The Link Between Terrorism and Drug Trafficking

By Trajan Evans for

There is a direct link between terrorism and international illicit drug markets. UNODC Senior Terrorism Prevention Officer Irka Kuleshnyk said, “While it is difficult to establish how widely terrorist groups are involved in the illicit drug trade, or the breadth and nature of cooperation between these two criminal groups, the magnitude of the numbers involved make the relationship worrisome.”[1] According to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2007, the total potential value of Afghanistan’s 2006 opium harvest accruing to farmers, laboratory owners and Afghan traffickers reached about $3.1 billion dollars.[2] In addition, it is reported that in 2004, some 400 tons of cocaine was exported from one Latin American country, with an estimated domestic value of US$ 2 billion.[3] The UNODC reports that the international drug trade is a $400 billion dollar business worldwide.[4] Out of the 43 Foreign Terror Organizations, the Drug Enforcement Agency reports that 60 percent of all FTOs are linked to the drug trafficking business.[5] This paper will discuss the nexus and potential responses to the issues surrounding the colliding worlds of drug trafficking and international terrorism.

Terrorist organizations may be related to drug trafficking either through direct involvement in both activities or through a “marriage of convenience.” There are two principal ways terrorist groups benefit from trafficking narcotics. First, some terrorist organizations tax the drug traffickers and farmers directly. The relationship is sometimes referred to as a “marriage of convenience.”[6] Terrorists that control regions where illicit drugs are grown will place a tariff on drug traffickers.[7] The terrorists benefit by receiving cash and weaken their enemies by funding their societies with addictive drugs.[8] However, the “marriage” is beneficial to both parties.[9] Drug traffickers benefit from the benefit from the terrorists’ military skills, weapons supply, and access to other clandestine organizations.[10] Further, drug traffickers may gain freedom of movement and protection when they operate together with terrorists who control large amounts of territory.[11] Both groups benefit from the destabilization of society that spurs the growth of terrorism and drug trafficking.[12] Second, like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), terrorist groups are drug traffickers themselves. Their main objective is to overthrow the established order in Colombia and replace it with a socialist dictatorship.[13]  In its attempts to destabilize the legitimate Government of Colombia, the FARC employs terrorist methods such as bombings, extortions, selective assassinations, kidnappings, and armed confrontations with Colombian police and military forces.[14] In order to finance their political agenda, FARC uses drug trafficking profits as their principal source of funding.[15] Much of their agenda is based upon protecting and exploiting drug trafficking operations in Colombia and the region.[16] As evidenced by this example, the world of terrorism and drug trafficking go hand in hand.

There is no better example to illustrate the nexus between these two worlds than Hezbollah’s presence in the tri-border area (TBA) in South America.[17] Hezbollah takes advantage of the hundreds of clandestine airstrips and lax border security in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.[18] In turn, proceeds gained from drug trafficking is laundered and deposited back to Iran, which funds Hezbollah, or Hezbollah directly in the Middle East.[19]

Religious views on drugs add an interesting aspect to drugs trafficking and terrorism. For example, at one point the Taliban forbid growing poppy began to realize the substantial profit they could make off opiates.[20] The Taliban uses their profits from the opium trade to buy weapons, food, and other necessary items to support their insurgency in Afghanistan.[21] However, profit is not the only motivation for the Taliban to grow opiates. Khan Mohammed, a Taliban associate who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 under narco-terrorism statutes, told an Afghan farmer, “…[m]ay God turn all the infidels into dead corpses…whether it is by opium or by shooting, this is our common goal.”[22]

Another interesting aspect in the colliding worlds of drugs and terror is the use of the cultivated or manufactured drug by the terrorists themselves. After Iraqi security forces reclaimed the city of Mosul, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon said there was evidence of amphetamine use among ISIS soldiers.[23] Track marks were found on ISIS soldiers were determined to be from intravenous amphetamine use that allowed soldiers to stay alert during battle.[24]

Although no solution will be perfect, some available approaches to the problem should be considered, for example, UN Security Council resolutions. These resolutions impose sanctions such as the freezing of assets, a travel ban and an arms embargo, on members of the Taliban, Al-Qaida and their associates. There are currently 124 entities and 226 individuals on this list of sanctions.[25]

Further, illicit drug traffickers and terrorists are not unknown entities.[26] They are usually groups and networks that operate in ways that can be understood, identified, tracked, and ultimately disrupted.[27]

Another solution is to focus on the development of countries exporting drugs where terrorists benefit.[28] In Afghanistan, many farmers, faced with poverty, are forced to grow poppy to pay off their loans that are often supplied by drug lords.[29] If Afghanistan can incentivize farmers to grow legal crops instead of opium there is potential for a wedge to be driven between terrorists benefitting from taxing opiates and farmers. This may not be extremely difficult to do, either. Currently, the current market is over-supplied with opiates and under-supplied with food.[30] The key will be establishing a legitimate loan process given to farmers from the government and eradicating illegitimate loans from drug traffickers and terrorists that turn into a work-bondage situation.

The countries in the TBA face a multitude of challenges. For example, Argentina lacks, like most countries outside of the US, lack an “illicit association” charge or a “conspiracy” charge.[31] This factor makes it difficult to bring down terror cells connected with and funded by drug trafficking. Additionally, TBA countries also lack or have weak money laundering statutes that make it difficult to disrupt the nexus.[32] Money laundering is the process in which creating the appearance that large amounts of money obtained from criminal activity, such as drug trafficking or terrorist activity, originated from a legitimate source. The most efficient way to launder money, for example, would be for a terrorist to own a coffee shop in Paraguay. When the terrorist receives illegal funds from drug trafficking, he simply inflates his receipts for the day to appear that his coffee shop sold more than what he actually sold. This would make the drug money appear to have originated from a legitimate source.

Paraguay lacks anti-money laundering legislation and prosecutors that can prosecute what little legislation there is.[33] One solution is to enact stricter money laundering laws.[34] This would allow for the detection and disruption of terror cells being funded by illicit drug trafficking money.

Both Paraguay and Argentina have corrupt police forces.[35]  This is the region’s biggest challenge. With law enforcement salaries so low, cells can easily bribe them without putting hardly a dent in the cells funding. Federal police forces seem to work better, though not always.[36] Without trustworthy law enforcement, traffickers and terrorists can bribe their way across borders or out of prosecutions.

The three TBA countries all have lax border security where terrorists and traffickers can easily obtain a false passport, birth certificate, driver’s license, and other documents through corrupt officials.[37] Paraguay’s Vice Interior Minister Mario Agustin Sapriza noted the most difficulties are found in preventing the TBA from being used by Islamic extremists because of the corrupt immigration department in Paraguay.[38] However, Brazil has taken steps to amp up their border security.[39] They have increased security in the rivers that flow from the TBA into their country and have confiscated several tons of illicit drugs.[40]

The problematic “marriage of convenience” between terrorists and drug traffickers poses a difficult challenge for the international justice community. The connection between the two worlds is lucrative and beneficial for both. However, there are solutions that, if properly employed, enforced, and executed can divorce the two enterprises and drastically weaken both by cutting off funding and logistical support that each group relies on the other for.

Trajan Evans is a 2L from Cedar City, Utah. He graduated from Southern Utah University with a degree in Criminal Justice and plans to practice criminal law when upon graduation. Evans’ non-legal interests are basketball, golf, and cooking. 



[1] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Drug trafficking and the Financing of Terrorism.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Reem Rana & Kleopatra Moditsi, The Linkage Between Illicit Drug Trafficking and Terrorist Groups, Old Dominion University Model United Nations (2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Pamela Falk, Afghanistan now has Drug Cartels, CBS News (2009).

[7] Rana & Moditsi, (2017).

[8] Rana & Moditsi, (2017).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] International Drug Trafficking and Terrorism Before Senate Judiciary Committee, (2003) (statement of Stephen C. McCraw).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Rex Hudson, Central Intelligence Agency: Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area of South America (2010).

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Del Quentin Wilber, Afghan Farmer’s Undercover Work Helps Convict Taliban Member in Court, Washington Post, (Dec. 23, 2008).

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] AAP, Islamic State Militants Turning to Meth, Skye News (2017).

[24] Id.

[25] Rana & Moditsi, (2017).

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghan Opium Survey (2009).

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Hudson, (2010).

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.