I was really pleased to be interviewed, along with the always outstanding Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings and Virginia Comolli of IISS, by Max Daly from Vice News. We were asked to substantiate the rumours around narco terrorism.
Is the Drug Trade Really Bank-rolling Terrorism?
An Iranian police officer stands behind drugs seized from smugglers, in a police base in Taibad, on the border with Afghanistan. (Photo: Vahid Salemi / AP/Press Association Images)
Here’s a puzzler. How do you turn violent religious extremists into amoral gangsters, while simultaneously making people who get high look like terrorist funders?
Simply transform all Islamic militants into “narco-terrorists” who are bankrolled by the drug trade. Abracadabra! – a misinformation missile striking simultaneously at gun-toting jihadists and anyone involved in buying or selling drugs. It’s propaganda value for money. What’s more, because it’s a “marmalade dropper” (a story to shock people as they read the news over breakfast) the media will lap it up.
And you can see why – don’t tell me you don’t want to click on any of these headlines:
In 2014, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne described this wicked marriage between terrorists and drug peddlers: “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 fuelling insurgents. 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.”
Thing is, the threat is not entirely real. In fact, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in international conflict and organised crime, it’s a narrative steeped in half-truths and spin that, in some cases, acts as a cover for the involvement of state officials in the drug trade.
“Many of these links are vastly exaggerated, and based on extraordinarily shabby evidence,” says Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution, one of America’s most respected and oldest think-tanks. The “narco-terrorism” narrative, she says, is based on “a lot of drama and myth”.
For example, most of the tales portraying the Islamic State as key players in the global supply of heroin are state-sponsored propaganda coming out of Russia. This story is pushed by Russian officials and media outlets because it makes America and Britain look bad. The Coalition’s failure to suppress Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation after invading in 2001 has led to bumper opium crops that, the story goes, not only fills IS’ coffers, but creates what American and British politicians secretly yearn for: millions of heroin-addicted Russians. It’s a load of baloney – long-established heroin trafficking routes bypass their territories – but if newspapers carry on printing it, people will soon believe it.
In reality, Islamic State (IS) – currently the biggest global terrorist threat – has very little involvement in the global heroin, cocaine or cannabis trade. Islamic terrorist groups are far from being a band of bearded Pablo Escobars with international reach.
“IS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not narco-terrorists. They are terrorists who simply tax everything in their area – it is very localised,” says Felbab-Brown. She estimates that drugs are one of IS’s “smaller income streams”. According to a report earlier this year into IS’ finances by US-based analysis firm IHS, 50 percent of the group’s revenue – estimated at $56 million (£43 million) a month – comes from taxation and confiscation, and 43 percent comes from oil. The remaining 7 percent comes from a mixture of sources, including the sale of electricity, donations and drugs. The money IS does receive from the drugs trade comes indirectly, as part of a system of taxing all goods and services, such as food, transport, fuel and raw materials that are bought and sold within their realm of control.
In fact, the links made between global terrorism and the drug trade have often turned out to be a smokescreen for government involvement. “There are just as many government links to the drug trade as there are terrorist links,” says Felbab-Brown. “It’s easier to blame terrorists rather than institutional corruption. Remember, the best way of being a drug trafficker is to work for the ministry of counter narcotics.”
From entire institutions to rogue individuals, government figures across north west Africa – in Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone – have been linked to cocaine smuggling and methamphetamine production. It is no surprise, then, that the authorities in these countries are particularly keen to spread misinformation exaggerating the role of Islamic terrorists in drug smuggling. It’s an old game: state authorities have also been caught knee-deep in the drug trade in countries all over, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Turkey, China, Italy and Peru.
Felbab-Brown points out that most drug traffickers, unsurprisingly, see IS as a dangerous business partner, not just because of their capacity for extreme violence, but because they attract maximum heat from law enforcement and military intelligence. Nor are IS in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels, as claimed in 2014 by Tom Cotton, Republican senator for Arkansas. The scare story was based on the mumblings of a discredited defence analyst.
Modern day terrorists rarely get involved in the drug trade beyond their home turf. But this does not mean IS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban don’t make money from the drug trade. They do, but to vastly differing degrees.
The Taliban – responsible for a long list of atrocities, including the murder of 148 children at a military-run school in northwest Pakistan in 2014 – has the closest relationship with drug money. As with many big players in Afghanistan, such as the government and Coalition forces, the Taliban realised in 1995 that if it wanted to keep the populace onside it had no choice but to let the opium trade continue.
“Since then, the Taliban have sponsored and taxed poppy cultivation and trafficking within Afghanistan,” says Felbab-Brown. “Opium is the economic lifeline in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s message now is all about being ‘protectors of the poppy’, preserving the nation’s livelihoods against Kabul’s ‘kaffir government’.”
Afghan farmers collecting raw opium in a poppy field east of Kabul. (Photo: Rahmat Gul / AP Photo)
The Taliban’s involvement in Afghanistan’s domestic opium trade continues despite the country’s invasion and occupation by the American-led coalition between 2001 and 2014. But it is mainly restricted to inside Afghani borders, with external trafficking mostly the privilege of corrupt authority figures in Pakistan.
“The Taliban is involved in some opium smuggling to Pakistan. But this business is dominated by affiliates of the main Pakistani political parties and figures in the Pakistani army and intelligence services. And, like the Afghani politicians who also profit from the poppy trade, they launder the proceeds in Dubai and the UAE,” says Felbab-Brown. She estimates poppy cultivation makes up around 30 to 40 percent of the Taliban’s income of “tens of millions of dollars a year”, with the lion’s share coming from fundraising in the Gulf and Pakistan.
What about al Qaeda, the architect of 9/11, one of the biggest terrorist attacks in history? Felbab-Brown says a decade ago there were “dramatised links” made in the media linking the group to the drug trade, “based on dodgy, murky evidence”, but the stories have since died down because the group has taken such a beating from the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In some parts of Afghanistan, the white flag of the Taliban has been replaced by the black flag of IS. In Nangarhar Province, IS have prohibited poppy cultivation alongside claims of religious purity, to try to damage the Taliban’s credentials. But putting ideology ahead of cold hard cash has been expensive for IS, according to Felbab-Brown. Not only have they spurned a huge income through opium, but their ban on growing poppies – while forcing farmers to become IS soldiers instead – has turned the local population against them.
But Islamic State is not a uniform outfit, and for some bands of IS fighters old habits die hard. In the north of Afghanistan, most IS soldiers are former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a band which used to smuggle opium and, despite fighting under the IS banner, continues to do so.
In the Middle East, IS appears to have forgotten its puritanical credentials. There are whispers that IS has started to tax hashish operations and smuggling in and around Lebanon. However, the key ties between IS and drugs comes in the form of the black market amphetamine Captagon, a drug which fell into their laps when they discovered a series of industrial scale factories producing the pills in Syria. There is strong evidence to show that IS, knowing there is a huge market for the drug in the Middle East – especially in Saudi Arabia and Jordan – has decided to tax its production and sponsor its movement across Syria’s borders.
Tuesday Reitano, Head of the Secretariat at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, says IS has a conflicted relationship with drug trafficking in the Middle East: “Traffickers caught within IS territory of control have often been executed. Yet Captagon is produced in Syria and trafficked cross border through Turkey and Lebanon. This is not to say that IS is directly involved in either production or trafficking: their funding model thus far has been to tax the movement of goods, both licit and illicit, through their territory, demanding a payment from the traffickers themselves.”
Reitano says Libya has become a hub for prescription drug trafficking, and there is evidence that seizures of large quantities of Tramadol in Greece have been destined for IS for use as battlefield medicine, as well as for recreational markets.
According to both Reitano and Felbab-Brown, there is evidence from refugees coming out of Syria, as well as from captured or killed IS fighters, to back up previous news agency investigations that Captagon is being used to help fuel IS fighters on the battlefield. However, these stories have to be treated with caution. A deluge of stories in the global press suggesting that the November 2015 Paris attackers injected Captagon to carry out the massacre turned out to be false. No drugs were found in their bodies and the syringes and plastic tubes found at one of their flats turned out to be bomb making equipment, not drug injecting paraphernalia, as the media suggested at the time.
In the past decade, the narco-terrorism narrative has shifted to the emergence of a cocaine route into Europe’s back door, from Colombia to West Africa and overland through the Sahara desert up to the north African coast. It has been alleged that much of the profits of the trade are being reaped by jihadist militant groups in north west Africa, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But how solid is this, the first link to be made between Islamist terrorists and cocaine, a substance consumed so widely in the West, and one that has enabled drug war enthusiasts to equate buying cocaine with the funding of suicide vests?
A review funded by the Kofi Annan Foundation into the links between drug smuggling, extremism and terrorism in the region found that “widespread talk of a drug-terror nexus in the Sahel is misleading”. Author Wofram Lacher, an associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said: “Much of the evidence presented as basis for such claims can either be easily debunked, or is impossible to verify.”
Crucially, the report concluded that terrorists were far from being the biggest fish in the drug trafficking pond. “Numerous other actors are playing an equally or more important role in drug smuggling, including members of the political and business establishment in northern Mali, Niger and the region’s capitals, as well as leaders of supposedly ‘secular’ armed groups. The emphasis on links between drug trafficking and terrorism in the Sahel serves to obscure the role of state actors and corruption in allowing organised crime to grow.”
Reitano too thinks it’s all a bit of a snow storm: “I’ve travelled extensively around the Sahel since the Mali crisis in 2011, and have never once had a law enforcement official – either international or national – say that they have ever seized drugs with a direct connection to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) or other terrorist groups in the region.”
She thinks the links between drugs and terrorists in the region have been exaggerated for political gain, in more than one sense. “I see the threat in the Sahel as having been vastly overplayed because it served a political objective [to those opposing the Islamic forces] both prior and post the Mali crisis,” she says. “In fact, local government officials in Mali’s north have probably seen greater benefit from the drug trade than the terrorist groups.”
Reitano tells me that while drugs do move across the Sahara, it is predominantly low value hashish. She says there is “a small flow of cocaine that enters from the West African coastal countries such as Guinea Bissau and Guinea and then travels overland across the Sahara, but this has declined significantly since the French counter-terror operations began”.
An Afghan man snorting heroin in Kabul. (Photo: Rahmat Gul / AP/Press Association Images)
Rather than dwell on hyped claims of narco-terrorism in the region, Reitano says “the new trend to watch in this space is growing evidence of methamphetamine production. There have been labs and super-labs found in Ghana and Nigeria, and the seizure patterns suggest it may also be produced in Mali, and little is known about the groups controlling this.”
It could be terrorists, but it could just as easily be people operating within the State. According to Virginia Comolli, a senior analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the evidence from Nigeria shows that terrorists are no more likely than state authorities to be involved in the drug trade, despite claims from regional observers that Boko Haram is primarily a criminal syndicate rather than one driven by ideology.
“The collusion of state authorities is at the core of the problem in the region and given that it goes way back in time, it is extremely hard to eradicate,” says Comolli. “There have been rumours linking Boko Haram to Colombian cocaine traders, but the group is not involved in a big way. They’ve been involved in low level local drug smuggling, but drugs have never represented a significant source of funds, unlike other criminal activities such as bank robberies and extortion. Nigerian newspapers say Boko Haram fighters have been caught in possession of ‘hard drugs’, but this is usually cannabis for their own use.”
Perhaps the obsession with terrorists and the drug trade is shackled to the past, where this symbiotic relationship – like the Taliban in Afghanistan – has flourished. Until the new peace agreement, the FARC in Colombia have been the most obvious benefactors of the cocaine trade, alongside the Shining Path and Sandinistas in Peru. And despite their denial, both sides of the religious divide in the Northern Ireland conflict received income from the illicit drug trade.
In Africa, Mokhtar “One Eyed” Belmokhtar, also known as Mr Marlboro because of his role in cigarette smuggling across the Sahel region, used illegal drug smuggling as a way of buying weapons. In the Middle East, drug production and trafficking has long funded violent conflict. The PKK, Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah have consistently dabbled in the drug trade. Occasionally, drugs have been the currency used in the commission of specific terrorist attacks: as Spanish prosecutors alleged was the case in the 2004 Madrid bombings.
But there is a downside to hyping the narco-terrorism narrative. Because the more the truth about groups like Islamic State – and how they operate – becomes clouded by baloney and hype, the less likely they are to be defeated. The more emphasis there is placed on the drug trade, the more attention is diverted from tackling more lucrative income streams. There is a much vocalised dream that if only the drug trade can be stopped, so too can the terrorists.
Felbab-Brown warns that it is leading to misguided policies. “These fallacies are actually damaging to counter terrorism: the fallacy that if you disrupt the drug trade you will defeat terrorists. There is not one example of this happening – be it Peru, Colombia, China, Burma, Lebanon or Thailand – because they are not bankrolled by drugs; or the fallacy that we can’t negotiate with terrorist groups because they are criminals with no political agenda because they are involved in drugs.”
This skewed narrative is also sending us on another dud mission on the war on drugs, where already demonised players in the drug trade, such as drug users and street dealers, are now being tarred with funding Islamic terrorism, turning them from selfish undesirables into virtual enemies of the state.
As if fighting terrorism was not hard enough. As if the drug war needed ramping up a notch: the over-hyped narco-terrorism construct looks set to become yet another foot-shooting move in the fight against those most elusive enemies, drugs and terror.