Organized Criminal Groups and Terrorist Groups - The New Phenomenon of “Narcopolterrorism”

This article tries to shed some light on the possible collaboration between organized criminal groups dealing with drugs, and terrorists, and thereby seeks to explore the linkages between the two global wars – the war on terrorism and the war on drugs.

Dr. Mustafa Alani
Senior Advisor and Program Director of the Security and
Terrorism Department at the Gulf Research Center

Two invisible, yet formidable, wars are in progress in the world today. They are classified as low intensity wars and characterized by an unconventional, protracted confrontation through a combination of methods, including military, intelligence, and political methods. First, there is the old yet continuing war, that is ‘the war on drugs’ which was officially declared in 1971 by then US President Richard Nixon and has expanded to become part of the international community’s war against the activities of organized crime. Secondly, there is the recently declared war, ‘the global war on terrorism’ which was officially launched by the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Both these wars have not achieved decisive victory as yet and, for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely they will.

Organized criminal groups dealing with narcotics as well as terrorist groups are non-state actors. They are leading a war against states, or the international community, and they operate on a transnational level. Therefore, a state acting on its own is not able to play a decisive role in the progress of these wars. This article tries to shed some light on the possible collaboration between organized criminal groups dealing with drugs, and terrorists, and thereby seeks to explore the linkages between the two global wars – the war on terrorism and the war on drugs.

In February 2004, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the main international organization in charge of counter narcotics, stated that “fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism.” This statement was not an attempt to establish a direct link between the two invisible wars; rather the director was expressing concern that the recently declared war against terrorism has taken precedence over, and could be taking away much needed resources from, the war against drugs. The director emphasized that equal effort should be directed towards the war against drugs. However, the Afghan political leadership saw a means to serve their self interest by supporting the view that a link exists between the drug trade and terrorism activities. Afghan President Hamed Karzai, for example, asserted in September 2004, that there is a direct relationship between security and drugs. He blamed three factors for insecurity in Afghanistan: terrorism, foreign support for terrorism, and opium cultivation, which, he said, also promotes terrorist activities. President Karzai has cautioned the international community categorically by asserting, “either we kill poppies, or poppies will kill us.”

Thus the question of priority comes to the fore: Should the war on terror take precedence over the war on drugs or vice versa? The Afghan government attempted to implement a poppy eradication program with the support of the international community. But, the program was not supported by Afghan farmers. On the contrary, the government’s ‘war on narcotics’ led to noticeable dissatisfaction among Afghan farmers resulting in increasing support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. Indeed, the government’s eradication program seemed to have a negative impact on the war against terrorism. It demonstrated that the war on narcotics serves the interests of terrorists and affirmed the argument that there is a direct linkage between the war on drugs and the war on terrorism.

The term ‘narcoterrorism’ was coined during the last two decades, especially to describe the violent activities of the Latin American drug cartels which aimed at influencing governments’ policies as well as societal attitudes. Narcoterrorism refers to the violent and intimidation techniques employed by drug barons and mafias in support of their narcotics production, trafficking, and distribution activities. However, narcoterrorism has nothing to do with politically or ideologically motivated terrorist activities. Violent activities are an integral part of the narcotics business, and associated violence is as old as the narcotics trade itself. However, during the last few years, and more precisely since the 9/11 attacks, a new phenomenon has drawn the attention of counter-terrorism and law enforcement authorities, that is the presumed institutionalized cooperation or alliance between “narcotics terrorism” and “political terrorism” or “ideological terrorism”. So far there is no single term to describe this new phenomenon. However, in this article, we will refer to this phenomenon as ‘Narcopolterrorism.’

In many reports and publications on terrorist groups, particularly in the political and academic literature published in the aftermath of 9/11, there are references to the “multiple links” that exist between resistance/terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates. They focus in particular on the drug lords and the assumed links between them and warlords. In fact, it is only in Latin America that evidence could be found proving the presence of strong relations between the narcotics producers/traffickers and some terrorist or militia groups, such as the Marxist FARC, AUC and ELN in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru.

In the Middle East, hardly any writer or journalist has offered credible evidence or solid facts to prove the links between terrorists and drug lords.

Nevertheless, since 9/11, some writers on terrorism, as well as official reports produced by western government agencies or by semi-official institutions, have advanced arguments implying links between the illicit drugs trade and Islamist resistance/terrorist groups. To give one example, the Taliban movement in Afghanistan as well as its ally, the al-Qaeda, has been linked with the narcotics trade and production. While it is difficult to prove, it is a fact that the areas in which the Taliban has a strong presence, mainly in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar as well as the Pashtun heartland in the south and the south-west/east region of the country, are also the areas which are infamous for the cultivation of opium.

Some reports have even tried to link Hezbollah of Lebanon to hashish production and trafficking. Their claims about the organization’s involvement in the drug trade are based on the fact that Hezbollah militias enjoy strong influence in and control over the main hashish production areas in southern Lebanon and the Bekaá valley near the Lebanon-Syrian border. However, apart from this geographical linkage, there is no accurate information or credible evidence to prove the truth of such claims.

Although the final objectives of organized criminal groups on the one hand, and terrorist groups on the other hand, differ, nonetheless a solid common ground and shared interests have existed between the two groups at the tactical, short term and operational levels.

First, interests converge when both groups are operating against the established authorities (or states) and the international community or the existing world order. Secondly, both groups have an interest in undermining the power and the control of the legitimate authority, weakening state institutions and law enforcement, and operating across state borders, threatening international security. Thirdly, both groups have an interest in generating funds; while the objective of the criminal groups is to make financial gains, the terrorist groups need funds to finance their operations and achieve their political and strategic objectives. Fourthly, the nature of their transnational activities makes the two groups work closely and encourages the exchange of services and experience. Thus the cooperation between the two groups is, under certain circumstances, regarded as mutual necessity.

As a general rule, drug production and narcotics trafficking has increased in the areas which are under the control of terrorist groups and vice versa. A terrorist group’s involvement in the narcotics trade could be motivated by the following factors:

1) Monetary aim: Terrorist groups, directly or indirectly, get involved in drug production and marketing for financial gains which constitute a major source to fund their activities and support the group’s survival.

2) Political aim: Terrorist groups could, politically and strategically, justify dealing in drugs as a means to undermine the integrity of the ‘enemy society’ of the ‘targeted state(s).’ This political objective could be achieved by providing protection and support, directly or indirectly, to drug cultivation, processing, smuggling, and marketing the illicit drugs in the ‘enemy society’ at cheap, affordable prices, through a wide distribution network with the ultimate aim of encouraging the drug habit among the youth of the targeted state(s). This would amount to a deliberate attack targeting the integrity and basic values of the ‘enemy’ society, and undermining the state’s authority and law enforcement.

3) Logistical and technical cooperation: Terrorist groups can utilize the illegal activities of the drug traffickers, and their experience in operating against the law, to facilitate their activities and serve their objectives. By their very nature, organized criminal groups and terrorist groups are both illegal and pursuing clandestine activities. Consequently, both are targets of law enforcement forces. As a result, the groups learn techniques to counter these forces. Terrorist groups, as well as armed groups, offer protection and a safe haven for drug groups.

The interdependence between the two groups could potentially encourage the establishment of closer ties based on practical and mutual benefits. Cooperation between the two groups could come as a result of the lack of government authority in isolated enclaves and regions (mostly near international borders or in difficult and inaccessible terrain). In certain instances, terrorist groups or drug gangs decide to turn a blind eye to each other’s activities, allowing both sides to operate freely and in a secure environment. In some cases, organized drug gangs were already established in specific geographic regions when terrorist groups came, took advantage of the situation, and decided to establish themselves in that area where the government had already lost its authority and control. In other cases, terrorist groups were already in control of a specific geographic area when drug barons took advantage and established their illegal criminal activities, taking advantage of the existing safe havens, established networks and existing infrastructure.

Areas of possible cooperation
The potential alliance between organized criminal groups and terrorist groups is based on mutual need and benefits. Organized crime groups could provide the underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit by offering expertise and valuable services at a highly proficient level to facilitate the activities of terrorist groups. Terrorist groups could outsource or subcontract activities and logistics needs to the organized crime groups; by doing so, terrorist groups can enjoy several advantages. They could distance themselves and avoid detection by law enforcement authorities; or, they could have the means of ensuring a better rate of success of a particular operation by obtaining logistical support from the organized crime groups that are adept at running such operations professionally. This sort of ‘farming out’ policy would allow terrorist groups to concentrate their efforts on military and political activities such as recruitment, training and political propaganda. The potential areas of cooperation could be summarized as follows:

1) Trafficking in arms, ammunitions, explosives and trade in WMD material and exchange of know-how. This could be done by bartering drugs with weapons or other required material.

2) Human smuggling and trafficking activities which could be utilized by terrorist groups to infiltrate international borders and smuggle terrorist elements in while avoiding border control.

3) Contract assassinations, kidnapping and victim transfers.

4) Money laundering and illegal funds transfer.

5) Terrorist groups could utilize organized crime-related corruption to provide linkage with corrupt officials and law enforcement.

6) Sub-contracting documents for forgery and counterfeit. 7) Sub-contracting information and intelligence gathering.

To conclude, the links between the war on drugs and the war on terror are evident in certain cases but not clear or proven in other cases. The involvement of Islamist resistance/terrorist groups, in particular, in the narcotics trade remains unclear. This article attempted to explore the possible links between organized crime groups and terrorist groups, based on the argument that cooperation between the two could be instituted on the basis of mutual needs and benefits. The article illustrated the argument by listing the areas of possible or potential cooperation between the two groups.

We, hypothetically at least, assume the reality of such cooperation and the development of tactical
or ad hoc alliances between drug organizations and terrorists, based on the plausible assumption that
both groups are united in fighting common enemies though sharply divided on strategic and final objectives. Law enforcement and intelligence authorities still lack authentic evidence to support the argument that links exist between organized criminal groups and terrorists.

The main premise of such an argument rests on facts that focus on the similarities between the two groups, the hostile environment in which they operate as well as on the nature of their transnational activities.

Published: 26 Nov 2006


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Security & Terrorism Research Bulletin