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Feeding the fix

india Updated: Sep 11, 2009 08:37 IST

Jack Lawn, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) administrator and FBI agent, became so concerned about the nexus between terrorists and heroin in Afghanistan that he sat down and wrote letters to all relevant officials in the Bush administration, and to the chairs of all relevant committees of Congress. No one even bothered to answer him. “Why we are not speaking out on this — much less doing something about it — confounds me,” Lawn says, adding, “Ultimately, we are all going to have to care.” Other US officials point to two July 2007 intelligence reports describing al-Qaeda as better organised and better funded than at any other time since 9/11. “If you can’t figure out what opium is doing in that mix, you don’t deserve to be in this game,” says one.

Based on my research, Islamic extremists connected to al-Qaeda don’t move large quantities of drugs themselves, and there’s scant evidence of an organised network involving their leaders in the drug trade. However, low-level al-Qaeda operatives appear to get involved at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, once the opium has been refined into heroin and is ready to get smuggled to the West. This is exactly the point where the profit margin is the highest. Respondents to our survey along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border had no evidence that top leaders like bin Laden or his deputy al Zawahiri personally took a role, but 41 per cent said low-level al-Qaeda fighters regularly helped to protect heroin shipments for money.

The data makes sense when you consider that western intelligence officials believe top-tier al-Qaeda leaders are largely cut off from the day-to-day running of their organisation, leaving lower level operatives to fend for themselves. “It’s wrong to think you’ll find Osama bin Laden with a bag of opium in one hand and a dirty bomb in the other,” says a Western official. “But the link is there. Increasingly, there are signs that al-Qaeda fighters have learned to live off of drug money.” That’s certainly true among terror cells in Europe. “Crime is now the main source of cash for Islamic radicals [here],” says attorney Lorenzo Vidino, author of Al-Qaeda in Europe. “They do not need to get money wired from abroad like ten years ago. They’re generating their own as criminal gangs.”

Take the terrorists behind the March 2004 train blasts in Madrid, which killed 191 people and left 1,500 wounded. They got their hands on explosives by trading hashish to a former miner, and learned to construct bombs — all connected to Mitsubishi Trium T110 mobile phones — from Internet sites linked to radical Islamic groups. When police raided the home of one plotter, they found 125,800 ecstasy tablets, one of the largest drug hauls in Spanish history.

Eventually, investigators recovered almost $2 million in drugs and cash — far more than they needed to pull off the operation. Although a man who identified himself as Abu Dujan al-Afghani, and who said he was al-Qaeda’s “European military spokesman,” claimed responsibility in a video released two days later, authorities never found any evidence that al-Qaeda’s top leaders ever provided the Madrid bombers with financing or direct guidance.

European authorities have linked drug money to the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, which killed 45 people, and the attempted bombings of US and British ships off Gibraltar in 2002. European police knew for years that Islamic fundamentalists — some through links to Afghanistan dating back to the anti-Soviet resistance — were peddling drugs around the continent. “What is new is the scale of this toxic mix of jihad and dope,” writes journalist David Kaplan. Investigators believe extremist groups have broken into as much as a third of the $12.5 billion Moroccan hashish trade, Kaplan reports, meaning they can not only reap enormous profits but also take advantage of extensive smuggling routes through Europe.

The message here is not that Osama bin Laden has morphed into Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian cocaine kingpin. Nor has Mullah Omar become the world’s new Khun Sa, the infamous Burmese heroin warlord. Rather, there is a blurring of distinction between terrorist and criminal. They may not share the same values, and sometimes even come into conflict, but they are fellow travellers in the underworld, locked in an increasingly symbiotic relationship. One crucial distinction remains: The classic drug smuggler is driven by greed. The terrorist raises money as a means to an end.

So what are they saving up for? By mid-2004, US Treasury Department agents monitoring drug and terrorist finance flows started watching large sums of illicit money moving out of Afghanistan and Pakistan — a region that had traditionally attracted large inflows of cash, mostly in the form of donations to jihadi groups. Where that money ended up — and just what it might eventually pay for — no one quite knows. One thing everyone agrees on: the world should be worried. September 11 cost al-Qaeda only $500,000, according to the 9/11 Commission. Terrorist groups can now earn that from the dope trade every week.

This is an edited extract from Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the New Opium Wars (Hachette India)

Gretchen Peters has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade for the Associated Press and for ABC News. She was nominated for an Emmy for her coverage of the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
The views expressed by the author are personal