Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Tracking Narco-Terrorist Networks: The Money Trail

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Tracking Narco-Terrorist Networks: The Money Trail

Article excerpt


In October 2008, after a two-year joint investigation by U.S. and Colombian authorities, the Colombian government arrested thirty-six individuals on money laundering and drug charges. According to authorities, this network-comprised of Lebanese expatriates-was more than a traditional criminal syndicate, and was shipping a portion of its profits back to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

These types of cases-where terrorist groups and organized crime networks are closely intertwined-are growing far more common. These "hybrid" organizations-part terrorist group, part organized crime network-are "meaner and uglier than anything law enforcement or militaries have ever faced" in the view of senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials.

While this growing linkage is certainly a dangerous trend from the U.S. perspective, it also presents opportunities for policymakers. As the nexus of terrorism and criminal activity intensifies, targeting terrorist groups' criminal activities becomes an increasingly effective strategy. Terrorist networks are becoming increasingly transnational and a key challenge in confronting them is achieving international cooperation in counterterrorism initiatives. By capitalizing on terrorists' increasing criminal activity, the Obama administration could leverage its strategy of international cooperation and diplomatic engagement to gain broader support against illicit financing of transnational threats.


The terrorist threat is not static. Terrorists adapt and evolve, partly in response to the very countermeasures we enact. As the terrorist threat has evolved, the means by which terrorist groups raise, store, and move funds have also changed and have often hindered government efforts to thwart terrorist activities. Studies show that terrorist groups learn from one another, exchange information on new technologies, and share innovations. This is particularly evident in the financing and resourcing of terrorist activities.

Before September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda funded and controlled operations from its base in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda provided funding for the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Today, the terrorist threat is more decentralized, with the al-Qaeda core no longer funding other terrorist groups, cells, or operations as they did in the past. Local cells are being increasingly left to fund their own activities. While many fundraising techniques remain popular, including abuse of charities and otherwise legitimate businesses, terrorist cells increasingly engage in criminal activity to fund their actions. For example, Al-Jemaah al-Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia, helped to finance the 2002 Bali bombings by robbing jewelry stores. Another example is the 2005 attacks in London, which were partially financed by credit card fraud.

Terrorist groups are involved in a wide variety of criminal activities, from cigarette smuggling to selling counterfeit products, but the nexus of drugs and terror is particularly glaring. According to the DEA, nineteen of the forty-three designated foreign terrorist organizations are linked definitively to the global drug trade, and up to 60 percent of terrorist organizations are connected to the illegal narcotics industry. For example, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, were partially bankrolled by hashish sales.

Indeed, the drug trade's financial benefits are acutely alluring. The United Nations estimates that the international drug trade generates $322 billion per year, making drugs by far the most lucrative illicit activity. Beyond mere sales, drugs provide diverse revenue sources, including taxes on farmers and local cartels, and necessitate security detail for all aspects of production, trade, and distribution. Groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, and Lebanon's Hizbollah generate significant revenue from extortion fees collected from drug cartels and poppy or coca farmers operating in their territory. …

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