Terrorism, Drug Trafficking, and ISIS: When Wicked Worlds Collide

For all the headlines and fear they generate, ISIS isn’t anything new. We’ve seen this before—and much closer to home, writes Don Winslow, bestselling author of The Cartel.  

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In my fifteen years of researching and writing about both drug trafficking and terrorism, in writing books such as The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, I have seen a disturbing trend.

Their worlds are merging.

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. Anti-colonial insurgent groups from the Boxer Rebellion in China to Filipino insurrectionists and Algerian nationalists have fought under the influence of narcotics. Today’s suicide bombers are often given drugs to tranquilize them so they don’t back out of destroying their own lives and the lives of others.

A far more important connection, however, is economic. Drug trafficking has long been used to finance terrorist operations.

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: law enforcement and intelligence services. Make no mistake, our drug policies have driven these groups into each other’s bloodstained 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. In the midst of 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. Sources in Lebanon and Syria tell me, for example, that Hezbollah finances itself through, ironically, sales of hashish in Israel.

But this is old news.

A more recent development is even more troubling—a merging of tactics, techniques, and philosophy that increasingly unites the worlds of terrorism and drug trafficking.

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Each has borrowed tactics from the other.

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.

The control of territory requires control of the local populations, and to accomplish this the Mexican cartels, for example, have adopted classic terrorist tactics, most principally the double-handed approach that combines generosity and public works on the one (open) hand with intimidation, torture and murder on the other hand that is closed into a fist.

Terrorist groups have always gained local support by providing services that the central government can’t or won’t, especially in under-developed and under-served rural or inner city communities. Mexican cartels bosses such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman have become local heroes and ensured local support and protection by building clinics, schools, churches and playgrounds, constructing water systems and holding elaborate holiday celebrations. One of the most vicious cartels, the Zetas, regularly sponsored Mother’s Day festivities in which they would give every family in the village or barrio a new washing machine or refrigerator. The former head of the Gulf Cartel, even while in prison, funded Children’s Day parties for entire towns, setting up carnival rides, giving away toys, candy and ice cream.

That’s the open hand.

The fisted hand of the Mexican cartels has slaughtered entire neighborhoods and villages suspected of supporting the government or rival cartels, and has depopulated villages along the border in order to move in their own supporters. They have tortured and murdered, 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.

Another requirement of terrorism is publicity.

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.

A terrorist act doesn’t matter 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.

When I first saw the horrific ISIS videos that quite properly shocked the world, it was nothing new. In the course of researching my novel, The Cartel, I’d seen these obscene images coming from the Mexican cartels since 2005.

It began when the aforementioned Zetas sent a four-man team of gunmen to kill a rival trafficker, Edgar Villareal, aka “Barbie” (actually an American citizen), in the resort town of Acapulco. With the cooperation of local police, Villareal captured his four would-be killers, took them into an upstairs room, videotaped confessions of the murders they’d committed for the Zetas, and executed them with pistol shots. Then Villareal sent the tape to the media.

It went viral on the Internet, and the cartels realized the terroristic potential of social media. Here was a means of mass communication not 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 as 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 asserting the ruthlessness and power of their producers. The Islamists 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.

Which leads us to the third goal: recruitment.

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.

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. Until relatively recently, the traffickers have tried to avoid media scrutiny or have been indifferent to it. But in the past ten years the traffickers have adopted the terrorist philosophy that they need to control not only the events but also the narrative.

As a result, Mexican traffickers have gone to great lengths to control or suppress journalistic coverage. Traffickers would routinely telephone reporters in their cars after murders and tell them that it was okay or not to go to the scene. They have bribed journalists, and when that hasn’t worked they have killed and tortured them. Hundreds of journalists have been killed in Mexico over the past ten years. (I dedicated The Cartel to these journalists, men and women who are truly heroes.) Traffickers have attacked radio and television stations with machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers.

Their efforts have been largely successful. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Now traffickers are terrorists.

Their worlds have merged into one.