- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Charged with conspiring to supply arms to terrorist groups and kill Americans, the infamous Russian arms dealer Victor Bout is currently standing trial in New York. For more than a decade, Mr. Bout purportedly supplied weaponry to the most-wanted strongmen and terrorist entities of modern times - from Paul Kagame in Rwanda to the Taliban in Afghanistan - and sowed unimaginable suffering around the globe.

If found guilty, Mr. Bout’s incarceration will stall an underground railroad of contraband that has fueled violent conflicts around the world. Though this outcome would be a high-profile victory for global countertrafficking efforts, Mr. Bout is just a cog in an exponentially larger machine: the uncharted global gray market feeding narcotics, small arms, conflict resources, humans, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, dual-use nuclear items and all manner of contraband from one corner of the globe to another.

In individual terms, the illicit products peddled through Mr. Bout contributed to armed violence, addiction and modern-day slavery. In aggregate, these seemingly disparate issues created a direct threat to international security by weakening state institutions, suborning democratic governments, providing terrorist financing and often driving the need for foreign military intervention.

The prevailing strategies to address these threats focus on eliminating the leadership of criminal and terrorist syndicates who control and profit most directly from them. Yet, from Victor Bout and Pablo Escobar to Al Capone and Osama bin Laden, evidence suggests this has limited, long-term utility. The demise of one criminal entity fosters new entrants to fill a profitable void. To wit, the illegal worldwide market in small arms is no less active or profitable following the capture of Victor Bout. This suggests that a parallel strategy to address burgeoning global trafficking patterns is desperately needed.

One opportunity lies in attacking the enablers of these transnational criminal enterprises. Criminal networks are increasingly integrating their supply chains. A courier, distribution broker or transportation company willing to trans-ship illicit narcotics today is equally willing to move human slaves or weapons tomorrow if the price is right. While this has created a sophisticated and resilient global circulatory system for contraband, it also amplifies the opportunity to address an array of social ills by attacking the supply chain - the illicit middlemen whose services link supplier and consumer. Three immediate steps should be taken:

1. Charting the global gray market: Any attempt to respond to illicit trafficking must begin with a strategic assessment of their interconnectivity. The world’s most pressing transnational threats are rarely considered in the context of the traits they share in common. Instead, they are examined by governments through carefully defined parameters: threats to the homeland versus foreign threats; criminal versus terrorist threats; and threats by form or function: small arms versus drugs versus humans versus counterfeit intellectual property. As a result, programs are stove-piped in different departments and agencies fail to fully leverage government resources. A first step must be to catalog and characterize a global spectrum of transnational threats, which are stoked by globalization itself and often share common pipelines linking producer and consumer.

2. Dedicate a greater share of intelligence and interagency resources to identifying and disrupting illicit supply chains: In an era of declining budgets, governments around the world must be looking for synergies to get a bigger bang from their buck. A greater share of our intelligence assets should be dedicated to looking horizontally at illicit enterprises - from organized criminal networks to terrorist organizations - with the goal of identifying and shutting down their supply networks. The confluence of trafficking challenges via common supply chains provides a logical conduit to leverage limited resources. In response to mounting concern over money laundering, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) was established by the G-7 governments in 1989. Its success in countering the use of the financial system by criminals, rather than combating criminals directly, is a positive indication of criminals’ susceptibility to supply chain assaults.

3. Enlisting support of the legitimate supply chain companies: The impact of illicit trafficking on the global economy has made private-sector companies equal partners with governments in their search for enduring solutions. Identifying ways to transform the industry from a conveyor belt into a “choke point” for these illicit items without hampering the competitiveness of legitimate industry will be critical to containing these worsening trends. While government intervention and regulation may be necessary in vulnerable environments, the global economy is based upon the rapid and efficient movement of goods, and overzealous new regulation would be unwelcome and unproductive. A new partnership based upon mutual interests and mutual trust must be developed between governments and the private shipping industry to eliminate bad actors like Victor Bout and build financial incentives to enhance screening of the global circulatory system.

In an era of diminished government resources to combat transnational threats, the solutions to these challenges must go beyond locking up individual bad guys like Mr. Bout, whose market niche has undoubtedly been filled by the next profiteer. By better understanding the interconnections between threat portfolios, leveraging limited resources and attacking the supply chains that support the flow of contraband, governments can exact new pressure on transnational criminal organizations that threaten economic growth and international security.

Brian Finlay is a senior associate at the Stimson Center.