How the Drug Trade Funds Terrorism

Terrorist groups and international organized crime often make common cause, as . The crime syndicates in the European Union (EU) make alliances with their counterparts in the wider world and sometimes through mediators communicate with terrorist organizations in the Sahel, Central Asia, and West Africa The modern version of globalization is no different than the Medieval or Antique version. Now, as then, profit overcomes ideology in many cases. Modern communications and new tools of exchanging information make creating such unions much more profitable and more difficult to stop. There is today what one might call a “criminal international”, in which groups from different parts of the world create links with each other to ​​circumvent the various obstacles, particularly laws, to business.

Such international criminal alliances are aggressive in pressing their interests, trying to conquer territory, control cities, and impose taxes where they deem it necessary and one of the driving factors is the drug trade. At a drug caucus hearing in June 2019, senators heard testimony from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several experts, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the caucus co-chair. Ms. Feinstein began her remarks by noting that “the illicit drug trade is a business, valued at anywhere between $426 billion and $652 billion, its reach is global, its distribution is growing and its leadership is criminal”. This statement could not be truer. Data from investigations show that the criminal networks, including in Europe, are constantly developing.

In 2012, with the release of the iPhone 5 and iPad Mini, Apple was the company with the highest shareholder gains — up 67%. If you invested $1,000 in early 2012, a year later you would have $ 1,670. But if you invested $1,000 in cocaine in early 2012, you would have had a profit of $182,000 in 2013 — a hundred-fold increase. As the investigative journalist and writer Roberto Saviano wrote in his book ZeroZeroZero, the drug is not worried about a market collapse or a depletion of resources. Drug trafficking generated direct profits from criminal groups around the world worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year between 2014 and 2017.

Cocaine is so lucrative that neither trafficking in jewels nor arms trafficking can be compared. Even the sale of oil is lagging behind that of coca, which is why it is no coincidence many are calling it “the white oil”. Experts estimate that money laundering and drug trafficking make more than half-a-trillion dollars in profit across the globe. This huge amount of money funds the gray economies of states on the Eurasian landmass, Africa, and North America, as well as jihadi groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.

The underground economy for drugs is huge and the United Nations estimated in a 2011 report that worldwide proceeds from drug trafficking and other transnational organized crime were equivalent to 1.5 percent of global GDP, or $870 billion in 2009. There are many places around the world where millions of people live without the internet, without hospitals, without running water, but not without cocaine. According to the UN, 21 tons were seized in Africa in 2009, 14 tones in Asia, 2 tons in Oceania, and more than 101 tons in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cocaine creates investments and huge cash flows that affect the quality of life of continents.

In 2017, when I visited Saudi Arabia, drug trafficking was one of the main topics I discussed with local officials. Border authorities had just seized several hundred thousand pills of amphetamine on the shore of the Red Sea, which the Saudis call colloquially “shabu”. Saudi authorities come across such loads every month — sometimes millions of pills, made in Latin America, Asia, Europe, or Africa. For Saudi Arabia, where, according to official figures, by 2014, nearly 40% of young people use or have used shabu, drug trafficking is a serious topic in terms of security as well. Through addiction to pills, radical groups succeed in attracting youth to criminal networks, which underpin jihadist groups that are delivering goods in exchange for services. These networks raise funds for future operations, including terrorist attacks. Terrorism experts in Europe pay a lot of attention to groups’ finance methods. In recent months, I have had several discussions with representatives of European security services, whose main activity is to analyze the flow of money sponsoring terrorist cells.

For example, with ISIS and Al-Qaeda, it is relatively easy to include more people in their networks through their propaganda. To carry out a terrorist attack is a cheap endeavor and all the representatives of the services I have spoken to agree. Their findings are confirmed by a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Institute, according to which more than 90% of jihadist cells in Europe, existing between 1994 and 2013, are self-funded through savings, donations, personal loans, or criminal activity.

It is not an accident that the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 are criminals who met in prison. One of them, Chérif Kouachi, received $20,000 from a Yemeni imam, but Kouachi probably spent the money by putting it into the drug business. On the day of the attack, he has $40,000 — much more than is needed to fund a terrorist attack. According to a Norwegian study, more than 40% of jihadist attacks in Europe are sponsored directly through criminal activity and, in particular drug trafficking. German federal police estimate that two-thirds of the 669 German jihadists have criminal records and the remaining one-third have been imprisoned for drug trafficking. About 20% of Spanish nationals detained for ties to ISIS have previously served sentences for drug trafficking or falsification of documents.

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In 2004, South American drug cartels began transporting vast quantities of cocaine across the Atlantic by ship and aircraft to Africa. The drugs were transported along purpose-built tracks across the desert, or along with ancient caravans of the Sahara guarded by Tuaregs and — since 2007 — Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist fighters. Al-Qaeda provided security for the drug traders moving cocaine into West Africa — and from there to mafia structures in southern Europe — and in exchange received millions of dollars as “taxes”. Thus, the Mexican and Colombian cocaine trade with Europe financed Islamist groups in North Africa, enabling them to seize new territories, such as Mali in 2013, and orchestrate terrorism further afield.

A classic case is the Unity and Jihad Movement in West Africa (MUJAO), which is also affiliated with Al-Qaeda. An alliance of several local jihadist groups, MUJAO was initially sponsored through drug trafficking by Arab drug lords, who see the organization as a way to protect their businesses.

Stopping the cash flow to such groups, which are becoming more visible and dangerous, is imperative. For example, in 2017 alone, Al Qaeda is responsible for nearly 250 attacks in West Africa.

When it reaches the shores of the Old Continent, the valuable cargo is most often distributed either by the Italian or Bulgarian Mafia, according to sources among the Bulgarian intelligence community. From this trade in drugs, Al-Qaeda made a profit of over $1 billion in 2016–17. In 2009, Portuguese services captured at least twenty people, mostly boys younger-than-20, carrying cocaine capsules from Guinea-Bissau to Spain and Portugal, which very likely were used for financing terrorist activities. The profits and, accordingly, the political influence of drugs is not limited to North Africa and Europe. Syria, which has a well-established pharmaceutical infrastructure, is the second largest provider of pharmaceutical products in the Middle East.

Prior to the Civil War, a captagon tablet was transported to Lebanon from factories based in the city of Homs, under the supervision of government officials — and as the CIA reports reveal, the Syrian government has been involved in drug trafficking since the 1980s. In a 1985 report, the CIA warned that Damascus is unlikely to crack down on narcotics traffickers while the drug law enforcement “has shown no inclination to publicize and lead a stringent antinarcotics campaign”. Back then, the American information indicates the participation of corrupt military and government officials in the trafficking which provides personal wealth and also relieves the Syrian regime of some of the financial burden. This supply channel was later controlled mainly by ISIS and Al-Qaeda who use the old pharmaceutical industry infrastructure and replaced the regime’s military officers. Meanwhile, by 2019, Syrian military and pro-Assad militias have been repeatedly accused of involvement in drug trafficking. The Syrian opposition also accuses the regime’s militias of promoting narcotics among school students as drug pills and cannabis are even sold publicly on the streets, while the dealers receive political cover from Hezbollah officials. Drugs are an important financial resource for Hezbollah, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

In 2014, Spanish intelligence revealed that ISIS used its links in North Africa and Afghanistan to profit from the drug trade. Along with weapons and smuggling, the “white oil” with which the organization finances its operations is still flowing. Investigation of Italian services and other European countries shows that the drugs were transported through ISIS territory in Libya and the traffickers paid a charge to the group, as well as in Syria and Iraq. Other reports reveal details of an interaction between ISIS in Libya and Italian criminal organizations such as Calabrian Ndrangheta and Neapolitan Camorra. A delivery, intercepted in 2016 by the Greek coastguard, shows a huge number of drugs — in this case, 26 million opiate tablets transferred from India to Libya and from there through the ISIS branch to Italy and Western Europe. In 2019, Greece captured another delivery — around 33 million Captagon pills found in containers shipped from Syria.

An ISIS affiliate in North Africa, Jund al-Khilafah fi Ard al-Jazair, also benefits from providing protection for drug traffickers. At the same time, there are also gains from cannabis traffic from Iraq through Syria to Turkey and Europe. Not only that. In 2012, the European Parliament published a report on the links between European organized crime and terrorist groups. It outlines how jihadists develop successful links with criminal groups in Europe and thus fund their activities, including the execution and plotting of attacks. According to European intelligence services, the data from this report the jihadists rely especially on their drug trafficking and links with criminal groups in Europe.

Drugs are thriving everywhere — from central London to rural India. Traffickers use zones lacking infrastructure and good governance to transit their products. Organizations have ample opportunity to bribe insurgent and separatist groups and at the same time attract politicians, police officers, and judicial officials. This can be especially well seen in countries such as Mexico or Afghanistan. Once a region is destabilized, investment in it, and the activities of international and local organizations, are restricted. This is the ideal environment for drug trafficking. A cycle of violence, poverty, and armed conflict begins, in which each country sees an opportunity to profit from trade, trafficking, and use. Governments do little or nothing because the profits from the much-coveted banned product are huge. When I visited Lebanon in 2012, along the mountain roads leading to the Beqaa Valley, considered one of the strongholds of the Shiite group Hezbollah, remnants of the area’s famous hashish could be seen everywhere. Officially, the then-government campaigned against the drug, and footage of burning hashish was shown on television cameras.

Despite the wide scope of transnational organized criminal activities used by terrorists to fund themselves, it is the involvement of terrorist groups in the drug trade that has received the bulk of the attention from the politicians, academics, and policy analysts — and for good reason. It represents the single most lucrative source of revenue, and to the worst groups, like ISIS, stretching from Syria to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The nature of this overlap of terrorism and criminality is multifaceted, complex, and sometimes intimately linked to states, even those supposedly committed to fighting drug traffickers and terrorists.

The article was originally published in the European Eye on Radicalization. You can read the article with the footnotes on the .

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Author: PMCs, Syria, security, conflicts. Co-founder of De Re Militari journal.