The sale of illegal drugs fuels terrorism by pouring profits into dangerous ideologies, fanning the flames of hatred and violence around the world. The connection between drugs and terror is highly predictable, based on political and economic principles, and this linkage creates ethical dilemmas for drug users and policy makers alike. It is critically important to understand that drug profits enable terrorist organizations to turn powder into blood.
The majority of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia and most of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan. In both countries, terrorist groups influence the drug trade and fund their operations with drug proceeds. According to the DEA, approximately 37 percent of officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations have possible ties to drug trafficking. That percentage doesn’t include many undesignated purveyors of terror, like the Afghan Taliban, so the number of groups supporting terrorism with drug sales is probably much higher.
In Africa, A-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is linked to South American cocaine, Al-Shabaab traffics in heroin, and Boko Haram controls drug routes. In South America, the FARC and the Shinning Path thrive on the cocaine trade, and in Central America, criminal gangs and Mexican Cartels control the flow of drugs into the United States. In the Middle East, Hezbollah is linked to cocaine trafficking, and in Southwest Asia, the Taliban supports the heroin trade. The connections are everywhere.
The nexus between illicit markets and terrorism is certainly logical and it’s easy to understand why terrorist groups are drawn to drug trafficking. The prohibition of drugs means legitimate businesses are precluded from selling them, creating scarcity in the market and a vacuum, which is quickly filled by criminal organizations. Illegal enterprises are a natural endeavor for terrorists and other criminals, because they cannot openly generate income through legitimate businesses.
Once criminal groups are involved, violence must inevitably follow. Criminal groups engaged in illicit drug sales cannot avail themselves of the judicial system when they are victimized. Therefore, it becomes necessary for criminal groups to use violence to protect their interests. In this way, the criminalization of drug markets leads to the involvement of gangs, organized crime, and terrorist groups, and ultimately, to rising levels of violence.
High profit margins are another reason why criminal groups are enticed into the dangerous world of drug trafficking. For example, while prices vary, an average kilogram of heroin sells for $2,700 in Afghanistan and $67,000 in the United States. By the time one kilogram of high-purity heroin is diluted enough to be ingested and sold at user levels, it has generated as much as $1.5 million in sales. The profits are staggering.
The classic definition of narco-terrorism described criminal groups who engaged in terrorism to future their business interests. In Colombia, for example, the Medellin Cartel targeted judges and prosecutors to protect their drug empire.
After 9/11, DEA redefined narco-terrorism to include ideologically motivated terrorist groups who engaged in narcotics trafficking as a means to fund terrorism in support their political goals. These groups were driven by ideology, but used drugs as a tool to finance their operations. Hezbollah and the Taliban are current examples of this type of narco-terrorism.
Another modern form of narco-terrorism is practiced by groups that are independently motivated by both trafficking for profit and the pursuit of political goals. A good example of this is Khan Mohammed, a Taliban member and heroin trafficker who became the first person convicted of narco-terrorism in 2008.
The most common expression of narco-terrorism is the symbiotic relationship between terrorist groups and drug trafficking organizations. In this model, terrorists pursue ideological goals while traffickers seek profit, but they mutually support each other. Haji Bagcho, the world’s most prolific heroin trafficker, had this type of relationship with the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
Proof that drugs and terrorism are inextricably linked can be found in Afghanistan, the center of the world’s opiate production. Opium is extracted from poppy plants and according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), approximately two-thirds of all land under poppy cultivation is located in Afghanistan. According to the 2017 Afghanistan Opium Survey, the amount of opium produced in Afghanistan increased by 87% since 2016. More alarming is the UNODC estimate that approximately 85% of the arable land under poppy cultivation is under Taliban influence.
Opium is converted in clandestine laboratories into morphine and heroin, which have much higher profit margins. According to the 2015 World Drug Report, 77% of the world’s heroin was produced in Afghanistan, a percentage that has likely increased with the growth in opium production. While the use of opioids, like Fentanyl, is skyrocketing, the opium market continues to grow.
In addition to being the center of heroin trafficking, southwest Asia also has the highest concentration of terrorist groups in the world. Groups like ISIS, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network are flourishing in Afghanistan, where connections to drug trafficking are common. Approximately $150 million of the Taliban’s income comes from opium taxes and opiate trafficking, according to the 2017 World Drug Report. According to the UNODC, as much as half of the Taliban’s income may come from the opiate market.
It’s not just terrorists who benefit from illicit drug sales. Criminal groups across the globe dominate these markets. For example, the UNODC estimated that over 35% of the 5,000 international organized criminal organizations operating in Europe were engaged in drug trafficking. According to the UNODC, drug trafficking accounted for over 25% of the total revenues from transnational organized criminal groups.
In the United States, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center estimates there are 33,000 violent gangs, with over 1.4 million members. A according to the 2015 National Gang Report, drug trafficking was among the most prevalent crimes committed by gangs. The UNODC estimates that drug proceeds are the second largest source of illicit revenue in the United States.
Violence funded by drug trafficking has moral implications for both users and policy makers. There are strong libertarian arguments against paternalistic laws like drug prohibition and also compelling criticisms of the effectiveness and outcomes of the war on drugs. Regardless of the position one takes on drug legalization, as long as they are banned, violent criminal groups will profit from them.
When drugs are legally prohibited, terrorist and criminal groups control the market and there is an increase in the level of violence. Buying prohibited narcotics then becomes an immoral act, because the money generated enables violence and undermines the rule of law. Drug users need to consider what their money is funding as it moves up and down the supply chain and what are the ultimate consequences of their actions.
As long as drugs are illegal, narco-terrorism will continue to impact the lives of Americans, so it is incumbent on police to use the drug laws to dismantle terrorist and criminal organizations. While there are many negative, unintended outcomes from the war on drugs, one unmistakable benefit is the utility of stringent drug laws to incarcerate violent criminals. Members of these criminal and terrorist organizations are dangerous people who need to be removed from society. As long as drug sales are illegal, police should aggressively enforce the laws.
Jeffrey Higgins is a retired supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration and an expert in narco-terrorism. You can find his articles and media appearances at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.