Al-Qaeda and Drug Trafficking, a Dangerous Partnership

Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) suggests there are as many as 18 specific foreign terrorist organizations linked to the global drug trade, most U.S. policymakers refrain from linking these organizations, like Al-Qaeda, to criminal networks. Research shows that the international community is historically reluctant to do anything more than speculate on Al-Qaeda involvement in organized crime, employing the caveat that the organization was founded on strong ideological principles inherently different from criminal organizations.

However, it is naïve to assume that Al-Qaeda considers itself too ideologically pure to be above criminal enterprise. Under the right circumstances, Al-Qaeda could align itself with organized crime syndicates, most likely Latin America drug trafficking organizations. This partnership would stem from the continued prominence of Al-Qaeda affiliates, the U.S.-led global clamp down on terrorism financing, the expanding use of Africa as a transit point for organized crime, and the increasing European demand for cocaine. Al-Qaeda aside, the DEA already presumes a significant number of terrorist-criminal partnerships exist; it is clear that the U.S. needs to overhaul its current enforcement and intelligence practices by merging counternarcotics and counterterrorism resources.

In the late 1990’s, many counterterrorism experts wrote about the ideological and political foundations of international terrorist organizations and why certain organizations, like Al-Qaeda, would not lose ideological legitimacy by engaging in more mundane criminality. Over the last decade, these experts' warnings seemed to go unheeded on the policy side. If the increasing number of summits on links between crime and terrorism are any indication, there is reason to believe terrorist-criminal cooperation is rising. Arguably, it is better to prescribe preemptive policy change, instead of waiting for these networks to further combine. Allowing these partnerships to strengthen would be dangerous to U.S. national security and Western interests.

For many extremists, killing infidels through drugs is justifiable in the greater service of jihad. The argument that Al-Qaeda would veer away from partnerships that violated religious tenants is weak, considering the number of its affiliates who are well-entrenched in the drug trade. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a known entity in North Africa, West Africa, and the Sahel. AQIM has been linked to drugs on more than one occasion, including the 2009 arrest of AQIM members who worked with the Colombian narco-terrorist FARC to traffic cocaine through West Africa. Moreover, while Al-Qaeda did not claim responsibility for the 2004 Madrid bombings, the Council on Foreign Relations suggested links existed between AQIM and the Moroccan cell responsible for the attack. It was later discovered that the Madrid bombers financed their operation almost entirely through the sale of narcotics. With AQIM thoroughly entrenched in Africa, there is a distinct overlap with Latin American cartels operating in the region to feed Europe's growing cocaine demand.

Links between Al-Qaeda and transnational organized crime remains a rumor because concrete evidence of collaboration would damage the operations of both, as well as become a logistical nightmare for intelligence and enforcement professionals. First, drug cartels would suffer the wrath of every signatory against terrorism, which would severely hamper operations and, as a result, the bottom line. Second, young fanatics are more attracted to Al-Qaeda’s initial rhetoric, even though it has likely moved beyond strict ideology (whether because of financial necessity or evolution).

Combining crime and terrorism requires breaking down the barriers between U.S. counterterrorism and anti-crime communities. In assessing the September 11 attacks, the 9/11 Commission found that a lack of inter-agency counterterrorism cooperation and communication directly contributed to, for a lack of a better word, Al-Qaeda’s success on that tragic day. In order to combat the ever-evolving threat of international terrorism, the U.S. and its counterparts need to redefine how they view and mitigate threats; they need to look at crime and terrorism as two symptoms of the same threat. In terms of the U.S. specifically, we need to break down agency resistance to cooperation between law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence community. We need to increase efficiency and streamline intelligence sharing and collection on a macro level (across agencies), so threats are clearly understood. Most importantly, we need to redesign our national security communications to explain that transnational crime has a direct correlation to attacks on our troops, overseas embassies, and homeland.

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