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Terrorism and drug trafficking


Key facts

2017 figures available point to the fact that the annual value of thetrade in illicit drugs is estimated to be between$426 and $652 billion and the proceeds derived from it generates approximately between one fifth and one third of the global revenues of transnational organized criminal groups (UNODC (c), 2017; May, 2017).

As highlighted in UNODC's 2018 World Drug Report, cannabis continues to be the most widely produced and consumed drug around the world, while cultivation of both opium poppy and coca bush show a marked increase: the global area under opium poppy cultivation has doubled since 2006, primarily the result of a marked increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan which accounted for 86 per cent of global opium production in 2017; concurrently, global coca bush cultivation, which had declined by 45 per cent over the period 2000-2013, increased by 76 per cent over the period 2013-2016 (UNODC (a), 2018). In other words, evidence suggests that the illicit drug trade continues to thrive, with expanding markets in cocaine, heroin as well as synthetic drugs. The same UNODC Report also shows that, while drug trafficking online using the darknet continues to represent only a fraction of drug trafficking as a whole, it is growing rapidly, despite successes in shutting down popular darknet marketplaces.

Several terrorist organizations as well as paramilitary organizations have all been cited in scholarly material as being associated with the drug trade (Dishman, 2001 and 2005).

Examples Box: Cocaine and heroin trafficking by terrorist organizations

In 2013, cocaine to the value of $1.25 billion was reported to have been trafficked through West Africa to Europe amid rising concern over the possibility of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) increased involvement in the drug trade (UNODC, 2013). A 2016 report commissioned by the European Union associated Al-Shabaab with heroin trafficking, transporting it from ports in areas it controls to Europe and also cocaine trafficking into Kenya. It also found AQIM to be involved in drug trafficking and profiting from taxing organized criminal groups trafficking drugs from South America to Europe across territory it controls in Sahel region (Reitano, Clarke & Adal, 2017). In 2017, Boko Haram was reported to be facilitating heroin and cocaine smuggling across West Africa. A 2017 UNODC report refers to the trial of members of the organization in Chad that revealed them to be involved in the trafficking of psychotropic substances (UNODC (c), 2017).


Example Box: The Taliban

Recent reports estimate that approximately 86% of the world's opium cultivation takes place in Afghanistan (UNODC (a), 2018) and that a very large part of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is in regions now under the control of the Taliban (UNODC (c), 2017). The Taliban's association with the opium economy also indicates a correlation between the trade in illicit drugs as a criminal activity and terrorism.

Between 2000 and 2015, when the Taliban was profiteering from the drug trade and assuming greater control over the regions in Afghanistan where opium was cultivated, it was at the same time responsible for 73% of all terrorism-related deaths in Afghanistan and approximately 13% of all terrorism-related deaths worldwide (UNODC (c), 2017).


Case Study: Khan Mohammed

In 2006, Khan Mohammed was a member of the Taliban and was assisting a former Taliban official, Abdul Rahman, with a plot to attack NATO's airfield in Jalalabad. Mohammed intended to use the proceeds of heroin and opium sales to purchase rockets to carry out the attack. Rahman arranged for another man named Jaweed to assist Khan Mohammed with the plot. Jaweed, however, soon turned against Rahman and Mohammed and reported the plot to Afghan authorities that notified the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Afghan police persuaded Jaweed to continue his role in the plot, but to become their informant.

Acting as an agent for the DEA and recording several conversations, Jaweed asked Khan Mohammed to buy opium and heroin and to sell it to him, advising him that it was intended for export to the United States. Khan Mohammed agreed and acquired both opium and two kilos of heroin that he duly sold to Jaweed. On learning that the drugs were intended for sale in the United States, Khan Mohammed referred to a "common goal" of eliminating US citizens either "by opium or by shooting." Khan Mohammed also advised Jaweed of his intention to use the profits from the drug sale to buy a car into which missiles could be loaded, and noted he had the same authority as Rahman and the same purpose in attacking the airfield.

In October 2006, the DEA and Afghan authorities arrested Khan Mohammed and he was transferred to the United States to stand trial on drugs charges. In May 2008, Khan Mohammed was convicted of offences of international drug trafficking and drug trafficking with intent to provide financial support to a terrorist at the criminal courts in Washington D.C. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. The conviction was upheld on appeal in September 2012 (United States v Khan Mohammed, 2012).


Case Study: Ayman Joumaa network

In January 2011, the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control designated members of a drug trafficking and money-laundering network led by Ayman Joumaa as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers. In 2011, it was alleged that the network coordinated the transportation and distribution of shipments of cocaine originating from South America and sold in Europe and the Middle East and laundered the proceeds, estimated to be as much as $200 million per month. The proceeds were laundered in various ways, including the purchase of motor vehicles in the United States, which were then shipped to West Africa to be sold, with the proceeds transferred on to Lebanon. The DEA identified over 70 used-car dealerships in the United States strongly suspected of being involved in the conspiracy (Braun, M. 2012).


Example Box: Europe

The annual drug market in the European Union is valued at approximately €24.3 billion, and roughly two-thirds of organized criminal groups in Europe are involved in drug trafficking, which is more widespread than any other illicit activity across organized crime in the European Union (EMCDDA estimate as reported in UNODC (a), 2018).

Reports indicate an emerging new crime-terror nexus in Europe, typified by a merging of terrorist and criminal milieus in Europe with both terrorist and criminal groups recruiting individuals from the same pool of people with similar social networks. According to these researches, up to 40% of terrorist plots in Europe are part-financed by means of "petty crime" involving, in particular, drug-dealing. Between 2011 and 2016, 79 people identified as "European jihadists" with criminal pasts were involved with drug trafficking (Basra, Neumann, & Brunner, 2016). Highlighting this link, it is worth noting that the March 2004 terrorist attacks on the Madrid train system were reportedly financed by sales of hashish and ecstasy. Furthermore, the assailants left 52,000 euros and drugs with a street value of 1.5 million in their apartment after purchasing explosives and materials for the attacks.

Later, in December 2008, Hicham Ahmidan was sentenced to ten years in prison in Morocco for his involvement in the Madrid bombings, where he was already serving a five-year term for international drug trafficking. In a similar vein, Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, was previously convicted of drug trafficking offences and had been selling drugs a month before the attacks (Basra, Neumann & Brunner, 2016). 

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