Europol report identifies the most threatening criminal networks in the EU

Serious organised crime continues to represent a major threat to the internal security of the European Union (EU). To effectively prioritise resources and guide policy action, law enforcement and policymakers need to build a clear understanding of the most threatening criminal networks active in, and affecting, the EU. 

Europol’s new report, published today, entitled “Decoding the EU’s most threatening criminal networks”, delves into the characteristics of the criminal networks that pose the highest threat. This Europe-wide analysis focuses on criminal actors in a first-of-its-kind mapping of the most threatening criminal networks. It describes, in detail, how the most threatening criminal networks are organised, which criminal activities they engage in, and how and where they operate. It also assesses which of their characteristics increase the threat posed by these networks.

This mapping report is one of the key deliverables of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union which strongly encouraged the efforts of Europol in this respect. It will be an essential tool to fight organised crime, a top EU priority, as outlined in the recent roadmap presented by the European Commission.

Speaking at a press conference on the occasion of the presentation of the main findings of the report, Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine De Bolle, said:

Criminals thrive in secrecy, but we are changing that. This Europol report is the most extensive study on key criminal networks ever undertaken at the European level by law enforcement. Thanks to the collaboration of all EU Member States and 17 Europol partner countries, we are shining a light on the activities of the most threatening criminal networks in the EU. This data, now centralised at Europol, will give law enforcement agencies the edge they need to better target and conduct cross-border criminal investigations.

The Belgian Minister of Home Affairs, Annelies Verlinden, said:

We are introducing a new tool in the battle against serious and organised crime – a testament to the power of unity and innovation within the European Union. This report represents a significant milestone for our Belgian Presidency, and indeed, for the entire European community, reflecting our unwavering commitment to safeguarding the safety and security of our citizens. While this report is a very important achievement in itself, it is just the beginning. Considerable work and further steps are required in the coming months and years.

The Belgian Minister of Justice, Paul Van Tigchelt, said:

Combating organised crime is an absolute priority for the Belgian Presidency and this is an important new weapon in that fight. We now have, for the first time, all crucial data on the most threatening criminal networks in one location – with Europol. The next step is for the various police forces of the Member States to continue to enrich this centralised information so we can further prosecute and dismantle these networks.

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said:

Organised crime is one of the biggest threats we face today, threatening society with corruption and extreme violence. We need to know what we’re fighting – that’s why mapping organised crime is a key objective of our EU organised crime strategy and the roadmap I launched last October. The result is this important report showing the criminal threat posed by over 800 criminal networks with tens of thousands of members. I congratulate Europol on this important report.

The European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, said:

The impact of these findings will have significant implications for justice systems across the EU and the rule of law. Judges and prosecutors can only fight organised crime if they are free from intimidation, threats or attempts to influence their professional integrity. We must assure that this is the case. As the most threatening criminal networks run borderless criminal operations, cooperation between experts is vital. This is why the Commission will be supporting proposals for a new EU judicial network, to be placed at Eurojust, with a focus on organised crime, including High Value Targets.

A unique dataset

This analysis is based on a unique dataset which was shared with Europol specifically for this purpose, and complemented with additional information already shared with Europol as the European hub for criminal information.

All EU Member States and 17 of Europol’s partner countries contributed data to identify the most threatening criminal networks in Europe. This resulted in a unique dataset of 821 highest-risk criminal networks, with extensive information on all aspects that describe them and help assess their threat.

These criminal networks, whose membership exceeds 25 000 individuals, were selected based on criteria around the threat they pose. These networks are active in a range of crime areas, from drug trafficking to migrant smuggling, property crime and others.

Trends around the most threatening criminal networks were identified by Europol through the analysis of the full dataset of 821 networks.

The ABCD of the most threatening criminal networks

Through a comprehensive analysis of 821 criminal networks, an ABCD framework was developed, shedding light on their fundamental characteristics. By categorising key aspects of these groups into four distinct dimensions—A for Agile, B for Borderless, C for Controlling, and D for Destructive—the ABCD framework offers valuable insights into their modus operandi, structures, and operational patterns.

The most threatening networks are:

  • Agile: They exhibit a remark agility to adapt their criminal business processes to opportunities and challenges, including those challenges posed by law enforcement. They are able to extensively infiltrate and misuse legal business structures. This helps their criminal businesses thrive, allows them to launder their criminal profits and shields them from detection. 86 % of the most threatening criminal networks make use of legal business structures, the vast majority in the EU.
  • Borderless: The most threatening criminal networks run borderless criminal operations. Their activities touch upon many countries in the world, and their composition is very international, with network members from many countries in the EU and the world. A total of 112 nationalities were represented among the members of the 821 most threatening criminal networks, with 68% of the networks composed of members of multiple nationalities. However, looking at the locations of their core activities, the vast majority maintain a strong geographical focus and do not extend their core activities too broadly.
  • Controlling: The highest-risk criminal networks exert strong control and focus over their criminal operations. They tend to specialise in one main criminal business; truly polycriminal networks are the exception rather than the norm. The leadership of 82% of the most threatening criminal networks is settled either in the main country of activity, or the country of origin of the key members.
  • Destructive: The criminal activities and corruptive practices of the most threatening criminal networks are inflicting significant damage to the EU’s internal security, rule of law and economy. Half of the most threatening criminal networks are involved in drug trafficking as the/a main criminal activity. More than 70 % of networks engage in corruption to facilitate criminal activity or obstruct law enforcement or judicial proceedings. 68% of networks use violence and intimidation as an inherent feature of their modus operandi.

The threat posed by these networks is pervasive and complex. There is a need for a concerted, sustained, multilateral response and joint cooperation.

The ABCD of criminal networks highlights important elements to guide policy and operational action. It is a starting point for future analysis of criminal actors and will be further elaborated in forthcoming Europol analytical products, such as the EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2025.

This data, now centralised at Europol, will assist national law enforcement authorities to better target and conduct their cross-border criminal investigations.