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What Role Do Islamist Terrorist Organizations Play in Drug Trafficking?
Islamist terrorist organizations exploit drug trafficking to finance themselves by taxing organized crime, armed militias or drug traffickers. This issue is more prevalent in areas such as Afghanistan and the Indian Subcontinent, is sometimes overestimated in Africa and is wrongly underestimated in Latin America.
The international narcotics trade is a vast market that is a useful source of income for terrorism because of its untraceable revenues. Jihadist groups, therefore, enter agreements with organized criminal militias. Among the areas in which these agreements have found fertile ground are Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Morocco, Venezuela and the Triple Frontera area, where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina intersect.
A Relationship of Convenience
In several areas — Africa in particular — traffickers and jihadists have learned to tolerate each other (in religious terms, several jihadist groups disapprove of, or are hostile towards, drug traffickers), understanding that confrontation between them would not serve their interests. In many areas, the war on terrorism has fostered a rapprochement between some jihadist groups and traffickers.
Jihadist organizations need considerable liquidity to finance their operations — a condition fulfilled by the narco-traffickers, who, in exchange for payment of taxes and duties, receive protection, safe passage, protected territories where they can operate and traffic from, arms, trusted labor and the expansion of their range of action. One of the strengths of the collaboration between terrorists and organized criminal gangs is the possibility of having the support of corrupt political and security figures, which allows easy access to money laundering channels and relatively safe routes for drug transit.
Opium production in Afghanistan — which will be impacted by the fall of the Kabul government to the Taliban and could change operations and management related to opium production and trafficking — for example, had grown to about 93% of global production by 2020 (i.e., with Taliban control of about 40% of the country), according to the annual report of the United Nations Office on Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime (UNDOC). However, the areas known as the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos and Thailand), comprising 240 thousand hectares of soil planted with opium poppy, shrank for a second consecutive year in 2019, led by a decline in Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Poppy plantations in Afghanistan occupy thousands of hectares of land. The profitability and relative ease of poppy production has encouraged more and more Afghan farmers to choose poppy cultivation. In fact, poppy plantations have increased by 36% in the last twelve years. The Taliban collect a tax from the farmers of 10% of the total proceeds of the opium produced, plus a tax of 30% of the harvest. Taxes are also collected from laboratories that convert opium into heroin and from traders who smuggle the illicit drugs. Estimates of the Taliban’s annual earnings from the illicit drug economy range from $100 to $400 million — about 60% of the Taliban’s annual income.
In his first press conference after taking over Kabul in August 2021, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called for “international assistance” to provide farmers with alternative crops to poppies and promised that the new government would not turn Afghanistan into a narco-state. These promises appear to simply be a ploy by the new Taliban leaders to appear more moderate and secure international support and recognition.
The heroin, once produced, is then channeled into destination markets through three main smuggling routes: the Northern route, the Southern route and the Western route. The Northern route passes through the three neighboring Central Asian countries: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and then travels to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia. In Tajikistan, several terrorist cells support themselves with the proceeds of drug trafficking, including Hizb-ut-Takhir, Jamat Ansarullah, and Tbligi Jama’at. In Afghanistan, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, (KiB), an Uzbek group, transports and distributes heroin.
The Southern route passes through Pakistan, in the region of Baluchistan, and reaches China, Turkey and Europe by land, and East Africa, Oceania and America by sea. Heroin produced in Southeast Asia reaches Tanzania and is transported in large quantities on small boats to Zanzibar or overland to Kenya. It is then sent to Mozambique from where it leaves, by sea, for Europe and North America or, by land, to South Africa. The port city of Dar es Salaam is the main hub for African drug traffickers, who control and channel the international drug trade from there.
Finally, the Western route goes to Iran, the Indian subcontinent and the southern Caucasus — southern Italy, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro and Macedonia. Wahhabi Islamist armed groups in Macedonia collaborate with drug traffickers and terrorist organizations in securing the transit of Afghan cocaine in exchange for money.
Marijuana, Cocaine, and Synthetic Drugs
Marijuana is another drug that terrorist groups exploit through taxation to finance themselves. The main route for its trade is from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Albania and the Netherlands, where the drugs are routed to major European cities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban run this operation, whereas Laskar-e-ṯaiyyiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operate in Pakistan. LET or the “Army of Good”, also commonly translated as “Army of the Righteous” or “Army of the Pure”, is one of the largest and most active terrorist organizations in South Asia. It is currently operating near Lahore, Pakistan, but they are also operating in several military training camps in Kashmir.
In Africa, Boko Haram/JAS, Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups facilitate the transit of warlord and drug trafficking shipments in exchange for tax, duty and arms payments, particularly with regard to the trafficking of hashish, cocaine, hemp and synthetic drugs (tramadol in particular). Drug trafficking taxes have enabled AQIM, JNIM, ISGS and al-Shabaab to raise several million euros to finance their activities and operations. The drug trafficking routes cover several states, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Guinea and Benin in West and Central Africa.
South American Cartels
The role South American cartels play is often underestimated. They offer critical support to terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaeda and Hamas. The Mexican cartel of Sinaloa and the Colombian cartels are the ones most involved in illicit deals with jihadist terrorist groups, laundering money and buying weapons, through their support in cocaine trafficking from Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia, with numbers varying between 50 and 70 tons per year, which is then routed to the United States or through Caribbean countries to Cape Verde and the Gulf of Guinea, arriving in northern Malian cities such as Gao or Timbuktu, and then on to North Africa and Italy and the rest of Europe.
In South America, another region where the interests of organized crime and jihadist terrorist groups converge is the Tri-Borders area (TBA), also known as the Triple Frontera — an area where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina intersect. Mafia organizations — in particular, Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese and Lebanese mafias — drug traffickers and cells of Islamic terrorist groups operate in this region, particularly those linked to al-Qaeda and Hamas. An interesting aspect is the laundering of money from drug sales, which takes place particularly in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu and the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este.
South American cocaine travels by ship across the Atlantic to the Gulfs of Guinea and Benin and is then moved through the Sahelian and Saharan deserts with the support of Tuareg guides and the protection of militants affiliated with the various jihadist groups operating in the area. Once in Africa, the cocaine travels along two routes: the main one through Mauritania, Mali and Niger, to Algeria, or from Ghana and Nigeria to Tanzania, Egypt and Libya, from where it is further transported by ship in containers from Africa to the sorting facilities of mafia groups in southern Europe — particularly in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Cocaine is transported in Europe in a variety of ways, including couriers on commercial flights, commercial air transport, postal services, and by private aircraft and yachts. Maritime transport, on the other hand, is carried out for substantial loads. Major European ports, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp, are important destination points for cocaine shipments. To a lesser extent, movement to Europe also uses air routes, operated by criminal groups composed mainly of Nigerians and Ghanaians who ship cocaine via courier services. The second route leads to South Africa and then, from there, to the Suez Canal, on to the Balkans, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.
Middle East Drug Demand and Production
As for the Middle East market, in addition to heroin, hashish and marijuana, there has been a massive growth in demand for synthetic drugs in recent years — especially in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The consumption of synthetic drugs bypasses restrictions on alcohol and natural drugs. Although drugs are strictly and explicitly prohibited under Islamic law, the same does not apply to drugs taken by mouth. The most used synthetic drugs are Captagon and methamphetamine. War-torn Syria has become an ideal territory for the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs, as it is a relatively industrialized country with numerous pharmaceutical production plants operating in many parts of the country where security forces are not monitored because they are engaged in warfare. The Middle East synthetic drug market is largely managed by Hezbollah, which, in its stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, produces methamphetamine and Captagon in its laboratories and traffics them throughout the Middle East.
The Islamic State (IS) supports and encourages — in exchange for tax payments on producers and traffickers — the trade in synthetic drugs in North Africa, the Sahel and the Afghan-Pakistani area. In Europe, in addition to the above, synthetic drugs are transported through IS-controlled territories to Libya and sold to Italian criminal organizations such as the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra.
The role of jihadist groups in drug trafficking is not linked to the production of drugs, but to the financing they obtain by taxing the producers in some areas and the traffickers in almost all areas. Jihadist organizations can obtain funding from different segments of the drug trade: from protection, to support in transportation, to intermediation. The fight against drug trafficking must, therefore, be approached in three different ways: military, legislative and economic.
First and foremost, it is important that not only money laundering should be combated, but also the organized criminal gangs that collaborate with jihadist groups, by trying to deconstruct criminal models that can be replicated by terrorists regardless of their geographical area of operation. It is also vital to strengthen activities and instruments to investigate and trace direct and indirect terrorist financing. The strengthening of technological tools in ports, airports and customs is essential.
Regarding the Sahel and Saharan areas, it is important that the states in the area, and the international actors present there, become aware of the need to strengthen local intelligence, financial control activities, fight corruption, increase the presence of law enforcement agencies and special forces to constantly and effectively fight the many jihadist groups operating in the region and block all the main illegal trafficking described above.
In the specific case of Afghanistan, the Middle East and Latin America, economic action could be taken to support welfare policies for farmers or to finance a different agrarian policy, so that they are not forced to cultivate the raw materials from which drugs are derived in order to survive. Intervention is also needed to fight against corruption that favors the transport of drugs out of the countries.
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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