Trafficking in Terror: How closely entwined are the drug trade and global terrorism?

Ginger Thompson, Trafficking in Terror: How closely entwined are the drug trade and global terrorism? The New Yorker, 7 December 2015. This piece is a collaboration between The New Yorker and ProPublia. The DEA warns that drugs are funding terror. An examination of cases raises questions about whether the agency is stopping threats or staging them.”

Joe Posner, How the DEA invented “narco-terrorism.” Vox video, 7 December 2015.

In December, 2009, Harouna Touré and Idriss Abdelrahman, smugglers from northern Mali, walked through the doors of the Golden Tulip, a hotel in Accra, Ghana. They were there to meet with two men [David and Mohamed] who had offered them an opportunity to make millions of dollars, transporting cocaine across the Sahara….

Touré and Abdelrahman came from Gao, a parched and remote city in northern Mali which has long been used as a base for smuggling of all kinds, from immigrants to cigarettes. In recent years, the surrounding region has also been the scene of conflict between violent bands of nomadic insurgents, including members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During months of meetings and phone calls, David and Mohamed had told Touré that the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] had some thirty thousand fighters at war with the United States, and that it wanted to work with Al Qaeda, because the groups shared the same enemy. “They are our brothers,” Mohamed said. “We have the same cause.” Touré had explained that he had connections to the organization: he ran a transport company, and, in return for safe passage for his trucks, he provided Al Qaeda with food and fuel….

Two days later, Touré and Abdelrahman went back to the Golden Tulip to collect their initial payment. Oumar Issa, a friend from Gao who was also involved in the plan, waited at another hotel to receive his portion. Instead, the smugglers were met by Ghanaian police officers. David and Mohamed, it turned out, were not drug traffickers but undercover informants for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Within days, Touré, Abdelrahman, and Issa were turned over to the D.E.A., put on a private jet, and flown to New York, where they were arraigned in a federal courthouse. They were charged under a little-known provision of the Patriot Act, passed in 2006, which established a new crime, known as narco-terrorism, committed by violent offenders who had one hand in terrorism and the other in the drug trade.

As the Malians’ case proceeded, however, its flaws became apparent. The defendants emerged as more hapless than hardened, childhood friends who believed that the D.E.A.’s informants were going to make them rich. “They were lying to us. And we were lying to them,” Touré told me from prison. Judge Barbara Jones, who oversaw the final phases of the case, said, “There was no actual involvement by the defendants or the undercovers . . . in the activities of either Al Qaeda or the FARC.” Another judge saw as many problems with the statute as with the merits of the case….

The investigation continues to be cited by the D.E.A. as an example of its national-security achievements. Since the narco-terrorism provision was passed, the D.E.A. has pursued dozens of cases that fit the broad description of crimes under the statute. The agency has claimed victories against Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the FARC and established the figure of the narco-terrorist as a preëminent threat to the United States.

With each purported success, the D.E.A. has lobbied Congress to increase its funding….

In a number of regions, most notably Colombia and Afghanistan, there is convincing evidence that terrorists have worked with drug traffickers. But a close examination of the cases that the D.E.A. has pursued reveals a disturbing number that resemble that of the Malians. When these cases were prosecuted, the only links between drug trafficking and terrorism entered into evidence were provided by the D.E.A., using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-terrorism conspiracies….

Neither the D.E.A. nor the Justice Department would provide me with a complete list of alleged narco-terrorists who have been captured since 9/11. But last May the D.E.A.’s Counter-Narco-Terrorism Operations Center published a report highlighting its achievements. The report notes that, of the State Department’s fifty-eight officially designated foreign terrorist organizations, twenty-three have been linked by the D.E.A. to “some aspect of the global drug trade,” including Al Qaeda, Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. It also gives brief descriptions of more than thirty investigations involving defendants captured around the world. Some have been charged under the narco-terrorism provision of the Patriot Act. In other cases, the D.E.A. used the expanded authority it had been given under the law more as an investigative license. After the agency brought the defendants to the United States, they were charged with different crimes.

Most of the arrests resulted from sting operations, in which the connection between drug trafficking and terrorism was established in court as a part of conspiracies that were conceived by the D.E.A….

The case that may come the closest to representing the vision that gave rise to the narco-terrorism statute involved a Colombian trafficker allied with the FARC named José María Corredor Ibague, who was arrested in 2006 and convicted under the Patriot Act provision. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s Defense Minister at the time, applauded the arrest, which did not occur as part of a sting operation. But, when asked whether he considered Corredor Ibague a terrorist, Santos told reporters that he was “more of a drug trafficker than a guerrilla.”…

[T]he fact that the narco-terrorism cases, when brought to court, rely almost entirely on evidence gleaned from sting operations has fuelled debate among some security experts about the degree to which the alliances that they target pose a threat to the U.S. Benjamin Bahney, of the Rand Corporation, who is a leading expert on the financing of Al Qaeda and ISIS, told me, “The national-security community has had a laser focus on this question for a long time, and the fact that there are no clear examples of it that have bubbled to the surface says to me that there’s no there there.”…

Skepticism about the extent to which terrorists engage in the drug trade also runs deep among numerous counterterrorism and national-security officials I spoke to at the F.B.I., the Pentagon, the White House, and the State and Treasury Departments. “In all these years, there’s never been a smoking gun in any of the cases I’ve seen,” Rudy Atallah, a former counterterrorism adviser at the Pentagon, told me….

Lou Milione, who oversaw many of the investigations listed in the D.E.A.’s narco-terrorism report, and Mark Hamlet, the head of the D.E.A.’s special-operations division, acknowledged that other national-security agencies, including the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., didn’t necessarily see a link between drugs and terror. “I have lunch with those guys all the time,” Hamlet said. “They look at our cases and say, ‘Interesting work, but I wouldn’t put it in my terrorism box.’ And I say that’s fine.”