TWO WORLDS HAVE JUST COLLIDED or COLLUDED, TERRORISM AND DRUG CARTELS
I have been asked this question many times: Why do you operate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as well as in Latin America (LATAM)? Well the two regions have more commonalities for our risk consultancy operations than you might think. It’s not just the friction point of continents, religions and crossroad of businesses. It’s also the major risks – terrorism in MENA and drug trafficking in LATAM - that share their commonalities. As terrorists were always drug traffickers, now it is time to mark drug traffickers as terrorists.
Drug trafficking and terrorism worlds have merging. Or, you can say, the two sides are now colliding. Terrorism and narcotics have always been connected. The very word “assassin” comes to us from one of the very first terrorist groups, whose killers acted under the influence of hashish and in Mexico, there is plenty of sicarios.
In my past life within military and now in private security consultancy, the world of terrorism and drug trafficking collide way too often. Not just in terms of regions, but the businesses are interconnected more than you would think.
Terrorism requires money—to buy weapons, pay operatives, rent houses, travel, conduct surveillance and plan operations. Drugs are low-hanging fruit—easily acquired and easily marketed to immense profits, all in easily transferred cash.
Drugs are money and because they’re illegal, the profits are driven into the shadowlands where terrorism grows and thrives. Terrorists and traffickers can easily connect because they inhabit the same spheres and in many cases, share the same enemies: military units, law enforcement and intelligence services. Make no mistake, drug policies have driven these groups into each other’s arms.
It is no coincidence that those areas of the world where opium and cocaine grow best are also troubled and often lawless countries.
Drugs know no ideology; they are equal opportunity killers in the terrorism that they support. Both right and left-wing terrorists have financed their atrocities with the sale of narcotics. During the Vietnam War, as American forces were battling the Viet Cong, American intelligence was helping heroin traffickers fly their product in order to assure their loyalty against the Communists. In the 1980s, American opposition to the left-wing government in Nicaragua led the Reagan administration to cooperate with Mexican cocaine traffickers to fund the anti-communist Contras, by any definition a terrorist group. In the 1990s, Communist FARC terrorists in Colombia made Mexican cartels pay for cocaine not in cash, but in armaments.
Islamic terrorists, including al Qaeda and ISIS, raise funds from trafficking South Asian heroin. On Jan 2, 2018, I wrote a brief article about this on LinkedIn, that Hezbollah finances itself through, ironically, sales of hashish.
Okay so you can say this is old news, but in our work, we have seen some recent trends in Mexico that mirrors on what we see in MENA — each group has borrowed tactics from the other. That includes techniques and philosophy that increasingly unites the worlds of terrorism and drug trafficking. There are three main control factors that serve both groups:
Control of Territory
Both terrorists and traffickers need to control territory—in the first instance to gain a sanctuary from which to train fighters and plan operations, in the second case, traffickers need to control territory in which the base drugs are grown, imported, and then the border territory from which the drugs are smuggled into the consumer nations.
Control of Population – Open Palm and a Fist
The control of territory requires control of the local populations. To accomplish this, Mexican cartels, for example, have adopted classic terrorist tactics, most principally the double-handed approach that combines generosity and public works on one (open) hand, with intimidation, torture and murder on the other hand that is closed into a fist.
The fisted hand of the Mexican cartels has slaughtered entire neighborhoods and villages suspected of supporting the government or rival cartels. It has depopulated villages along the border in order to move in their own supporters. They have tortured and murdered people, often leaving the mutilated corpses out in public where they can serve as lessons for the local people.
That is classic terrorist technique. Now it is a standard of drug trafficking as well.
Control of Publicity – the Use of Social Media
We often forget that the root word of terrorism is, of course, terror. The purpose is to strike fear into the population and to provoke a disproportionate response from the central government. In other words - a terrorist act has no point if no one knows about it.
To achieve this aim, contemporary Islamic terrorists have taken techniques from the Mexican cartels—principally the use of social media.
Both groups use social media to market their capabilities and other tweets and posts are more strategic. Criminal organizations use social networks to send messages to rival cartels, keep local citizens in line, and intimidate law enforcement, politicians and members of the media.
And so the cartels realized the terroristic potential of social media. Here, the means of mass communication is not a subject to editorial censorship or governmental control. Any content, no matter how violent, graphic and horrific, could be sent to millions of viewers with the press of a button.
Terror flourished in the anarchy of the internet and all the cartels began to make videos. The first video clips of beheadings came not from the late, unlamented Jihadi John, but from the Mexican cartels. But the threefold aim—intimidation, propaganda, and recruitment—was classic terrorism.
Again, an act of terror is useless unless people see it, and both the cartel and ISIS videos shock and terrify millions of people, intimidating local populations and assert the ruthlessness and power of their producers. The Islamic terrorists in particular have used sophisticated “Hollywood” production values to enhance their videos’ impact.
Propaganda is another mutual goal of the terrorists and the traffickers. Almost every video clip required its victims to confess their “crimes” in order to “justify” the subsequent execution. The cartels, for instance, use them to proclaim their moral superiority to the rival cartels; the Islamists proclaim their grievances and aims. The propaganda finds a receptive audience on websites and social media. Traffickers have killed, tortured, and dismembered “rival” bloggers who had the temerity to post countervailing information and views that sought to balance its propaganda.
This leads us to the third goal:
Recruitment – Choose Side, Get the Feeling of Power and Empower Your Inner Demons
As sick and sad as it might be, the video clips of atrocities continue to be major and successful recruiting tools for both the terrorists and the traffickers. Rather than cause revulsion, among certain audiences they are extremely attractive. One factor is simply survival. In contested territories, people are forced to choose a side, and most viewers will choose the side wielding the decapitating sword or chainsaw rather than the side on the other end.
Another factor is the projection of power. Nothing is more seductive to people who view themselves as powerless—particular young, unemployed men—than these images of life-and-death power. A person who sees him or herself as having no future will choose the brief but exciting life of a narco-trafficker or terrorist fighter, even when they know it will most likely end in an early death.
The other element is simple sadism. These videos have a strong psychosexual appeal to sociopaths and psychopaths who eagerly seek opportunities to exercise rather than exorcize their inner demons. Jihadi John, for instance, liked to tango with his victims before torturing them, mass rape is common among both the cartels and ISIS, and the sometimes-surreal violence of both groups that has horrified the world can only be attributed to their sheer love of inflicting pain.
Another recent merger between terrorism and trafficking is in their respective relationship to the mainstream media of
Print, Radio, and Television – a Suppressive Tactics
Terrorists have long had a love-hate relationship with the media. On the one hand, they need the media to publicize their atrocities and give voice to their “causes”; on the other hand, they resent the resultant negative coverage. While until relatively recently, the traffickers have tried to avoid media scrutiny or have been indifferent to it, over the last decade, the traffickers have adopted the terrorist philosophy that they need to control not only the events but also the narratives.
As a result, Mexican traffickers have gone to great lengths to control or suppress journalistic coverage. They have adopted their Plata o Plomo (silver or lead) strategy and bribed journalists, and when that hasn’t worked they have killed and tortured hundreds of them. Traffickers have attacked radio and television stations with all sorts of weapons from machine guns to rockets.
And that seems to work. Many major Mexican newspapers and television and radio stations now refuse to cover drug trafficking stories.
Similarly, Islamic terrorists have attacked journalists and others over depictions of the Prophet, and the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a tragic prelude to the horrible recent events in Paris. There can be no question that the violence against journalists from both traffickers and terrorists has had a suppressive effect on the media’s coverage of both.
Counter Efforts Speed Up and Toughen Up Too
Just as the worlds of trafficking and terrorism have merged, so, necessarily, have the worlds of anti-trafficking and anti-terrorism. As terrorists have become more violent, the standard anti-terrorist strategy of “counter-insurgency”—a defensive posture that seeks to protect and persuade local populations against the terrorists—has shifted to the quicker, cheaper, and more violent doctrine of “anti-terrorism,” which gives priority to locating and terminating terrorists and especially their leaders.
Counter-trafficking has followed suit. As the traffickers have become more terroristic, counter-trafficking philosophy has largely shifted from the defensive posture of seizing drugs to the more aggressive doctrine of actively seeking out traffickers and their leaders in raids that are meant to capture but more often assassinate.
Elite Hunter-Killer Teams Adopted
The intelligence techniques are almost identical, and there is very little difference in the efforts to locate terrorists and traffickers. Cell phone intercepts, computer analysis, and “enhanced interrogation” techniques are used in both. So are Special Forces; as both traffickers and terrorists have become more tactically sophisticated and better armed, the use of special military forces—instead of law enforcement—has become the standard. Elite hunter-killer teams aided by highly sophisticated technology now track and terminate both terrorist and trafficking leaders in secret operations.
Unmanned Aerial Counterstrikes
Drones are famously used to track and execute terrorists. What is not so well-known is that drones have also been used to locate drug traffickers for raids in which they are often killed, and it is only a matter of time before those drones are armed with missiles to strike traffickers, if, in fact, it hasn’t happened already.
Terrorists have always been drug traffickers. We have seen that over years from Afghanistan to Iraq and across the MENA region. Now drug traffickers are becoming visible as terrorists too. What is the definition of a terrorist? a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims, replace the political aims and this is the drug cartels, as of recent years. That is the trend we see in our LATAM operations. Their worlds have merged into one. Once you plan to deploy risk consultancy in any of these regions, make sure you select a provider that knows both grounds and follows their mutual inspirations and tactics adoption even before they grow into operational problems.