10 years after 9/11: Terrorism as a criminal enterprise

The connection between criminal activity — whether one might consider it ‘organized’ or not — and terrorist organizations has history that continues to this very day

At the risk of sounding like a sycophant, PoliceOne Editor Doug Wyllie had it exactly right when he wrote on May 2, 2011 — hours after it had been revealed that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALS — that American law enforcement “won’t know for certain that a terrorist attack is under way until well into the event.” Initially differentiating between a criminal event and a terrorist attack will difficult at best, especially since terrorists commit a variety of criminal acts to support their cause.

Terrorist organizations operating inside our borders are little more than organized criminal enterprises — terrorists are unstable violent criminals hiding behind a failed ideology. Some may be better trained and equipped, while others may be a lethal but rag-tag group of malevolent individuals determined to strike at authority no matter the cost. All pose a threat to U.S. citizens and law enforcement alike.

A History of Financing via Criminal Activity
These individuals and organizations invariably turn to crime to pay for what historian Dr. Michael Burleigh sees as their “hysterical rage” in an effort to compensate for “perceived slights” and “abstract grievances.” He calls this the “myth of deep causes.” For Dr. Burleigh, terrorists are “morally insane” without actually being “clinically psychotic.” 1

Terrorists have a strong claim on the lunatic fringe of moral chaos.

Terrorists live by an over-arching ideology that guides malignant thought and violent action. The ideology may be a rejection of organized government (anarchists) or bastardized religious beliefs that serve as an excuse for indiscriminate violence cloaked as righteous indignation. This construct creates a Petri dish in which violence and profitable criminal acts quickly take precedence over adherence to an already savage ideology.

One of the most infamous terrorist organizations, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), used counterfeit alcohol sales, robbery and kidnapping to help pay for their bloody excesses. The South Armagh Brigade monopolized cross-border smuggling by moving fuel, contraband cigarettes, livestock, and household waste between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Brigade’s former members have apparently clung to these smuggling routes and benefitted in the bargain.

As the PIRA’s influence waned, what had once been practices to pay for a terrorist campaign morphed into profitable, purely criminal ventures. Former PIRA members have also taken entrepreneurship to a new level and developed terrorist consultancies, reportedly training other terrorist organizations around the globe. Many ex-PIRA’s enforcers also provide, at least according to the British and Irish press, protection for a large number of pubs, nightclubs, and restaurants throughout Belfast.

The illegal drug trade — a $394 billion a year global concern — has also been a lucrative source of income. Though the PIRA has denied involvement in this particularly ruinous criminal activity — they claim, for example, to have killed Irish drug kingpins such as Martin “the General” Cahill and Seamus “Shavo” Hogan — it would be naive to believe that individual PIRA members have not prospered from the trade. Other terrorist organizations thrive on the practice.

The Threat to the United States
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) believes that nearly half of US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations are involved in global drug trafficking.2 In October 2008, the DEA crippled a money-laundering scheme that profited both Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In March 2009 reports surfaced that Hezbollah was sharing Mexican drug routes into the United States. In May 2010 the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert for law enforcement to be on the lookout for an al Qaeda-trained Somali who had been secreted over the Mexican border by Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane, a known terrorist and human smuggler. The Border Patrol has reported an increase of Other Than Mexican (OTMs) nationals slipping over the border from Mexico.

Despite disingenuously reassuring noises from Washington, our southern border remains unsafe, in part because of the growing relationship between the drug cartels and terrorist organizations. Admiral James G. Stavridis, then commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told a Congressional panel in 2007 that a “nexus exists” between illicit drug trafficking and “Islamic radical terrorism.” Hezbollah has been especially adept at using Mexican cartel drug smuggling routes for its own purposes. Their reach and influence is expanding rapidly.

Hezbollah’s state sponsor, Iran, has opened six embassies in South America over the last five years. That country’s rabidly anti-Semitic President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has close strategic and personal ties with Venezuela’s vehemently anti-U.S. President, Hugo Chavez. Chavez has been an enthusiastic supporter of the FARC, a known narco-terrorist organization.

Political and narco-terrorism have also found a nexus in West Africa. The German online paper, Deutsche Welle, reported that in November 2009 the wreckage of a Boeing 727 was discovered in the Mali desert. Evidence found at the scene indicates that the European-bound aircraft, which apparently began its journey in Venezuela, was likely ferrying a large shipment of cocaine. At about the same time, three al Qaeda operatives were arrested in Ghana and extradited to the US, where they were charged in New York with violating US narcotics and terrorism laws.

In Afghanistan, British press reports have maintained that the Taliban receives between 40-60 percent of its operating funds from drug cultivation and distribution. Cultivated opium from Afghanistan, and particularly from the Helmand Province, is processed into heroin and then traded for guns in Tajikistan, which are then re-sold in Afghanistan for profit. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that literally tons of heroin are smuggled from Tajikistan into Central Asia in route to Europe, Russia, and China.3

All this provides lucrative funding sources for terrorists, who already have the available infrastructure to oversee the operations.

The crime and criminals associated with drug smuggling and terrorism will remain the greatest strategic threat to US law enforcement for the foreseeable future. The federal government’s abject failure to protect our borders (despite the best efforts of the grossly understaffed Border Patrol and the DEA) will remain stagnant. The continuing fractious but superficial political debate will do nothing to increase the security of our citizens or the ability of local or state law enforcement officers to respond effectively to this criminal and national security crisis.


1See Michael Burleigh, Blood and Rage (New York: Harper Collins, 2009)
2See the March 3, 2010 testimony of Anthony P. Placido, DEA’s Assistant Administrator for Intelligence
3Jerome Starkey, “Drugs for guns: how the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency,” The Independent, 29 April 2008.

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