A Boundless Threat? The Rise of Organised Crime in the UK
This article launches a 10-part series on the top serious and organised crime threats to the UK and their evolution over the last decade. It traces the journey of the overarching threat posed, with a focus on the blurring of the lines with state threats.
In October 2023, the UK’s lead agency in the fight to cut serious and organised crime – the National Crime Agency (NCA) – marked its 10th anniversary. As it did so, the Agency revealed the vast scale of its operational activity, running over 800 live operations into organised crime impacting the UK. This activity speaks to the scale of the threat – and the challenge facing the Agency in its mission to protect the public in 2023.
From firearms to fraud, serious and organised crime is now assessed by the government to affect more people, more often, than any other national security threat. It is also one that has changed markedly since the passage of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and the creation of the NCA the same year. Established to ‘take a wholly new approach’ to organised crime, the NCA was for the first time mandated to lead and task activity across all law-enforcement agencies. It has since sat at the heart of the law-enforcement response to a shifting, amorphous threat.
As the NCA marks the 10-year milestone, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the trajectory of the threat and the UK’s record in tackling it.
An Enduring Threat
None of the top 10 serious and organised crime threats to the UK in 2023 are new. Instead, existing threats have evolved – some incrementally, others dramatically – given a new lease of life by the worldwide web. All are now complex, sophisticated, organised and comprehensively enabled by technology.
In some cases, the shift in scale and sophistication now constitutes something that appears intrinsically novel. While crimes such as ransomware have existed for over 30 years, the volume of attacks today – and the increasingly blended state/non-state character of their perpetrators – constitutes a threat not previously seen. Numbers of reported frauds have risen exponentially in the last decade: fraud is now the most common crime experienced in England and Wales, with three quarters of adults in the UK targeted in person, online or by phone in 2022. Money-laundering networks continue to innovate, despite the scale of resourcing employed to meet regulatory requirements. In all likelihood, more resources are deployed on the response of money laundering than any other crime.
In other areas, drug criminals now use dark-web marketplaces to trade, encryption to communicate and cryptocurrency to make payments. 3D-printed firearms pose a growing threat. In 2014, the NCA judged public concern over these to be ‘not … substantiated’, with many ‘prohibitively expensive’. Fast forward 10 years and May 2023 saw the first UK convictions for the attempted supply of 3D-printed weapons to other criminal groups. In July, the NCA noted that ‘The number of recovered homemade firearms with 3D-printed components … has increased’, with the government planning to legislate to address this.
Today, half of all crime occurs online, with technology lowering barriers to entry and enhancing offenders’ reach. In 2023, few in the UK lack a digital footprint, making them accessible to criminals worldwide. As noted by NCA Director General Graeme Biggar, ‘technology enables scale: criminals can contact thousands of people at once … Crime used to be local and one-to-one. It is now also global and one-to-many’.
All Too Predictable
The impact of technology was predicted back in 2013. As the NCA’s first National Strategic Assessment noted: ‘If there is a single cross-cutting issue [affecting] the landscape for serious and organised crime … it is the growth in scale and speed of internet communication technologies’. This shift has since played out ever-more visibly: today, the exploitation of technology is arguably the defining feature of the serious and organised crime threat to the UK.
Another defining feature is the resilience and adaptability of offenders in the face of law-enforcement activity and a changing operating environment. A range of macro trends have demonstrated this adaptability over the last decade, as offenders have exploited emergent vulnerabilities at scale.
Our reliance on technology, our online lives and our ever-increasing digital footprint are exposing us to serious and organised crime whether we realise it or not
The ongoing digitalisation of all sectors of UK society has allowed offenders to exploit new targets and vulnerabilities. The growth of social media has offered further opportunities. In 2013, just over half the population used social media; in 2023 this stood at almost 85%. The Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated these trends, bringing radical change to our daily lives and an unprecedented shift online.
In short, the public no longer has a choice: our reliance on technology, our online lives and our ever-increasing digital footprint are exposing us to serious and organised crime whether we realise it or not. The public may unwittingly use the services of organised criminals, where their data is exploited or they unknowingly use the products of enslaved labour. Or they may seek organised crime out, buying Class A drugs on the dark web or acting as money mules due to cost-of-living pressures.
Brexit also created opportunities for organised crime. These lie not least in vulnerabilities associated with the Common Travel Area, which traffickers exploit as a perceived backdoor into post-Brexit Britain. The emergence of new markets, lockdowns and goods shortages during the pandemic created opportunities for counterfeiting, illicit trade and fraud. Today, the implications of a cost-of-living crisis continue to ripple across society, creating incentives to engage in criminality.
Though difficult to measure precisely, there can be little doubt that all this has led to an increase in serious and organised crime. Today, the NCA estimates that at least 59,000 individuals are involved in serious and organised crime in the UK (excluding child sexual abuse). While historic changes in data recording have occurred, the figure in 2013 was 36,600 organised criminals. The cost to the UK is also assessed to have grown, from £24 billion per year in 2013 to more than £37 billion per year in 2018. These figures have long been viewed as underestimates; the potential scale of money laundering impacting the UK has alone been estimated at over £100 billion annually.
Beyond fraud and cyber, growth in other crimes has fed these overall increases. While in 2014 the NCA noted that ‘the overall scale … of child sexual exploitation and abuse is not yet possible to quantify with any confidence’, in 2023 680,000–830,000 UK-based adults were assessed to pose a risk to children. Equating to 10 times the country’s prison population, these concerning figures are assessed to reflect improved understanding, as well as a real increase driven by the ‘radicalising effect of the internet’.
Growth in organised immigration crime has also been seen, underpinned by changing migration patterns. In the year to June 2023, 52,530 irregular migrants were detected entering the UK, following consecutive year-on-year rises. 85% of those entering in 2023 used small boats, with such arrivals rising from 299 in 2018 to 45,774 in 2022. Meanwhile, referrals of potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) rose from 1,741 in 2013 to 16,938 in 2022. This is the highest number since the NRM began in 2009, although it is likely to have been affected by increased public and corporate awareness – a welcome development.
Drug use is up on a decade ago. The 2012/13 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 2.7 million adults had taken an illicit drug in the previous year; this rate was 3 million in the year to June 2022. Yet seizure numbers have not risen: 188,927 seizures were made in the year to March 2022, compared to 194,579 in the year to March 2014. Levels of firearms crime remain among the lowest worldwide. Despite this, the threat persists: in the year to March 2022, 5,750 firearms offences were recorded in England and Wales; this stood at 5,158 in the year to March 2013.
New Kids on the Block
A final defining feature of the threat is linked to an international order that has grown increasingly unstable. Almost all serious and organised crime impacting the UK has an international dimension, with criminals adept at exploiting conflict and instability for their own ends.
During Russia’s war on Ukraine, this has been seen as offenders have exploited the disruption of established supply chains. Elsewhere, criminals have capitalised on growing numbers of migrants seeking to travel to the UK. This latter ‘opportunity’ has emerged as the numbers forced to flee persecution, conflict, violence, human-rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order globally surpassed 100 million for the first time on record.
Almost all serious and organised crime impacting the UK has an international dimension, with criminals adept at exploiting conflict and instability for their own ends
Perhaps of most concern, criminals have adapted to a global environment characterised by rising authoritarianism, competition between states and shifts in the global distribution of power. In this context, growing concern has been expressed over a blurring of the lines between organised crime and hostile-state activity, as the latter has risen rapidly up policy agendas.
The linkage between crime and hostile-state activity has been evident for a number of years. The government’s 2018 Serious and Organised Crime Strategy observed that ‘The distinction between nation states and criminal groups in terms of cyber-crime is becoming frequently more blurred’. Since then, however, focus on this issue has intensified as systemic competition has accelerated and international tensions have deepened.
Today, non-military state-led threats come in many guises, including hybrid organisational forms. Encompassing state-based, state-sponsored or state-enabled organised crime, malign cyber operations and the financing of anti-democratic activities, the links between criminal and nation-state activity are increasingly fluid. This is challenging the UK’s traditional distinction between crime and other national security threats.
This confluence of crime and hostile-state activity operates across a spectrum. At one end is corruption, the emergence of ‘moonlighters’ within state structures and the penetration of public-sector institutions by non-state criminal actors. At the other is direct governmental involvement in criminality as a matter of state policy and the hiring by state institutions of criminal ‘proxies’ to pursue strategic goals.
Our understanding of state actors must shift from viewing them simply as objects of criminal infiltration to acknowledging their role as active manipulators of the modern dynamics of transnational organised crime. Often, this exploitation occurs as criminal actors and tools are viewed as cheap, anonymous and deniable options to meet state ends. In some cases, for example, criminals have been used by state agencies for intelligence collection, assaults and assassinations. In others, semi-autonomous criminal actors have played a key role in conducting cyber attacks on behalf of countries such as Russia, China and Iran. These actors have been given licence to conduct ‘free-range’ criminality where state-commissioned assignments are delivered.
In July, Graeme Biggar reiterated the need to address the blurred lines between these and other complex threats. He cited North Korea’s use of cybercrime to steal cryptocurrency, as well as Russia’s tolerance (and tasking) of cybercrime groups and its ties to oligarchs and associated enablers. Beyond these cases, he expressed concern over hostile states’ use of organised criminals as proxies in systemic competition, stating the need for relevant UK agencies to track this development closely.
While convergence can occur for multiple reasons, the cumulative impact has been a fundamental change in the nature of the threat. Crucially, the blended state/non-state nature of this activity raises growing questions around the effectiveness of our response.
Indeed, at a basic level, such convergence challenges both the UK’s conventional toolkit and the traditional organisation of resources around responses to separate transnational challenges. Where these challenges – and the capabilities needed to disrupt them – overlap, a less siloed, more threat-agnostic and better-coordinated institutional approach is required.
Such problems are unlikely to go away. The risk of further deterioration in the global security environment is widely acknowledged. In this context, the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh notes that ‘cooperation between state and non-state actors is likely to continue increasing’. With the current period of contestation likely to last beyond the 2030s, criminals have ample scope to adapt. The implications are as yet unknown, either for the UK or for the wider international rules-based order.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
A minor update to this Commentary was made on 13 November 2023.
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