Terrorist groups like Lebanon’s blood-drenched Hezbollah are exploiting the wretched of the earth — whom they claim to represent — through drug-trafficking for three main reasons:
- The decline of state sponsorship for terrorist groups — the Soviet Union has collapsed, smaller players like Libya have been whipped into line (although Iran still deals blood cards to its friends like Hezbollah).
- The success of government agencies — like the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence — in disrupting private funding for terrorist groups.
- The fact that nothing brings in the cash like drug trafficking. It is simply the most lucrative criminal trade in the world.
Michael Braun ought to know. Then assistant administrator for operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Braun spoke at length last year on the relationship between terrorist groups and drug trafficking. You can listen to his fascinating presentation here. Among other interesting points, Braun told his audience that terrorist operations per se cost relatively little — the September 11th attacks, he said, are estimated to have cost about $500,000, which is less than the one year’s bonus of a middling officer in a failed financial insitution these days. The big ticket is the quotidian daily cost of any group’s clandestine operations: e.g., recruiting, training, procuring arms, corrupting public officals, obtaining documents, and transportation.
Braun — now a principal at the private security group Spectre Group International — more recently touched on the similarities and affinities of terrorist groups and drug-trafficking organizations in testimony before the Subcommittee on The Western Hemisphere of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee:
The cartels operate just like terrorist organizations, with extremely complex organizational structures, consisting of highly compartmentalized cells: distribution cells, transportation cells, money laundering cells, and in some cases assassination cells or ‘hit squads.’ Many experts believe Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations are far more sophisticated, operationally and organizationally, then Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. In fact, some experts believe that Middle Eastern terrorist organizations actually copied the drug trafficking cartels’ sophisticated organizational model for their advantage. This sophisticated organizational model continues to thwart law enforcement and security services around the globe. Cell members are so compartmentalized that they possess little, if any knowledge of the greater organizations that encircle and support their nodes; therefore, they can share little of value with law enforcement when apprehended.
The Mexican cartels rely heavily on three of their most important tradecraft tools to maintain power: corruption, intimidation and violence the ‘hallmarks of organized crime.’ If they can’t corrupt you, they will intimidate you; if that doesn’t work, they will turn to brutal violence. Without the hallmarks of organized crime, the cartels simply cannot effectively operate. The Mexican cartels spend hundreds of millions of dollars to corrupt each year, and they have succeeded in corrupting virtually every level of the Mexican government. If anyone believes for one minute that these powerful syndicates are not looking north into the United States to corrupt they’re obviously blind. We are already experiencing a spillover of drug related violence, and it’s not just in communities along our SWB. It’s also playing out in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Maui and Anchorage.
That’s a lot of information packed into two paragraphs.
Terrorist Groups in Criminal Enterprises Generally
Here is what terrorism-financing expert and former Treasury official Matt Levitt has written recently about the nexus between terrorist groups and drug trafficking in general:
While terrorist groups are involved in a wide variety of criminal activity, ranging from cigarette smuggling to selling counterfeit products, the nexus between drugs and terror is particularly strong. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 19 of the 43 U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations are definitively linked to the global drug trade, and up to 60 percent of terror organizations are suspected of having some ties with the illegal narcotics trade.
Terrorist groups are particularly attracted to the drug trade because of the potential profits. The United Nations estimates that the international drug trade generates $322 billion per year in revenue, making drugs by far the most lucrative illicit activity. Beyond just selling the product, drugs provide many different avenues of revenue, including taxing farmers and local cartels, and providing security needs for all aspects of production, trade, and distribution. Groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Columbian FARC, and the Lebanese Hezbollah generate significant resources from the extortion fees they collect from drug cartels and poppy or coca farmers operating in their “territory.”
Hezbollah and Other Middle Eastern Terrorist Groups Active in Latin American Drug Traffic
The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah has a long record of engaging in criminal enterprises to raise funds. Barbara Newman and I wrote at length about this history of Hezbollah in our book Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil. We focused on the cigarette-trafficking operations of one cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, but also addressed the history of Hezbollah and its criminal and terror operations, including those in Latin America.
Hezbollah is among other terror groups on the bloody terror tit of Iran. In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in April 2008 then-Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey stated, “we have an estimate that Iran provides between $100 million and $200 million a year to Hezbollah alone.” But $200 million doesn’t nearly meet Hezbollah’s needs. So it operates as vast, world-wide criminal enterprise to raise funds. One obvious place is the wild-west Tri-Border Region where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina come together. Notorious for its lawlessness, the region has become a major interface between Andean cocaine Land and Middle Eastern Terror Land.
Here is Levitt on the point [he prefers the official spelling of Hizballah, I like Hezbollah. You say, “tomato” . . . etc.]:
In South America, Hizballah operatives engage in a wide range of criminal enterprises, including mafia-style shakedowns of local Arab communities, sophisticated import-export scams involving traders from India and Hong Kong, and small companies that engage in only a few thousand dollars worth of actual business but help transfer tens of thousands of dollars around the globe. The Tri-Border Area is especially important to Hizballah; according to the U.S. Naval War College, the group raises nearly $10 million per year there.
And on the broader point of terrorists and drug traffickers, here is an excerpt from the “Posture Statement 2009” of Admiral James G. Stavridis, United States Navy Commander, United States Southern Command, given before House and Senate Armed Services Committees:
One specific area of increasing concern is the nexus of illicit drug trafficking — including routes, profits, and corruptive influence — and terrorism. In the Western Hemisphere, the illicit drug trade historically has contributed, and continues to contribute, significant financial resources to known terrorist groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru. Another threat to the United States is the nexus within Islamic radical terrorism. In August of last year, U.S. Southern Command supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation, in coordination with host countries, that targeted a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking organization in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Last October, we supported another interagency operation that resulted in the arrests of a several dozen individuals in Colombia associated with a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking and money laundering ring. Identifying, monitoring, and dismantling the financial, logistical, and communication linkages between the illicit trafficking groups and terrorist sponsors are critical to not only ensuring early indications and warnings of potential terrorist attacks directed at the United States and our partners, but also in generating a global appreciation and acceptance of this tremendous threat to security.
“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “
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