The Nexus Between Terrorism and Human Trafficking

The Nexus Between Terrorism and Human Trafficking

Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a two-part series on human trafficking and terrorist organizations.

Human trafficking (HT) constitutes a serious human rights violation and is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises, attracting both small local groups and international networks. In the context of war and armed conflict, HT is exacerbated by the instability, insecurity and economic desperation of vulnerable people, which allow terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups to engage in trafficking activities. In this regard, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) highlights that “Like other forms of illegal activities, human trafficking has become increasingly attractive to non-State armed groups, notably terrorist entities. Acts of violence associated with HT have been central to the modus operandi of the Islamic State [group] in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL [IS throughout the article], also known as Da’esh), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).”1

This article aims to explore how HT and terrorism intersect by focusing on the most common practices that terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups put in place and how they use methods pertaining to HT to exploit individuals for terrorism.

The Three Essential Elements of HT

The definition of HT in the “Trafficking in Persons Protocol” identifies three essential elements to consider: The act, the means and the purpose.2

HT elements

  • The act refers to what is done, which can include recruitment, transfer or transportation, harboring and the receipt of persons. These neutral practices become criminal when they are conducted with the intention of exploiting a person.
  • The means refers to how it is done, which can include the use of force or coercion, deception, fraud, abduction, the abuse of power, the abuse of a position of vulnerability, making payments or providing benefits to obtain the consent of a person, and exercising control over a person.
  • The purpose refers to why it is done, including sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, the removal of organs, offenses committed under coercion and forced begging. The end goal is maintaining a person in a situation of exploitation.

The Three Stages of HT

It is also possible to divide HT into three different stages: The recruitment or abduction, the transportation and, ultimately, the exploitation of victims.

HT Stages

  • Recruitment or abduction occurs when victims are obtained through deception or force.
  • Transportation in HT refers to victims being “transported to locations where they are exploited or sold to other traffickers. Victims may originate from abroad or within the [borders of a country] and may be transported by air, sea and/or land domestically or internationally.”3
  • Exploitation is the final stage of HT. Victims are exploited via sexual assault, forced labor, involuntary participation in crimes or other criminal activity, forced begging or removal of organs.

The Acts of HT and Terrorism

Terrorist organizations employ various trafficking acts to recruit, transfer, transport, harbor and receive persons. The recruitment may occur in various venues such as the internet, social media, chat rooms, family and local community centers, places of worship and (deceptive) friendships or romance, which may also overlap.

Terrorism and Gender-Based Violence

Men and women are affected differently. Men and boys are typically recruited and lured into soldiering by preying on identity crises, whereas women and girls are generally recruited for supportive roles. This can be attributed to the fact that terrorism ideology is often linked to serious human rights abuses.4

The Recruitment of Women and Girls

The deceptive recruitment of women and girls with promises of gainful employment and romance are common modus operandi of terrorist organizations to lure them into situations of exploitation. In this regard, recruiters manipulate emotional vulnerabilities such as love, romance and marriage, as well as economic and social vulnerability, including deceptive job offers and financial incentives, or both. A common method to recruit women and girls is making false promises of marriage. During the transfer, transportation, harboring and receipt of women and girls, there is a shift from voluntary travel to an involuntary stay: “when women and girls join ISIL, they might find themselves in situations where an originally agreed-to-marriage takes on a nature of domestic servitude or sexual slavery.”5 In order to achieve the deceptive recruitment of women and girls, recruiters may paint a distorted view of life inside the controlled territory of the terrorist organizations. They falsely promote the idea of “sisterhood” or purposeful life; however, they are exploited or held in slavery when they arrive.

The Recruitment of Men and Boys

The recruitment of children for terrorist and violent extremist groups primarily occurs with the involvement of family relatives. For example, mothers may raise children with exposure to the ideology of IS from an early age as well as through the help of IS-related literature.6 It is also worth mentioning that the recruitment of children can also take place in religious venues and social centers. IS recruits these children to train them for military engagement, including suicide bombing. In the same regard, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been the most active group in recruiting children to create a new generation of mujahedeen (Arabic for holy warriors).7 Terrorist organizations target young male individuals in search of identity or role models, which are particularly vulnerable. They may also have a fascination for such terrorist organizations offering them recognition, a purpose in life and a sense of belonging to a community.

The Exploitation of Children for Combat and Support Roles

The fact that children may be physically vulnerable and easily intimidated makes them obedient fighters. CTED stated that the IS “use children in combat and support roles, including as human shields, informants, bomb-makers, executioners, and suicide bombers. Some are as young as eight years old and some are mentally disabled. In January 2017, [IS] abducted 400 Yazidi children and trained them for combat roles, including as suicide bombers. In the same month, [IS] abducted 150 children from Tal Afar and forcibly recruited them into a training camp.”8 In addition, “Boko Haram and [ISWA] use child soldiers as young as twelve as cooks, spies, messengers, bodyguards, armed combatants and, increasingly, as suicide bombers in attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. In 2017, Boko Haram used at least 158 children (boys and girls) as human bombers.”9 During the same year, Al-Shabaab exploited more than 2,100 children in Somalia. CTED stated that “The children were forced to participate in conflict situations, including by planting explosives, carrying out attacks, and playing support roles, such as carrying ammunition, water, and food; removing wounded and deceased militants; gathering intelligence; and serving as guards.”10

The Means of HT and Terrorism

To recruit, transfer, transport, harbor and receive persons; terrorist organizations employ various methods, which are referred to as means. It is worth highlighting that it is not necessary to prove the means when it comes to children being trafficked since they cannot consent to their own exploitation. The means can be divided into two categories: Physical or nonphysical means. Terrorist organizations can use a combination of both during different stages of the trafficking offense.


The abduction of nationals, as well as foreign citizens, has been a common practice among terrorist organizations. As the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) points out, abduction is also a means to secure ransom payments once the victims have been exploited.8 The 2022 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report stated that “Terrorist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISIS-WA) forcibly abducted children to serve as child soldiers, suicide bombers, child brides, and forced laborers.”9 The CTED also reported that “Boko Haram has abducted hundreds of girls in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states and subjected them to domestic servitude, forced labor, and sexual slavery through forced marriages to its militants.”10 According to Amnesty International, mass abductions still occur in the region and the threat remains so high that over 600 schools closed in Nigeria for fear of abductions. One of the most notable abduction incidents is the kidnapping of 276 female students from the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014.11 In the same regard, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that in Somalia, “Children have nowhere to hide. Al-Shabaab has abducted them wherever they congregate: schools, playgrounds, football fields, and homes. Schools in particular have been attractive targets.”12

Abuse of Power or A Position of Vulnerability (APOV)

APOV occurs when the personal, situational or circumstantial vulnerability of an individual is intentionally used or taken advantage of; to recruit, transfer, transport, harbor and receive this individual for the purpose of exploiting them. These vulnerabilities can be either pre-existing or created by the trafficker. In addition, the Radicalization Awareness Network Centre of Excellence has laid out the following set of vulnerability factors: Individual sociopsychological factors, social factors, political factors, ideological and religious dimensions, the role of culture and identity issues, trauma and other trigger mechanisms; and three other factors that are a motor for radicalization, group dynamics, radicalizers/groomers and the role of social media.13

Table 1: Vulnerability Factors

Vulnerabilities Examples
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Individual being irregularly in a foreign country where they are socially or linguistically isolated
  • Individual’s employment or economic situation
  • Belief
  • Culture
  • Family situation
  • Gender
  • Irregular status
  • Language
  • Mental or physical disability
  • Poverty
  • Pregnancy
  • Youth or old age
  • Dependency cultivated through drug addiction
  • Irregular status
  • Romantic or emotional attachment
  • Social, cultural or linguistic isolation
  • The use of cultural or religious rituals or practices

Confiscation of Travel Documents

The confiscation of the victims’ personal identity documents (e.g., passports) is a particularly effective method of preventing them from escaping since undocumented victims may feel that they have no choice other than to submit to exploitation. This technique has been used by IS. For example, this group “confiscates passports to make it more difficult to travel and forces people in the city to register so the militants can keep tabs on everyone.”14 According to the CTED, the withdrawal of passports upon arrival appears to be systematic. The CTED also reported that some persons were informed that they would be given new “IS State” passports or that some women witnessed the burning of their identity documents.

Deception and Fraud

Deceptive practices involve the manipulation of a wide range of vulnerabilities, as described in the APOV section above. In the Model Law against Trafficking in Persons, deception is defined as follows:

“’Deception’ shall mean any conduct that is intended to deceive a person or ‘Deception’ shall mean any deception by words or by conduct [as to fact or as to law], [as to]:

  • The nature of work or services to be provided;
  • The conditions of work;
  • The extent to which the person will be free to leave his or her place of residence; or
  • [Other circumstances involving exploitation of the person.]”15

On the basis of the commentary related to the unlawful handling of travel or identity documents, fraud may refer specifically to “Any person who without lawful authority makes, produces or alters any identity or travel document” or “Any person who obtains, procures, destroys, conceals, removes, confiscates, withholds, alters, replicates, possesses or facilitates the fraudulent use of another person’s travel or identity document.”16

Detecting Signs of HT

It is possible for financial institutions (FIs) to detect the early signs of HT, namely the acts (i.e., the recruitment, transfer or transportation, harboring and the receipt of persons) and the means (i.e., APOV, confiscation of travel documents, fraud). Some relevant examples shared by international organizations, include but are not limited to the indicators listed below.

HT and TF Indicators

Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FINTRAC) 20:

  • Transactions involving certain high-risk jurisdictions such as locations in the midst of or in proximity to, armed conflict where terrorist groups operate or locations which are subject to weaker money laundering/terrorist financing controls.
  • Client identified by media or law enforcement as having travelled, attempted or intended to travel to high-risk jurisdictions (including cities or districts of concern), specifically countries (and adjacent countries) under conflict and/or political instability or known to support terrorist activities and organizations.
  • Client conducted travel-related purchases (e.g., purchase of airline tickets, travel visa, passport, etc.) linked to high-risk jurisdictions (including cities or districts of concern), specifically countries (and adjacent countries) under conflict and/or political instability or known to support terrorist activities and organizations.
  • Person or entity's online presence supports violent extremism or radicalization.

FATF 21:

  • Presentation of little, incomplete, or unverifiable information about the identity of account holder or destination of transfer.
  • Travelers without luggage or identification papers.
  • Customer makes deposits/withdrawals or otherwise generally operates an account accompanied by an escort, handler or translator (who may hold the customer’s ID)
  • High and/or frequent expenditure at airports, ports, other transport hubs or overseas, inconsistent with customer’s personal use or stated business activity
  • Newly opened customer account appears to be controlled by a third party, including forms completed in different handwriting and/or the customer reads their address from a form
  • Payments to logistics, airlines, coach companies, car rental or travel agents inconsistent with customer’s personal use or stated business activity

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)22 :

  • Behavioral Indicators
    • Coercive behaviors by a potential trafficker acting on behalf of a victim
    • Appearance of potentially trafficked individual
  • Know your customer (KYC) indicators


The fact that terrorist organizations systematically use acts of violence associated with the trafficking of human beings demonstrates that such practices are effective means to achieve their strategic objectives. For example, individuals who have been abducted with the aim of being exploited and are caught in their escape attempt often receive severe punishment. It is also worth mentioning that the violence may not only be directed toward the abducted victims but also at their families and relatives in order to secure cooperation. HRW reported that in Somalia, “Children, their families, and their teachers who try to prevent recruitment and abduction or who attempt to escape face severe consequences. Al-Shabaab has killed or injured parents who intervened to protect their children.”20

The fact that terrorist organizations can operate primarily in conflict-stricken regions where access to formal financial services is limited (e.g., the Sahel region in Sub-Saharan Africa) can constitute a significant challenge for FIs to identify activity related to HT in the context of terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups. Nevertheless, FIs may still look out for a combination of indicators pertaining to both terrorist financing and the financial flows associated to HT.

Jonathan Dupont, FIU Investigator and subject-matter expert on cryptocurrency, human trafficking and crimes against children, Lithuania,

  1. “Identifying and exploring the nexus between human trafficking, terrorism, and terrorism financing,” United Nations Security Council - Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, 2019,
  2. “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner,
  3. “Guidance on Recognizing Activity that May be Associated with Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking — Financial Red Flags,” Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, September 11, 2014,
  4. “Gender Dimensions of the Response to Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters,” United Nations Security Council - Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), February 2019,
  5. Ashley Binetti, “A New Frontier: Human Trafficking and ISIS’s Recruitment of Women from the West,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security, 2015,
  6. Noman Benotman and Nikita Malik, “The Children of Islamic State,” Quilliam, 2016,
  7. Anita Perešin, “Al-Qaeda Online Radicalization and the Creation of Children Terrorists,” Office of the National Security Council, 2014,
  8. “Financial Flows from Human Trafficking,” Financial Action Task Force and APG, July 2018,, p. 18
  9. “2022 Trafficking in Persons Report,” U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons,, p. 168
  10. “Identifying and exploring the nexus between human trafficking, terrorism, and terrorism financing,” United Nations Security Council - Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, 2019,
  11. “Nigeria: Seven years since Chibok, the government fails to protect children,” Amnesty International, April 14, 2021,
  12. “No Place for Children, Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia,” Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2012,
  13. “The Root Causes of Violent Extremism,” Radicalisation Awareness Network, April 2016,
  14. “It's 'hell': How ISIS prevents people from fleeing its 'caliphate',” Insider, January 2, 2016,
  15. “Model Law Against Trafficking in Persons,” United Nations on Drugs and Crime,
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Money laundering and terrorist financing indicators—Financial entities,” Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre,
  18. “Terrorist Financing in West Africa,” Financial Action Task Force, October 2013,, p. 34; “Financial Flows from Human Trafficking,” Financial Action Task Force and APG, July 2018,, p. 66
  19.  “Following the Money Compendium of Resources and Step-by-Step Guide to Financial Investigations Related to Trafficking in Human Beings,” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, October 2019,, p. 60-61
  20. “No Place for Children, Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia,” Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2012,

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