How Lucrative Illegal Drug Trafficking Finances International Terrorist Organizations

The followig first appeared in The Fix. Also on Substituting AddictionsWhy I Don't Date Anyone Within the Fellowship AnymoreA Time-Out for Death

“Globally, drug trafficking is not just a criminal issue, not just a health and safety issue, it’s a national security issue. Addiction and abuse across the world is funding and fueling insurgents.” 

The words roll off Rusty Payne’s tongue with conviction bordering on zeal. As a spokesman for the DEA, Payne has reason to be passionate about the issue of narcoterrorism – the confounding nexus of drug trafficking and international terrorism. Roughly half of the Department of State’s 59 officially designated foreign terrorist organizationshave been linked to the global drug trade. Those outfits are all vying for a piece of the most lucrative illicit pie on the planet. According to the U.N. world drug report, the international drug trade generates $400 billion annually. 

Understanding the economics of terrorism is now a prerequisite to combating the phenomenon itself. In the past, for instance, terrorist organizations derived most of their fiscal support from state sponsors and private donors. As that funding has slowed significantly in recent years, outfits like ISIS, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabab in Somalia and the FARC in Columbia have increasingly turned to alternative sources of financing such as money laundering, arms dealing, extortion, and racketeering. Because of its lucrative potential, drug trafficking tops the list of alternative sources for these organizations to fund their operations. 

“What we know for a fact is that global drug traffickers and terror networks and insurgent groups often join in a marriage of convenience and do business to raise revenue for their respective purposes,” says Payne. “Much of the world’s terror regimes are funded through drug trafficking proceeds, or the taxing of drug routes throughout the world. The threat is real.” 

President Obama agrees with Payne’s assessment. In late 2011 when the narcoterrorism issue first surfaced, the White House responded in part by releasing its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime. Under the subheading “A Growing Threat,” the government outlined the imminent threat of the expansion of drug trafficking networks, the significance that expansion played in the courts of global terrorist organizations, and how that relationship could ultimately disrupt peace in the US. 

“Despite demonstrable counterdrug successes in recent years, particu­larly against the cocaine trade, illicit drugs remain a serious threat to the health, safety, security, and financial well-being of Americans,” the document concluded. “The demand for illicit drugs, both in the United States and abroad, fuels the power, impunity, and violence of criminal organizations around the globe.”

Payne points out that the relationship between terrorist organizations and drug trafficking is not always cut and dried. Thus, it can be difficult to dissect. Oftentimes, the revenue in question is not directly linked to manufacturing or selling of product, but taxing and providing protection to dealers, as but two examples. In addition, the DEA notes in its narcoterrorism briefing book that because these outfits typically don’t have much overhead and a bottom line contingent solely on the pursuits of the players themselves, staying in the red is rarely an issue that hinders operations. 

“Terror organizations do not, in general, require massive sums of money for their operations, but must finance training, infrastructure needs, equipping their members, bribing local officials, recruiting, and logistics,” the document states. “For example, according to the Spanish National Police, the al-Qaeda or affiliate cell that carried out the Madrid train bombing funded that operation primarily through the sale of illicit drugs.”

In addition to the general issue of narcoterrorism is the particular phenomenon of US synthetic drug sales fuelling the atrocities of infidels the world over. Cause and effect of the insidious threat can, in this nascent stage, be hard to ascertain; but correlations abound. And while the waters are still a little murky in trying to determine the exact role the designer market is playing in contributing to global terrorism, the facts are starting to settle the sediment, so to speak. When deductive reasoning is applied to the question of how closely tied the synthetic drug problem is to, say, civil war in the Middle East, those facts are startling.

One of the most recent examples of the potency of the problem was seen this spring when DEA agents raided a storage warehouse in Birmingham, AL. Inside the facility on Sixth Avenue, hundreds of thousands of “Scooby Snax” baggies stuffed with spice – unfittingly known as synthetic marijuana – were found. Sales of the product in Alabama were linked to nearly $40 million in wire transfers to Yemen. The bust was reflective of a larger trend, but one that is hard to prove. As with the umbrella issue of narcoterrorism, drawing a direct link between the “Scooby Snax” movement and war overseas, says Payne, is a difficult task. 

“Now can I take the money that’s been deposited into Yemen and trace it down to a group or an organization, no I can’t. I don’t have anything that would directly link an attack or an act of terror to the funds derived from synthetic drugs but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that people aren’t sending $40 million to their struggling relatives overseas,” says Payne, adding: “We have to be proactive in looking at these threats. We would be foolish to just sit back and watch something unfold simply because we don’t have a smoking gun.”

The Birmingham sting, codenamed Operation Red Tide, was part of the second phase of Project Synergy, a vast multi-agency effort to target every level of the synthetic drug market. The initiative began in January of this year and culminated on May 7 when the FBI and 45 DEA offices served 200 search warrants in 29 states. More than 150 people were arrested and hundreds of thousands of kilograms of synthetic drugs and $20 million in cash and assets were seized. 

Coordinated by the DEA’s Special Operations Division, Project Synergy brought together local, state, federal and international law enforcement resources to target retailers and manufacturers of synthetic drugs, many of whom were tied to the cash flow of tens of millions from drug proceeds garnered over the counter in US shops and sent to the Middle East. Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, among others, were the countries found to be receiving the influx. 

Derek Maltz, a retired agent at the head of the Special Operations Division, admits the issue outlined herein is complex, even with tangible results on the table. Some of the many challenges the United States government faces in dealing with the threat, he says, are globalization of the internet and the implacable advancement of telecommunications and technology. As significant to the conundrum, he believes, is the fact that terror organizations and states prone to civil and sectarian violence don’t play by the same rules as democratic countries.

“These organizations don’t work within the bureaucracy, they don’t work with antiquated laws and policies and processes, and they’re also not working in an environment where people have privacy paranoia. It’s very difficult at times when you’re operating in the rule-book when the enemy has no rule-book, unlimited funding and doesn’t have a massive bureaucracy. 

“If you look at a puzzle of the Twin Towers, let’s say the puzzle was 2,000 pieces and you were missing 200 pieces, would you still be able to see it was the World Trade Center?” asks Maltz through a thick New York accent, before answering his own question: “Absolutely. And the same thing is going on in this whole phenomenon.”

In the case of the narcoterrorism puzzle, there may as many pieces missing as present. Or more, even. A Google search of the term turns up only two news pages with stories pertaining to the issue, most of which are irrelevant to the current discussion. Sure, juggling search terms – terror financing, drugs and terror, terrorism and trafficking– turns up more hits, but the issue, it seems, is still off the media and, thus, the public’s proverbial radar. 

Maltz concurs. Borrowing from his former colleague’s playbook, Maltz says that without a smoking gun in the hand of a culprit – in this case rich, determined, organized, multifaceted global terrorist outfits – it can be hard to not only prove the allegation, but drive the attention of onlookers to the scene of the crime. 

“When you don’t have that smoking gun, it’s hard sometimes to get people interested in investigating it. It’s not a knock on anybody, it’s just reality. So would you rather put your resources into a proactive plot that’s going on right now, or would you rather put your resources into investigating the funding of drug trafficking to terrorist organizations? It’s a lower priority and it becomes more complex to figure out because it’s moving so quickly.”

In the meantime, the headlines continue to paint a horrific picture of the current state of the Middle East and other areas where terror networks have a foothold. Genocide, rape, decapitations, kidnappings and every form of evil rule the day, as crimes of hate perpetuated by the likes of ISIS, al-Shabab, Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others strike fear into the hearts of innocents. And, says Payne, as state sponsorship of terror declines, so too is drug trafficking playing an increasingly important role in the financing of terror plots. 

“How do these people finance their operations? Where does the money come from to train? To acquire weapons? To recruit, to corrupt, to bribe, to tax routes?” Payne asks. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen insurgent networks, terror networks, look to other sources of revenue to operate and they’ve found a natural partner in drug trafficking organizations. I don’t think there’s any question that some of those organizations have benefited and profited from drug trafficking globally.” 


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