCO
network that connects, in much more seamless fashion, national systems to multinational
organizations. The resulting network must address existing gaps in intelligence collection,
analysis, and dissemination; operational coordination; regulation of both financial and cargo
flows; and cross-border movements of people, both regular and irregular. Over time it must
devise a satisfactory approach to the current anarchy in cyber space alluded to previously.
It is expected that in the interim, individual states will exercise sovereign power to protect their
territorial integrity and security and the safety of their citizens. We explicitly acknowledge their
right to do so. However, at the same time, we assert our view that no single government will
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
ever fight effectively against transnational organized crime or transnational criminal activity on
its own without the assistance of a multilateral counter-network, including a workable alliance
with the private sector. To build and oversee this network and improve upon the positive
development exemplified (albeit imperfectly) by Europol, will require: (a) new international
standards to govern the intelligence exchange, data sharing and operational coordination
required to implement substantially enhanced national and international collaboration; (b) a
new international body (perhaps a renovated Interpol) authorized and equipped to coordinate
actionable responses for existing institutions that cannot perform them at a sufficient level
of effectiveness; (c) global data bases composing an international “data mart” regarding the
movement of both people and goods to provide a new world-wide intelligence network that
could both light up the dark web and expedite the flow of lawful trade and travel34; and (d) the
design and development of new transnational protocols (e.g. a Global Authorized Economic
Operator (AEO) 2.0 Framework for Public Private Partnership) that articulate specific obligations
of private and public sector participants in explicit new partnership accords.
North America: Creating a
Model of The Revised Approach
The approach proposed here to understand borders and the transnational essence of
contemporary homeland security and law enforcement in a global and digital age has special
implications for Mexico and Canada and the North American continent that they share with
the United States. Geographic proximity through the sharing of land borders—1900 miles
with Mexico and 5400 with Canada—results in a unique relationship of these countries to the
defense of the U.S. homeland. Following wars fought in the nineteenth century by the United
States with each of its neighbors, North America has been blessed with the longest demilitarized
borders in the world. These facts have created a special relationship between the United States
and its neighbors Canada and Mexico that is neither international in a traditional sense nor
domestic in light of the separate sovereignties involved35; instead, in a phrase coined by Bayless
Manning in the 1970’s, the relationship is more fittingly characterized as “intermestic.”36
For this reason, in the U.S. context, the Department of Homeland Security will continue to play
a crucial role in policy formulation and operational coordination with national security and
law enforcement authorities in both Canada and Mexico (and increasingly in Central America
and the Caribbean). The growth in shared production platforms operating across common
borders and increasingly shared critical infrastructure will further highlight this role. Flows
north and south in the region are in the process of becoming functionally more relevant than
the border boundary lines running east and west between them. The likelihood over time is
that continental “perimeter security” eventually, as in the European Union, will overshadow
internal cross-border concerns. First, cyber-security regimes to ward off borderless cyber
intrusions will require this adjustment just as the polar threat from Soviet ICBMs in the 1950s
necessitated the formation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).37
Second, the imperative for perimeter protection will become more pronounced as the economic
competitiveness of North America becomes more critical to U.S. prosperity.38
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
The region comprises a half billion people, economies that together generate almost 30 percent
of global goods and services, and shared production with robust trade flows of more than 1.3
trillion dollars annually. The “homeland security enterprise” will have much to do with the
management of this promising future and could produce a model for expediting secure global
flows of lawful trade and travel while at the same time countering transnational organized crime
much more effectively.
Technology and globalization have brought the world to a turning point. The inadequacies of
Westphalian governance and the limitations of conventional wisdom and traditional process
have become painfully evident in the increasing inability of governments satisfactorily to control
transnational criminal activity. The advent and rapid expansion of web-enabled criminality has
highlighted this global vulnerability. Westphalian governance increasingly is outdated because
cyberspace and its savvy, networked criminals and TCOs supersede or ignore physical border
lines and boundaries altogether.
We have proposed in this article, therefore, a broad-based international effort to develop
a revised approach to counter the underworld of globalization. We do not purport to have
solved the problem but rather have sought to identify it and spur a reconsideration of the
status quo that is long overdue. Initial international consultations to this end, starting with the
observations and propositions we advance here, could usefully begin within and between the
European Union and the North American Region led by the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
It is an era of dramatic transition and a time for innovative reinvention. As the English historian,
A.J.P. Taylor reminded us, history can be brutally unkind when a turning point is reached and the
world does not turn.39
About the Authors
Alan Bersin served as Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and as Assistant Secretary of
International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer at the United States Department of Homeland Security. He is a
Senior Advisor at the global law firm of Covington & Burling; an Inaugural Senior Fellow in the Homeland Security
Project at the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government; a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson
Center for International Scholars in Washington D.C.; and the Inaugural North America Fellow at the Canada
Institute and the Mexico Institute (Wilson Center). He may be reached at alanbersin@msn.com.
Lars Karlsson is President of KGH Border Services providing consulting services to governments world-wide. He has
served as the Director for Capacity Building at the World Customs Organization and as Director General of Swedish
Customs. He was the architect of the world’s first Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) program and has served as
a Senior Advisor to the EU and the UK on Brexit. He may be reached at lars.karlsson@kghcustoms.com.
This Article was first presented and discussed in different form as a White Paper
during the second International Summit on Borders on June 19-20, 2018.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
1 A
lan Bersin, “Lines and Flows: The Beginning and End of Borders,” Originally presented at the Ira M Belfer Lecture,
Brooklyn Law School, 6 October 2011; published in Brooklyn Journal of International Law 2012, vol. 37, no. 2,
May, 389-406; republished in World Customs Journal, March 2012, Vol. 6, No. 1.
2 T his section of the article is drawn from: Austen D. Givens, Nathan E. Busch, and Alan D. Bersin, “Going Global:
The International Dimensions of U.S. Homeland Security Policy,” Journal of Strategic Security 11, no. 3 (2018): 1-34.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.5038/1944-0472.11.3.1689 Available at: https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/jss/vol11/iss3/2.
3 Ibid.
4 Fred Kaplan, Dark Territory, The Secret History of Cyber War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).
5 L ouise Shelley, Dark Commerce: How A New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future,
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
6 K
ieran Corcoran, “Law Enforcement Has a Massive Problem with These 3 Cryptocurrencies,”
Business Insider Singapore, February 27, 2018.
7 U
.S. National Security Council, “Transnational Organized Crime (TOC), (2011). Transnational criminal activities remain so
opaque and non-transparent that estimates of their proceeds remain no more than educated guesses subject to wide
disparity. In contrast to the U.S. National Security Council, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates TCO
proceeds far less at $870 billion, or 1.5 percent of the Gross Global Product. See the United Nations, United Nations Office
on Drugs and Crime, “Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized
Crimes: Research Report,” Vienna, October 2011, (www.unodc.org/documents/data_and_analysis/studies/illicit_financial_
8 Brent Scowcroft, “Globalization Erodes [the] Power of Individual Countries,” National Press Club (2011).
9 U
nited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “The Globalization of Crime, A Transnational Organized Crime Threat
Assessment,” UNOC – books.google.com (2010); Louise I. Shelley, “Transnational Organized Crime: An Imminent Threat to
the Nation-State?” Journal of International Affairs 48, No. 2 (Winter 1995).
10 A
ndreas M. Antonopoulos, The Internet of Money, Merkle Bloom, LLC (2016).
11 L egal non-state actors span multiple sovereignties acknowledging, if not quite accepting, the authority of each
government they touch. Terror and crime syndicates, on the other hand, reject all jurisdiction and engage national
governments only to penetrate and corrupt them or to replace them.
12 U
.S. National Security Council, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime (2011) obama.whitehouse.archives.gov ;
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “International Cooperation to Combat Organized Crime,”
UNODC (2019), unodc.org.
13 T he dramatically enhanced post 9/11 information sharing between the FBI and CIA in the United States and the post
Charlie Hebdo exchange of watchlists between European and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are cases in
point. The relative success achieved in shutting down terrorist financial networks offers a further striking illustration.
14 E ven domestic radicalization itself appears to constitute only a partial exception. National Institute of Justice, “Domestic
Radicalization Research Yields Possible Keys to Identifying Extremists on the Path to Terrorism,” June 26, 2018, NIJ.gov.
This includes homegrown violent extremism. The manifesto of the alleged gunman in the August 2019 mass shooting in El
Paso, Texas drew inspiration from the attacks the previous March on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Weyli Cai
and Simone Landon, “Attacks by White Extremists Are Growing. So Are Their Connections,” New York Times, April 3, 2019;
see also Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Katie Benner, “Minutes Before El Paso Killing, Hate-Filled Manifesto
Appears Online,” New York Times, August 4, 2019.
15 R
on Nixon, “Homeland Security Goes Abroad. Not Everyone is Grateful,” New York Times, December 26, 2017;
See also DOD Helps Fight Ebola in Liberia and West Africa,” Defense.gov Special Report (2014).
16 Ibid.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
17 D
avid Danelo, “For Protection or Profit? Free Trade, Human Smuggling and International Border Management,” The Global
Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, March 2018, 12-13, http://globalinitiative.net/wp.
18 Philip Zelekow, The Transformation of National Security,” The National Interest (2003).
19 P
eter Andreas, “Redrawing the Line: Borders and Security in the Twenty-First Century,” International Security 28, No. 2
(Fall 2003).
20 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (2nd ed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962),10-13.
21 U.S. National Security Council, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, (2011), obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
22 Stanley McChrystal, “It Takes a Network: The New Front Line of Modern Warfare,” Foreign Policy (2011).
23 S ome observers are wary of blurring the line between international terrorism, as a form of asymmetrical warfare by nonstate actors, on the one hand, and a TCO engaged in cross-border criminal activity on the other, for fear that sovereignty
concerns could lessen, not increase nation-state cooperation; others contend that mixing national security and law
enforcement tools would confuse existing channels of operation and threaten traditional civil liberties. While each of
these points of view is not unreasonable, both of them, we believe, have been overtaken by contemporary events and
24 Y uri Fedotov (Director General/Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), Remarks at the Open
Debate of the UN Security Council on the Linkages between International Terrorism and Organized Crime, New York
(July 9, 2019), unodc.org.
25 A
separate but related threat arises when transnational criminals are also government officials, usually in weak or failed
states (e.g. Manuel Noriega in Panama during the 1980’s).
26 J oint Inter-Agency Task Force–South (JIATF-S) led by the USCG offers a partial illustration, as stated in the text, of what
might be extended internationally to accomplish this aim. See J.M. McLay, “Joint Interagency Task Forces; the Right Model
to Combat Transnational Organized Crime?” Naval War College (U. S.), Joint Military Operations Department, May 18, 2015,
Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC): https://www.dtic.mil/UTIC/; see also Peter J. Hatch, “Maritime Governance
as an Instrument of National Security: A New Perspective for DHS and the U.S. Coast Guard,” American Foreign Policy
Interests 35 (2013): 82-92.
27 A
lthough this synthesis of effort almost never occurs, it is eminently feasible. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of
New York Preet Bharara observed on the successful capture and prosecution of Abdul Kadir Warsawme, a go-between
operative for Al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab: “[H]is lengthy interrogation for intelligence purposes, followed by his thorough
questioning by law enforcement agents was an intelligence watershed…a seamless orchestration by our military
intelligence, and law enforcement agencies that significantly furthered our ability to find, fight and apprehend those
who wish to do us harm.” See Rabusa Angel et al. , Counternetwork: Countering the Expansion of Transnational Criminal
Networks, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017).
28 A
lan Bersin and Chappell Lawson, “Homeland Security and Transnational Crime,” Beyond 9/11: Homeland Security for the
21st Century, MIT Press (Publication forthcoming).
29 D
ecapitation strategy is sometimes confused with the Kingpin Strategy. See Robert Bonner, The New Cocaine Cowboys,
Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010 at p. 43; see also Robert Bonner, “The Kingpin Strategy, Why it Worked and Why it is Still
Relevant,” 5-16, https://deamuseum.org/lecture-series/kingpin-strategy-did-it-work-and-is-it-still-relevant/.
30 S ebastian Rotella, “ Triple Crossing: A Novel,” New York, Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Co, 2011).
31 S ee, e.g., Michael Pezzullo, “Sovereignty in an Age of Global Interdependency: The Role of Borders,” Australian Strategic
Policy Institute, December 2014.
32 W
orld Customs Organization; International Maritime Organization; and International Civil Aviation Organization.
33 R
ana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation State,” The Guardian, 5 April 2018,
34 T his would suggest abandonment of traditional separate national customs and immigration declarations and their
replacement with transparent information about all flows verified (eventually) through block chain protocols and data
cloud solutions.
Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
Lines, Flows and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering
the Underworld of Globalization | By Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson
35 T his is to be contrasted with the alternative mode of “shared sovereignty” that drives (and now complicates)
the “Schengen” and “EuroZone” models employed in the European Union.
36 B
ayless Manning, “The Congress, The Executive and Intermestic Affairs: Three Proposals,” Foreign Affairs 55, (1977):
37 R
andall DeGering, “What is NORAD’s Role in Military Cyber Attack Warning?,” Homeland Security Affairs, 12, Essay 5
(May 2016); https://www.hsaj.org/articles/10648.
38 A
dam Tooze, “Is This the End of the American Century?” London Review of Books 41 (2019) :3-7 ,https://www.lrb.co.uk/
39 A
.J.P. Taylor, The Course of German History, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1945).
Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Homeland Security Affairs is an academic journal available
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widest possible dissemination of knowledge, copies of this journal and the articles contained
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the copyright holder. The copyright of all articles published in Homeland Security Affairs rests
with the author(s) of the article. Homeland Security Affairs is the online journal of the Naval
Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS).
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Homeland Security Affairs
| Volume 15 – Article 6 (December 2019) | WWW.HSAJ.ORG
H O M E L A N D S E C U R I T Y P R OJ E C T | M A R C H 2 0 2 1
Disrupting Transnational
Criminal Activity
A Law Enforcement Strategy for Homeland Security
Alan Bersin and Chappell Lawson
Executive Summary
Transnational criminal activity, organized or not, presents a substantial internal security threat to
the United States as it does to other nation-states across the world. Combating it remains a critical
mission in the homeland security enterprise. Federal efforts across that enterprise, however, remain scattered and largely ineffectual, and many types of transnational crime are resistant to the
law enforcement tactics used domestically.
This paper proposes that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) take the lead in supplementing the traditional “criminal justice” approach to countering transnational crime with
strategies that aim to disrupt it and insulate Americans from its harmful effects. We contend the
“Disruption Model” outlined here,* if broadly implemented, could significantly complement the current conventional approach, and produce materially improved results in managing the challenges of
transnational crime and protecting the homeland from its ravages.
The ideas in this policy brief are developed in greater detail in Alan Bersin and Chappell Lawson, “Homeland Security and
Transnational Crime,” in Chappell Lawson, Alan Bersin and Juliette Kayyem, eds., Beyond 9/11: Homeland Security for the
Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
Transnational Crime and the Underworld of Globalization. Unlawful flows on a massive
scale, engineered by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), generate enormous revenues
that support and perpetuate a vast and growing infrastructure of “dark commerce” that has developed in parallel with the process of globalization. This has resulted in a global netherworld of borderless criminality that increasingly is digitally facilitated.1
The U.S. National Security Council estimates $1.3 trillion to $3.3 trillion is involved in money
laundering perpetrated by transnational criminal enterprises; $750 billion to $1 trillion in narcotics
trafficking; $170 billion to $320 billion in illicit firearms trafficking; $21 billion in human trafficking;
$500 billion in counterfeit and pirated goods; $20 to $40 billion in environmental crimes including
illegal wildlife trade; and $10 to $12 billion in fraudulent credit card transactions. The total proceeds of transnational organized crime are estimated at $6.2 trillion or about 10 percent of gross
global product. This amount approaches the total 2017 gross domestic product of all the countries
in Africa ($2.9 trillion) and South America ($3.99 trillion) combined. Bribery of corrupt officials
internationally is estimated to amount to $1 trillion annually.2
TCOs and their illicit economies thrive in the spaces between nation states and the interstices of
lawful trade and travel. They exploit the inability of any one nation state acting on its own to control
their far-flung operations. The reticence of nation states to provide adequate authority and resources to multilateral law enforcement organizations, such as INTERPOL, limits as well any reasonably
satisfactory collective containment of transnational crime globally. TCOs’ use of modern means
and methods—including cyberspace, cryptocurrencies, and encrypted communications—further
conceals and protects syndicate activities and operatives.3
The gaps in global governance to counter transnational criminal activity are paralleled by deficits
within the domestic regulatory and law enforcement regime in the United States. Non-state actors
operate not only in the spaces between nations but also in the seams between their domestic national security and defense and law enforcement establishments, and their respective “stove-piped”
authorities and operations. This incapacity at national and international levels alike to control
TCOs gives rise to the proposal advanced here on a revised approach to more effectively managing
transnational crime and containing its consequences to the homeland.4
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
The U.S. Framework Countering TCOs and Transnational Crime. Federal efforts geared to
combating transnational crime remain divided among various agencies in three different Cabinetlevel departments, specifically:
the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA (Department of Justice (DOJ))
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI (DOJ)
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF (DOJ)
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE/
Customs and Border Protection, or CBP (DHS)
the Secret Service, or USSS (DHS)
the U.S. Coast Guard, or USCG (DHS)
the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN (Department of Treasury)
Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigative Division, or IRS-CID (Department of
As their names imply, these agencies each have their own specific focus; for instance, the DEA’s investigative efforts concentrate on crimes related to narcotics. However, there often is overlap in the
types of cases these agencies can pursue. ICE theoretically can investigate, for example, any case
with a “border nexus,” including within its jurisdiction a wide range of criminality from drugs and
human trafficking to child pornography and stolen antiquities. Concerns that other investigations
will interfere inadvertently with a criminal, counterintelligence, or counterterrorism case being
developed against a set of perpetrators ordinarily limits routine information-sharing among these
Post-9/11 reforms that fundamentally altered the government’s approach to terrorist networks—
and dramatically enhanced information sharing, for example, between the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) and the FBI on terrorism—had virtually no effect on federal operations against purely
criminal activities. This latter enforcement arena remains wedded to the generation of “cases”
centered on extended investigations, prosecutorial charging discretion, and the presentation of
evidence at trial. Agencies, accordingly, endeavor to stay out of each other’s lanes and, only occasionally, operate cooperatively on a single investigation through a “coalition of the willing” centered
in a task force.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
U.S. agencies engaged in countering transnational crime follow one of two strategies and, usually,
some combination of the two: (a) utilizing the traditional criminal justice model which relies on the
conventional “investigate-indict-arrest-prosecute-punish” approach and/or (b) interdicting contraband on identified smuggling routes for purposes of seizure or further use as “controlled deliveries” within a larger investigation. These approaches are designed for take-downs against hierarchically structured groups (transnational organized crime). The second approach, in particular, aims
at smuggling operations and preventing the cross-border entry of contraband, principally narcotics,
into the country. These standard operating procedures rarely reflect broad strategic planning or
deep operational coordination across agencies.
Such approaches are ineffective, for the most part, against most transnational crime, for one or
more of several reasons:
1. Extraterritoriality: Those who orchestrate criminal activities frequently reside in safe
harbors outside the United States where extradition is not available. This challenge is particularly evident in the rapid expansion of web-enabled criminality. Cyberspace permits
networked malefactors both to ignore national boundaries in the plying of their criminal
craft and to avoid crossing physical borders where their apprehension is possible. As a result,
domestic law enforcement operations increasingly have limited impact on the cost/benefit
calculus conducted by criminal elements abroad. The remote prospect for arrest and punishment—“cuffing the criminal”—at the hands of U.S. authorities, therefore, remains inadequate
to deter many forms of harmful transnational activity.5
2. Criminal Syndicate Business Continuity: Transnational criminal activity is either
highly dispersed and carried out by loose networks (particularly cyber-crime) or controlled
by hierarchically structured organizations. Darknet marketplaces and cryptocurrencies are
decentralized, and criminal cyberspace operations increasingly are decentralized to avoid a
centralized takedown from law enforcement. Even where crime is organized tightly and its
leadership centralized, the impact of a “decapitation” strategy is short-lived. Following the
arrest of a mob boss, power passes quickly to a successor, designated or not, inasmuch as the
illicit revenue stream remains intact. These proceeds provide a powerful incentive to maintain the organization and continue its criminal activities. The case of Chapo Guzman and the
Sinaloa Cartel illustrate the typical absence of sustained results from the “take down” of a
“kingpin” on the continued operation of illicit activity.
3. Scale of Illegal Activity: Many manifestations of transnational crime are conducted at
a volume and level of activity that defy conventional enforcement responses under the
criminal justice model. Undocumented migration, narcotics consumption and sales, child
pornography, and other cyber-enabled crimes, for example, are not problems that the federal
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
government, or society, can arrest their way out of or control satisfactorily through prosecution and imprisonment. The choice of a specific target for the exercise of police or prosecutorial discretion often is not informed by a broader strategy or set of policy considerations.
This opens the door to widespread perception among growing segments of the public that
the generation of leads is either happenstance and/or the result of discriminatory target
The current approach to transnational crime appears, therefore, both outmoded and ineffective,
and in need of an alteration in paradigm. DHS should shift its approach in our view to focus on how
best to disrupt transnational criminal activity, and dismantle transnational organizations, using all
the tools at its disposal that are available through broad search and seizure authorities at the border.
Given these authorities, and the border security mission central to homeland protection, DHS and
its component agencies (CBP, ICE, USCG and TSA) are better placed than counterparts at Justice
or Treasury to shift away from complete reliance on the criminal justice model.
Although “take down” operations and seizures would remain important elements in countering
transnational crime, they would not be the only strategies applied. Greater attention would be
placed on tactical means and methods geared to disrupting TOC operations, such as preventing
travel by criminals, interfering with cartel communications, seizing illicit product and destroying
its source and, perhaps most importantly, disrupting financial dealings and breaking up money
laundering networks and arrangements.6 Table 1 summarizes the differences between the existing
approach and the one advocated here.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
Table 1: A Comparison of Current Approaches to the Disruption Model
Conventional Approach
Disruption Approach
Goals and
Put the worst actors in jail and seize
contraband shipments; focus on powerful organized crime groups.
Impede and disrupt transnational crime,
whether organized or dispersed; and
dismantle criminal organizations and
Metrics of
Arrests, indictments, prosecutions,
convictions, and volumes of contraband
Diminution of criminal activity; increased
difficulty for criminal networks to operate;
and measurable reduced adverse impact on
homeland communities.
Gather information that can be converted into admissible evidence to make
cases in court.
Use Big Data, incorporating all federal
government data streams, and advanced
analytics to characterize criminal networks,
generate investigative leads and customize
optimal operational responses.
Limit sharing to protect cases and
sources; focus information-sharing
principally on de-confliction.
Combine information from as many sources
as possible to identify criminal activity, map
criminal networks, and develop calculated
Narrow search authorities based on U.S.
law and inability, absent judicial approvLegal Authorities
al, to materially restrict the movement
of suspects.
Broad border-related search authorities
with wide discretion and capacity to impede
international travel by suspects and detain
goods and cargo at ports of entry.
Limited coordination in take-down
operations, but cases typically “belong”
to one agency, with only ad hoc investigative collaboration.
Efforts at disruption are coordinated across
the whole of government in a strategic,
systematic fashion.
Training and
Training focuses on standard investigative techniques.
Analysis of criminal business models, law
enforcement intelligence, and investigative
and operational counter-TCO strategy and
Career Pathing
Promotion is based on participation in
large investigations involving arrests,
seizures, prosecutions, convictions, and
imprisonment of TCO members through
use of conspiracy doctrines.
Promotion, reward, and recognition are
based on identifying vulnerabilities in
criminal networks, devising the best operational response aimed at weakening the
TCO support infrastructure, and decreasing
the harmful impact of transnational criminal
activity on the homeland.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
Integrated Whole of Government Counter-Transnational Crime Effort. There are five
dimensions of official power available to enlist in support of a disruption strategy: (a) intelligence
collection and analysis; (b) law enforcement response; (c) financial sanction; (d) diplomatic partnership with foreign governments; and (e) direct action. For a Disruption Model to work, an explicit
Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) would be required to create an interagency policy mechanism
to knit these forms of power into a coherent strategy. This framework in turn would ensure that
information is more broadly shared across federal agencies and analyzed in a more sophisticated
way. Disruption also requires changes in doctrine, metrics of success, training, and career pathing,
as well as changes at CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC) and in other intelligence and risk
management functions.7
The U.S. Government’s whole of government response to the threat of terrorism developed during
the past twenty years provides ample precedent for the kind of changes advocated here. Campaigns,
spearheaded by the military and intelligence communities but coordinated across the government,
have significantly weakened jihadists—whether al Qaeda or D’aesh—and their capabilities for
attack. Similar efforts directed against terrorist finances led by civilian agencies have resulted in
widespread success in well-coordinated operations involving the public and private sectors.
Moreover, the counter-terror finance campaign has deployed directly the disruption model in order
to achieve their objectives when application of the traditional criminal justice model is not feasible. In a landmark effort announced publicly in August 2020, three terror finance cyber-enabled
campaigns were disrupted, resulting in the largest ever seizure of cryptocurrency accounts held by
terrorist organizations. According to the Department of Justice, “terror finance campaigns [conducted by the al-Qassim Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State of Iraq and
the Levant (ISIS)] all relied on sophisticated cyber-tools, including the solicitation of cryptocurrency donations from around the world.”8
To defeat this terrorist cyber crowdsourcing, agents from DHS, Treasury, and DOJ working in close
concert with a federal prosecutor, devised and executed a novel set of disruptive actions, customizing existing legal tools and authorities to place them into action. The strategy included: (a) using the
All-Writs Act to launch a denial-of-service (DOS) attack against a targeted website; (b) operating an
undercover Terrorist Donation website to divert contributions; (c) seizing and taking over various
online accounts (e-mails, web servers, etc.) to confuse and disrupt communications; and (d) making
undercover Bitcoin donations in order to facilitate tracing of the money (laundering) flows key to
the terrorist scheme.9
We submit that these and analogous tools, techniques, means, and methods—appropriately tailored
and customized—are relevant to the challenge of transnational criminal activity across the board
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
and should be systematically adapted to policing and investigative strategies aimed at countering it.
A series of recommendations to this end follow.
Recommendation 1: The President should issue a Presidential Policy
Directive (PPD) supporting the implementation of a disruption strategy to
counter transnational organized crime on a “whole of government” basis.
Left to their own devices, the departments and agencies responsible for countering transnational
criminal activity will not implement on an acceptable timeline, if at all, a paradigm change in their
enforcement model. The current culture and institutional incentives are too strongly rooted in
the traditional criminal justice approach, and the bureaucratic resistance to change is substantial.
It will thus take leadership at the highest level of government to mandate a change, identify the
necessary steps, and monitor and enforce compliance with the revised strategy. The PPD must
identify clear actions required of each department and agency along with metrics that will allow the
National Security Advisor to monitor implementation of the strategy.
Of particular importance is providing direction on the application of lessons-learned from counter-terror finance to disrupt criminal finance as effectively. Concerns about adversely impacting
banks and other financial institutions have often prevented effective action in the past—but it is
time to highlight directly the crucial importance of effective anti-money laundering enforcement.
Significantly disrupting criminal finances is a core component of the disruption strategy, and it is a
necessary condition to materially reducing the power and activities of TCOs.
Recommendation 2: The White House must establish a robust staffing
structure to oversee implementation of the PPD through the National
Security Council staff.
The NSC staff has directorates dedicated to border security and transnational criminal issues, but
they currently have neither the institutional clout nor the expertise to manage the creation and
implementation of a disruption strategy. We are agnostic to how precisely to structure a strengthened transnational crime capacity at the NSC, other than that it must be led by a very senior and
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
experienced official with direct access to the National Security Advisor and Homeland Security
Advisor, along with backing of the President to direct change at the involved departments and
The new staff must oversee an interagency group charged with breaking down barriers to information-sharing across federal law enforcement agencies. This group should spell out the nominations
process for the transnational crime watchlist and outline response protocols for when watch listed
individuals are encountered. It should also identify how the Consolidated Priority Organization
Targets (CPOT) process for directing conventional investigative efforts against organized crime
groups can be used to identify candidates for the watchlist.
With the addition of representatives from the Intelligence Community, this group should (a) identify intelligence requirements for combating transnational crime and (b) consider how tools
designed to map terrorist networks and trace terrorist financing may be transferred to the transnational crime context. It should also coordinate and oversee whole-of-government efforts against
specific types of transnational crime (e.g. human trafficking), and engage state, local, and foreign
partners in such efforts.
Recommendation 3: DHS needs to develop a policy and personnel
infrastructure to execute its responsibility as the lead department in the
disruption strategy.
The disruption strategy, as explained above, does not require abandoning the traditional criminal
justice model. Instead, it pairs with that traditional approach a new set of tools and focus to attack
criminal groups where they are most vulnerable: at the border. As the cabinet department responsible for border security, DHS necessarily will play a lead role in creating the policy framework
required to implement a disruption model.
The plan will also need to create an institutional capacity within DHS for operational coordination
against criminal networks. This coordination would encompass both interdiction (CBP and Coast
Guard) and investigative functions (ICE and Secret Service), with liaison mechanisms for reaching
out to and involving other federal, state, and local law enforcement resources and capabilities.
As DHS approaches this new role, it must learn from and nurture the programs and entities currently involved in disruption-like operations, of which there are notable examples. These include
the CBP’ National Targeting Center (NTC) (which identifies high risk passengers and cargo); ICE/
HSI “cyber” takedown programs; the Border Enforcement Analytics Program (which uses cargo
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
data to identify potential criminal networks); the Human Smuggling Cell (which aims to discourage
decentralized human smuggling); and the Bulk Cash Smuggling Center in Vermont. As the disruption strategy matures, DHS must ensure that these types of programs are operating harmoniously
together and connected.
DHS, along with other federal law enforcement, must also address the programs that are not working rather than permit ineffective programs to continue. Either agencies reform the programs to
make them effective, or they should be disbanded or moved to agencies that will use them to achieve
measurable results in accordance with the disruption strategy.
Recommendation 4: The federal government must strengthen its abilities
to identify criminals in the flows of international travelers and disrupt
their travel.
Preventing criminals, along with their associates and beneficiaries, from engaging in cross-border travel is a powerful tool to curb TCOs. Although much criminal activity can be accomplished
remotely, travel is often necessary operationally and restricting criminal movement will create
opportunities to target and arrest criminals as well as to disrupt their activity. Accordingly, the PPD
should instruct the DHS Office of Policy, DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and the National
Vetting Center (NVC), with the participation and support of the full federal law enforcement community, to develop a watch-list for transnational criminals, akin to that for terrorists.
CBP, through its National Targeting Center, must also place a greater emphasis on identifying
transnational criminal activity (though without drastically reducing its counterterrorism efforts).
To overcome the resistance other agencies have to working with CBP (which arises from a fear that
CBP will compromise an investigation or case), CBP should involve its interagency partners in the
governance of the NTC as has been done in the NVC.
Recommendation 5: The United States needs to lead the world in
confronting transnational crime and take concrete steps to engage its
allies in a strategy of disruption.
The United States cannot solve the TCO problem alone. By definition, the problem is transnational and frequently resides outside the jurisdiction of the United States. An effective international
engagement strategy is, therefore, crucial.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
As initial steps, the new NSC staff should, with the endorsement of the White House, take the lead
in (a) developing bilateral information-sharing agreements with foreign governments to monitor
the travel of suspects and make nominations for the transnational crime watchlist and (b) working with the World Customs Organization, INTERPOL, and other bodies to establish more robust
mechanisms for multinational cooperation against transnational crime.
While the U.S. government pursues these institutional relationships and changes, DHS, along
with the Departments of State and Treasury, and the Intelligence Community, should be working
to establish operational connectivity with partner countries. The Department of Justice, in particular the FBI and DEA, have some of the most robust international law enforcement relationships, and they must be engaged. DHS’s Office of International Affairs will need to work with DHS
Components to develop training for DHS attachés abroad, so that they properly understand and
prioritize disruption over the conventional model.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
About the Authors
Alan Bersin has held numerous high-level positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
and U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently, after serving as the Commissioner of U.S. Customs
and Border Protection, Bersin served as the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Chief Diplomatic
Officer for DHS. Previously, he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. He also
served as a Vice President for the Americas and on the Executive Committee of INTERPOL. Bersin
is a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center and a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center at the Harvard
Kennedy School.
Chappell Lawson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, where he directs the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI)
program and the International Policy Lab. Dr. Lawson has served in senior positions in government,
most recently as the Executive Director of Policy and Senior Advisor to the Commissioner of U.S.
Customs and Border Protection. He also served as a Director of Inter-American Affairs on the
National Security Council staff during the Clinton Administration.
The authors acknowledge gratefully the thoughtful review of the original article, as well as this
policy brief, by Ryan Landers, Supervisory Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations, U.S.
Department of Homeland Security.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
Louise Shelley, Dark Commerce: How A New Illicit Economy is Threatening Our Future (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2018).
See U.S. National Security Council, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime (Washington, DC: The White House,
2011). Transnational criminal activities remain so opaque and non-transparent that estimates of their proceeds remain no
more than educated guesses subject to wide disparity. In contrast to the NSC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
estimates TCO proceeds far less at $870 Billion, or 1.5 percent of gross global product. See United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime, Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes (Vienna,
October 2011), available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/Illicit_financial_flows_2011_web.pdf.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment
(Vienna, 2010); Louise Shelly, “Transnational Organized Crime: An Imminent Threat to the Nation-State?” Journal of
International Affairs 48, no. 2 (winter 1995). See also U.S. National Security Council, Strategy to Combat Transnational
Organized Crime; Andreas M. Antonopoulos, The Internet of Money (Merkle Bloom, LLC, 2016).
Alan Bersin and Lars Karlsson, “Lines, Flows, and Transnational Crime: Toward a Revised Approach to Countering the
Underworld of Globalization,” Homeland Security Affairs 15, art. 6 (December 2019), available at www.hsaj.org/articles/15514.
Fred Kaplan, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2016).
Martin Innes and James W.E. Sheptycki, “From Detection to Disruption: Intelligence and the Changing Logic of Police Crime
Control in the United Kingdom,” International Criminal Justice Review, vol. 14 (May 2004): 13.
Alice Hutchings and Thomas J. Holt, “The Online Stolen Data Market: Disruption and Intervention Approaches,” Global Crime,
vol. 18, no. 1 (2017): 12.
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “Global Disruption of Three Terror Finance Cyber-Enabled Campaigns,”
press release, August 13, 2020.
Disrupting Transnational Criminal Activity: A Homeland Security Law Enforcement Strategy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | May 2021
Militia Violent Extremists in the United
States: Understanding the Evolution
of the Threat
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Colin P. Clarke
& Samuel Hodgson
Militia Violent Extremists in the
United States: Understanding
the Evolution of the Threat
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Colin P. Clarke & Samuel
Policy Brief
May 2022
About ICCT
The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) is an
independent think and do tank providing multidisciplinary policy
advice and practical, solution-oriented implementation support on
prevention and the rule of law, two vital pillars of effective counterterrorism.
ICCT’s work focuses on themes at the intersection of countering
violent extremism and criminal justice sector responses, as well as
human rights-related aspects of counter-terrorism. The major project
areas concern countering violent extremism, rule of law, foreign
fighters, country and regional analysis, rehabilitation, civil society
engagement and victims’ voices.
Functioning as a nucleus within the international counter-terrorism
network, ICCT connects experts, policymakers, civil society actors and
practitioners from different fields by providing a platform for productive
collaboration, practical analysis, and exchange of experiences
and expertise, with the ultimate aim of identifying innovative and
comprehensive approaches to preventing and countering terrorism.
Licensing and Distribution
ICCT publications are published in open access format and distributed
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivatives License, which permits non-commercial re-use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon
in any way.
ICCT Policy Brief
May 2022
DOI: 10.19165/2022.2.04
ISSN: 2468-0486
Historical Background
Violent Activities
Transnational Connections
Policy Recommendations
Militia violent extremists (MVEs) pose a growing threat within the United States. MVEs were
the most prominent and well-organised participants in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US
Capitol and have plotted numerous acts of lethal violence against law enforcement, government
officials, and civilians in the past decade. MVEs are motivated by a belief that private citizens
must use violence to resist government overreach, combat purported tyranny, or maintain law
and order. While participants in the broader militia movement embrace similar beliefs, MVEs are
distinguished by their willingness to carry out violence.
MVEs typically organise in small local or regional militias, though many movement participants do
not affiliate with a specific organisation. The modern militia movement developed at the end of
the twentieth century, but social media has transformed the movement’s structure and fuelled its
growth. Movement members have organised loose umbrella networks at the national level, most
notably the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, while others have coalesced around specific
memes or ideas, including the accelerationist Boogaloo movement, border defence, opposition
to federal stewardship of public land, and opposition to COVID-19 public health measures.
MVE violence has been similarly diverse. In addition to the attack on the US Capitol, MVEs
have attempted to kill law enforcement officers, plotted to kidnap government officials, and
engaged in multiple standoffs with law enforcement in response to government action.
Because the MVE movement is largely domestic, US policymakers have several options for
countering this threat. The US government can limit radicalisation through transparency around
its domestic activity, thereby countering the anti-authority sentiments and conspiracy theories
that fuel the movement. Further, federal legislation targeting militia activity and improved counterextremism training can provide law enforcement with the tools necessary to address MVE-linked
criminal activity.
Keywords: militias, domestic violent extremism, terrorism, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters,
Boogaloo, conspiracy theories
In the United States, militia violent extremists (MVEs) embrace violence in service of antigovernment and anti-authority ideology. MVEs are just one part of the militia movement:
movement adherents who cannot be regarded as violent extremists hold similar suspicions of
government but eschew violence.
There is significant overlap between the ideas of the nonviolent and violent aspects of the militia
movement, and both aspects must be examined to adequately understand MVEs. This policy
paper introduces MVEs alongside the broader militia movement, including the movement’s
history, organisation, ideology, and violent activity. However, it is important to distinguish
between nonviolent militia activists and those who engage in violent extremism. Most activists
in the movement do not engage in violent activity, and in the US, advocacy of militia ideology
decoupled from violent extremism is protected by First Amendment rights to free speech and
assembly. Americans also enjoy Second Amendment rights to bear arms. Despite the use of the
term militia to describe the movement, not all adherents belong to an organised paramilitary
group. Indeed, such groups may sometimes be unlawful even if they are non-violent as many
states bar unauthorised private militia groups.1
The threat MVEs pose to US law enforcement, government officials, and civilians has grown
following an increase in militia group membership since 2008. Federal, state, and local law
enforcement continue to disrupt plots targeting government employees and the broader public.
MVEs have also become a regular presence at violent protests. The most prominent display in
this regard was the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol, during which MVEs were part of
the group that sought to interfere with certification of the 2020 US presidential election results.
While MVEs represented only a small percentage of participants, there is evidence that members
of the MVE contingent prepared for the attack and deployed a range of violent tactics during the
events of 6 January.2
Though MVEs and the associated militia movement exist primarily in the United States, the
movement has spread to Canada. Certain national militia networks in the United States have
established chapters there, and the Canadian government has designated both the Three
Percenters and Proud Boys as terrorist entities.
Historical Background
The modern militia movement came to fruition in the 1980s and 1990s. Though it would be
wrong to conflate contemporary militias with white supremacist groups as a general matter, the
foundations of the militia movement developed in large part from the organised white power
movement that emerged following the end of Vietnam War in the mid-1970s.3 White power
activists of the era began forming paramilitary organisations and engaging in military training,
hallmarks of the later militia movement.
1 For a state-by-state overview of these laws, see “Addressing Political Violence, Unlawful Paramilitaries, and Threats
to Democracy: State Fact Sheets,” Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown University Law
Center, n.d., https://www.law.georgetown.edu/icap/our-work/addressing-the-rise-of-unlawful-private-militias/statefact-sheets/.
2 Mark Hosenball, “Florida Oath Keepers Member Pleads Guilty to Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Charges,” Reuters, September
15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/florida-oath-keepers-member-pleads-guilty-jan-6-capitol-riotcharges-2021-09-15/; US Department of Justice, press release, “Six California Men, Four of Whom Self-Identify as
Members of ‘Three-Percenter’ Militias, Indicted on Conspiracy Charges Related to Jan. 6 Capitol Breach,” June 10,
3 Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 2, 190-93.
Historical Background
They also began crafting and refining ideological tenets adopted by the later militia movement,
including opposition to the US government and an embrace of conspiracy theories claiming
that the federal government sought to impose a tyrannical state.4 The modern militia movement
maintained the anti-government ideology of the earlier white power movement but dropped
many of its explicitly racist trappings.
The militia movement grew throughout the 1990s, fuelled by what many Americans viewed
as unjustified and gratuitous violence against civilians by federal law enforcement. Two highly
publicised incidents supercharged the movement. The first was the August 1992 standoff at Ruby
Ridge in Idaho between federal agents and the Weaver family, which turned violent, leading to
the shooting deaths of Weaver’s wife and teenage son by federal agents. Less than a year later,
federal law enforcement initiated a siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. After
multiple confrontations that involved both a shootout and the use of tear gas, a fire broke out in
the compound. Over 70 Branch Davidians died in the siege, primarily during the fire.5
The April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh also had a
profound impact on the movement. While McVeigh did not maintain a persistent association with
a specific militia group, his ideology reflected the movement’s core concern about government
overreach and tyranny.6 The bombing’s impact on the movement was mixed. It led to an initial
spike in militia group membership as national media, which sometimes erroneously portrayed
McVeigh as a militia member, engaged in extensive reporting on the movement. However,
militia membership shrank in the years following the bombing as movement activists distanced
themselves from the horrors of the Oklahoma City attack and as the federal government pursued
more aggressive law enforcement action against MVEs.7
Following a decline from the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the militia movement began
expanding around 2008. Multiple factors fed the movement’s rise, including the election of
Barack Obama, the first black US president. The financial crisis of 2007-08 created a broader
pool of potential members as economic insecurity fed the growth of anti-government movements
across the political spectrum. Social media platforms had recently achieved widespread adoption
and would become important drivers of militia organisations’ growth. The establishment of
prominent national militia networks, notably the Three Percenters, provided readily digestible
ideological frameworks that could be used as a template by militia activists. Beginning in 2016,
the militia movement increasingly focused on countering its civilian political opponents, in part
because some militia activists viewed President Donald Trump as an opponent of the same state
institutions whose expansion they feared. This perception temporarily reduced or tempered antigovernment tendencies in parts of the movement, at least to some extent.
4 Ibid., p. 93.
5 Mark Pitcavage, “Camouflage and Conspiracy: The Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Y2K,” American
Behavioral Scientist 44:6 (February 2001), pp. 961-62.
6 Tracy McVeigh, “The McVeigh Letters: Why I Bombed Oklahoma,” The Guardian, May 6, 2001.
7 Thomas Korosec, “Oklahoma Bombing Was Beginning of End for Militias,” The Houston Chronicle, April 20, 2005;
Pitcavage, “Camouflage and Conspiracy,” pp. 963, 966-68.
Small Militias. The militia movement, including both nonviolent and violent extremist elements, is
primarily organised into small paramilitary groups that typically draw recruits from a particular state
or locality. Some are chapters or branches of larger national organisations, though such groups
often operate largely independently of centralised leadership.8 Militia groups often splinter or
collapse multiple times due to diverging goals, accusations of corruption, or personality clashes
among members. While local militias are the most important units of organisation, movement
members also maintain regional or national interpersonal ties that spread ideology and tactics,
and bind the movement together.
Individual Movement Members. The movement also includes activists who are not “official”
members of an organised group, but rather exist within a broader pro-militia ecosystem. Indeed,
the militia movement, while best known for the organised paramilitary groups that are the
source of its name, emphasises the responsibility of private individuals to combat tyranny.9 Even
without clear organisational ties, these individuals may participate in events with militia groups or
associate with a particular umbrella network or ideology. The blurred line between militia groups
and independent activists poses a challenge to law enforcement attempting to address the MVE
National Networks and Umbrella Organisations. National militia networks provide an ideological
template for local groups and individual activists. These national networks spread specific
forms of militia ideology and facilitate joint activities, including training and rapport building,
that include local groups or individual members.10 Despite the importance of national networks
in disseminating specific ideologies, they generally do not retain significant centralised control.
The local militia is consistently the movement’s core unit of organisation. National militia networks
generally avoid public expressions of violent extremist ideology, and their leaders should not
necessarily be considered violent extremists. However, individual militias and activists affiliated
with these networks have engaged in extremist activity, even as national leaders disavow or
refuse to publicly support them.
The Oath Keepers is a national network of militias that seeks to mobilise current and former
law enforcement officers, members of the US military, and first responders to defend citizens’
constitutional rights against perceived government interference and overreach.11 The network
operates under the auspices of a single umbrella group, and is thus one of the most wellorganised militia networks—which is not to say that it is either particularly well organised or
centrally directed. While the Oath Keepers’ ideological materials largely focus on encouraging law
enforcement officers and active duty military members to resist unconstitutional orders, members
of the group participated in the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Oath Keepers—including
founder and leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes III—have been charged with seditious conspiracy for
coordinating efforts “to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power” before and
during the attack.12
8 Catrina Doxsee, “Examining Extremism: The Militia Movement,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, August
12, 2021, https://www.csis.org/blogs/examining-extremism/examining-extremism-militia-movement.
9 For example, the ideologies embraced by both the Three Percenters and the Light Foot Militia has encouraged
this concept.
10 See “The Washington State Three Percenters Bylaws: A Guide to Being a Three Percenter,” Washington 3%,
archived October 7, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20211008004808/https://wa3percent.org/application/
11 “About Oath Keepers,” Oath Keepers, archived January 3, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20210103020410/
12 Indictment, United States v. Rhodes, 1:22-cr-00015 (D.D.C., January 12, 2022), https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/
Several members of the network, including its founder, also participated in a 2014 armed standoff
in Bunkerville, Nevada between federal agents and the family of Cliven Bundy.13
The Three Percenters (sometimes styled as III% or Threepers) is a diffuse national network of
militia groups and independent activists. Three Percenters idealise local militias, mythologising
the power of small groups of armed “patriots.” Their name refers to the myth that only three
percent of the American population took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary
War. The network emphasises the belief that individual patriots must be prepared to deploy
violence against the government in defence of liberty, in particular the right to bear arms.14 The
network is not unified under coherent leadership. Regional and national umbrella organisations
have emerged and dissolved over time, often coexisting as largely independent organisations,
though possibly with overlapping membership.15
Three Percenters participated in the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Members’ participation
in the attack led one of the remaining national groups to dissolve, noting in a final message that
“other ‘Three Percenter’ groups no longer hold the values and morals that we have held in our
organization for so long” and stating that their role in the Capitol attack cast the movement in
a “negative light.”16 Individuals associated with the Three Percenters have used or planned to
use firearms and explosives in plots targeting law enforcement officers, private businesses, an
abortion clinic, a mosque, and housing complexes inhabited by immigrants.17 There is a growing
fear among militias like the Three Percenters, evident in social media postings, that federal law
enforcement is moving aggressively to infiltrate these groups in response to the events of 6
January 2021.
Social Media. Social media has been essential for the expansion of the militia movement,
including MVEs. Movement members use social media to form groups, spread their ideology,
document group activities, and fundraise. Militia activists have relied particularly heavily on
Facebook, exploiting the site’s functionality to attract views and recruits18. Some militia-linked
Facebook pages have attracted as many as 500,000 followers.
13 Jessica Garrison, Ken Bensinger & Salvador Hernandez, “Person One,” Buzzfeed, March 4, 2021.
14 Mike Vanderboegh, “A Brief Three Percent Catechism – A Discipline Not for the Faint Hearted,” blog post,
Sipsey Street Irregulars, June 29, 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20210923134939/https://sipseystreetirregulars.
15 For example, the III% Security Force, III% United Patriots, and The Three Percenters-Original. See Jordan
Green, “III% Security Force Deposes National Leader, Reorganizes Under New Name,” Triad City Beat, August
25, 2019, https://triad-city-beat.com/iii-security-force-deposes-national-leader-reorganizes-new-name/; “Who Are
the III% United Patriots,” III% United Patriots, archived July 6, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190706191206/
http://3percent.org/about.html; Sarah Ladd, “Did Three Percenters Back Beshear Effigy at Rally?: What to Know
About the Kentucky Group,” Nashville Courier Journal, May 26, 2020, https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/
local/2020/05/26/what-to-know-about-kentucky-three-percenters-group/5258749002/; “Three Percenters,” AntiDefamation League, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/three-percenters.
16 “Final Statement,” The Three Percenters – Original, February 21, 2021, https://web.archive.org/
17 Will Sommer, “Militia Leader Plotted to Kidnap and Kill Cops to Win New Followers, Feds Say,” Daily Beast, May
12, 2020; Chuck Goudie, Ross Weidner & Christine Tressel, “White Rabbit Militiaman Changes Mind, Will Plead
in Domestic Terror Case,” ABC7 Eyewitness News, September 18, 2018, https://abc7chicago.com/white-rabbitmilitiaman-changes-mind-will-plead-in-domestic-terror-case/4280107/; Tim Stelloh, “Man Who Tried to Blow Up
Oklahoma City Bank in Anti-Government Plot Sentenced to 25 Years,” NBC News, March 23, 2020, https://www.
nbcnews.com/news/us-news/man-who-tried-blow-oklahoma-city-bank-anti-government-plot-n1167156; Masood
Farivar, “Muslims, Immigrants on US Militias’ New Enemies List,” Voice of America, April 24, 2018.
18 April Glaser, “Anti-Immigrant Armed Militias Posted Videos and Fundraised Through Facebook for Months,”
Slate, April 22, 2019; “Facebook’s Militia Mess,” Tech Transparency Project, March 24, 2021, https://www.
As Facebook has more aggressively enforced its policies regarding extremist content, militia
groups have moved to other sites, including Telegram, MeWe, RocketChat, Keybase, Zello, and
TikTok. Militia activists have also turned to at least one movement-specific site: MyMilitia, a militiafocused alternative social media site. Among the functions the site offers is a geographic search
tool that can help users find militias in their area to join.19
Members of the militia movement believe that private citizens must be prepared to resist
government overreach, combat tyranny, or maintain law and order. While many movement
members believe that violence may someday be required, MVEs believe that violence is already
The broader militia movement’s ideology is most often organised around fear of government
overreach or state collapse, but it is not consistently anti-government. Its adherents maintain
a complex relationship with government authority that often clashes with the ideology of other
militia activists. Traditional militia ideology holds that the US government is or threatens to
become a tyrannical regime, and that it must be opposed by private citizens. However, many
militia activists support particular facets of government, such as local law enforcement, b…
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