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Junk for Jihad: Prohibition Empowers Terrorists and Violent Insurgents

By Joel Miller
July 29, 2004

Editor’s note: "My concern over the drug war is … in the vein of the founders," explains Joel Miller in the Author’s Note to his new book, Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs Is Destroying America. "As I look at the effects of prohibition and arguments behind it, I cannot help but worry that vital constitutional rights and liberties are being undermined daily across the country. In my mind, it’s not really about drugs. It’s about freedom and the disastrous overreach of government."

Over the course of 200 pages, Miller exposes the inadequacies and counterproductive efforts of the U.S. government’s “War on Drugs,” arguing that the success of its stated intention is overshadowed by the correlating negative effects, such as overly severe prison sentences and blanket seizures of offenders’ property. In the third chapter “Junk for Jihad,” excerpted from his new book, Miller traces the rise of the global narcotics trade and terrorist involvement in drug trafficking and places much of the blame on America’s policy of extreme prohibition.

"Joel Miller exposes the real danger in the so-called ‘war on drugs,’" says John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "That is, the systematic undermining of our civil liberties and constitutional rights. This book is a must read for any concerned citizen." Joel Miller is currently senior editor of World Net Daily books and a writer for various online magazines. He previously wrote for oldSpeak on the militarization of police in the war on drugs ("Cops at War").


Still stinging from the September 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the US, the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy kicked off an ad campaign during Super Bowl XXXVI that linked drug users to terrorists.

"This is Dan," started one, following a script borrowed from a children’s book. "This is the joint that Dan bought. This is the dealer who sold the joint that Dan bought," and so it goes until Dan’s purchase ties him directly to terrorists.1

Another ad that ran later in the campaign featured a ghostly girl suddenly appearing in a dark office space: "You killed me," she says twice to a woman at her desk. "There was a bomb. I was going to school." When the woman asks the obvious question ("What does that have to do with me?"), the ghost replies, "You bought drugs. You gave them money. They can’t do things like that without money. It’s the money." And with that she disappears.2 Contrived and grotesque as the ad may be, the little girl is correct—it is the money.

But it’s not quite so simple.

Good as Gold

Terrorists and insurgents have often resorted to the illegal drug trade to fatten their bank accounts. For those willing to flout the law and take the risks, the economics of prohibition make narcotics absurdly lucrative. And absurd amounts of lucre are the only way backwater Mideast terrorists can afford training nearly two dozen men to commandeer four commercial airliners and fly them into choice targets on US soil. A bake sale won’t cut it.3

"Mao’s dictum, that all power flows from the barrel of a gun, presupposes the means to buy the gun and to pay the soldier who wields it," notes drug historian David T. Courtwright.4 More than a decade ago, most terrorist groups raised funds by sticking the offering plate under the nose of sympathetic states: Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Cuba, and the Soviet Union before it collapsed. After the Big Slav kicked the bucket, however, the financial springs began to dry up.5 Nor did it help that—as terrorist organizations became more international in scope, kicking up bigger clouds of dust and garnering the attention of bigger nations better equipped to react with substantial force—the old model of state sponsorship became a liability to the very states signing the checks. "State-sponsors are increasingly difficult to find," explained Raphael Perl, terrorism expert for the Congressional Research Service just months after 9/11. "What world leader in his right mind will risk global sanctions by openly sponsoring al-Qaida or funding it?"6 Amplify that question tenfold given the fall of both Afghanistan’s Taliban and Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

So what’s a cash-strapped terrorist to do?

Thanks to inflated prices caused by global narcotics prohibition, whoring after state sponsors is no longer needed. Because of black-market profits, growing, marketing, or taxing dope opens insurgents and terrorists to astronomical amounts of loot. Guerrillas in Colombia have used coca and opium to fund their ongoing war with the government. Rebels in Peru have followed the same game plan. Islamist terrorists buy weapons and train men with proceeds from opium traffic. Before the recent rise and fall of the Taliban, Afghani warlords held their power via drug profits. The Taliban itself was no different once it dominated the country. The Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s main opposition, played regional power politics with opium profits as well.

Having the muscle and moxie to back up their middle finger to established authority either at home or abroad, terrorists and insurgents naturally excel in illicit markets. Raking in the necessary funds to finance their unlawful activities with the drug trade is just smart business.

And it has been for years. While the difficulty in getting state sponsorship for terrorism has increased in the last fifteen, both the sponsoring states and the terrorists have utilized drugs to fund their schemes for decades.

"In 1958, Fidel Castro stated publicly that he was going to export his revolution beyond Cuba using ‘his’ methods," writes Rachel Ehrenfeld in Narco-Terrorism. "His methods included a twofold purpose for involvement with the narcotics trade: to damage US society by aiding drug traffickers and to finance Marxist terrorists and guerrilla activity in Latin America, including training and arms shipments for insurgency."7 For many years the success was lackluster. But by the middle seventies, US noses had an increasing itch for cocaine, and Castro’s ship—or rather ships, scads of them—had finally come in. Allowing coke smugglers en route from Colombia access to Cuban waters, Castro’s government offered assistance and protection and garnered half a million dollars per shipment—small change for traffickers hauling blow by the boatload. The money and trade routes were then used by Cuba to shuttle cash and weapons to groups like Colombia’s M-19 guerrillas and the fledgling Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.8 Ironically, the Nicaraguan Contras also used profits from drug trafficking to finance their fight against the Sandinistas.9

But perhaps it’s not really that ironic. As with the Taliban and Northern Alliance’s experience, the drug trade is an equal-opportunity employer. If any place proves that, it is Lebanon. In the 1970s and eighties, while civil war raged, every faction—Muslim, Druze, Christian, even outside governments like Syria and organizations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—had a hand in the drug trade, mainly cultivating and shipping hashish and heroin.10 It was the only way to fund the ongoing fight against each other.

One terrorist outfit that profited particularly well from the dope rackets was Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. Booted out of Jordan in 1970, the PLO holed up in Lebanon until the Israelis flushed them out in 1982. While the PLO did get financing from friendly Arab governments, estimates suggest Arafat and his cronies pulled thrice that subsidy annually from Lebanon’s narcotics trade before its expulsion, about $300 million.11 The US Justice Department confirmed in 1984 the PLO procured an estimated 40 percent of its light weaponry by trading hash, heroin, or morphine base.12 After getting the bum’s rush from Israel, the PLO increased its dependency on drug money, its treasury chief going so far as to say in a 1983 emergency meeting in Algiers, "the entire future of the PLO operation for liberation may hinge on our exporting more drugs throughout the world."13

Given this history, it should not be surprising that the Taliban and its most notorious ally, Osama bin Laden, would prosper from the trade.

Flower Power

In 1979 Soviet tank treads cracked the parched earth of Afghanistan as the Russian army marched in to occupy. While the Afghanis attempted to fight them off, Soviet money and military might far out-muscled the Mujaheddin. How was this ragtag militia, barely a week removed from the middle ages, supposed to fend off a global superpower? With flowers. The Mujaheddin took to cultivating opium poppies and funded their war effort with the proceeds of opium, morphine base, and heroin sales. The US certainly helped out—giving the Afghanis Stinger missiles and other forms of support—but the brave warriors could not have sent the Bear home bellowing without smack.

They kept going even after the Soviets pulled out. The money was just too good to let ground go fallow. British journalist James Meek does the math: "The seven kilos of [opium] seed required to sow a single hectare cost a million Afghanis, about £13. That hectare would be expected to produce roughly 10 kilos of khanka, the raw material from which heroin is made. Each kilo sells for up to 2m Afghanis. In other words, from planting in January to harvesting in July, £13 has become about £260."14 Who’s going to return to wheat with payoffs like that? "Ever since 1980, all the Mujaheddin warlords had used drug money to help fund their military campaigns and line their own pockets," writes journalist Ahmed Rashid in his acclaimed history, Taliban. "Publicly they refused to admit that they indulged in drug trafficking, but always blamed their Mujaheddin rivals for doing so. But none had ever been so brazen, and honest, in declaring their lack of intention to control drugs as the Taliban."15


More than a lack of intention to control, as the Taliban pressed its rule across the region in the middle-to-late 1990s, it began to actively profit from the trade, exacting up to a 20 percent tax on loads of opium.16 Considering in 1999 Afghanistan produced more than 70 percent of the world’s opium, the take must have been substantial. According to Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare Director Yossef Bodansky, the Taliban’s estimated total annual income from the drug trade tallied eight billion dollars.17 Even assuming that figure is grossly inflated, and some would suggest it is, the reality is that the Taliban was making a fair piece with poppies.18

Red flags might fly here. One would think that Islamic law—and the Taliban were sticklers for it—forbids profits from such nefarious deeds. Not a problem. As Shirley MacLaine tells Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara, given special circumstances, "the Lord grants dispensation."

"Specific fatwas from Islamist luminaries authorize these highly irregular, seemingly un-Islamic activities because they also contribute to the destruction of Western society," explains Bodansky. "The Sunni Islamist fatwas are based on and derived from earlier rulings of the higher Shiite courts issued in connection with operations of [Hezbollah]HH and Iranian intelligence. The logic of these activities was elucidated in the mid-1980s in the [Hezbollah]’s original fatwa on the distribution of drugs: ‘We are making these drugs for Satan—America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, we will kill them with drugs.’"19

All well and good, but there was one immediate problem for the Taliban: Leader Mullah Mohammad Omar—Sheikh Smack—was not much of a money wiz. Rashid points out that Omar was known to run the Taliban’s finances out of tin chests stuffed with cash under his bed.20 To sort out that kind of money a person needs someone who can manage it beyond the mattress. Fortunately for Omar, Osama bin Laden was around. Bodansky notes that bin Laden administered the drug profits, "laundering them through the Russian Mafia—in return for a commission of between 10 and 15 percent, which provides an annual income of about a billion dollars."21

Bin Laden had other investments to be sure, but his narcodollars were vital in financing al-Qaida, and so was the Taliban’s protection and support of his activities. As Rashid notes, bin Laden’s terrorist organization "could not have spent the years of planning and organization that went into the [September 11] attacks without safe sanctuary where everything it needed was available—training, funding, communications, and inspiration."22 Thanks to robust profits from the heroin trade, the Taliban became that sanctuary, a hub and haven for international terrorists bent on havoc and the destruction of the US and its interests.

While the Taliban is now mostly an unpleasant memory and al-Qaida’s staging ground in Afghanistan is kaput, bin Laden’s operatives and those from other Mideast terrorist shops are still afoot in the world and funding their ploys with drug money.

As of December 2002, DEA was investigating more than forty domestic drug cases in which officials believed proceeds were filtered back to Islamic terrorists.23 In November 2002, US officials announced that they foiled a drugs-for-weapons scheme hatched by a US citizen and two Pakistanis. According to the indictment, the plan was to swap six hundred kilos of heroin and five metric tons of hashish for Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which they intended to sell to members of al-Qaida. The trouble for these fellows was that they were unwittingly talking to the FBI and their discussions were being taped.24

Similarly, a series of drug raids in early 2002 by the DEA resulted in evidence pointing to Middle East men in the US smuggling huge loads of pseudoephedrine (for cooking methamphetamine) and funneling the funds back to the Middle East, where some of the money ended up in the hands of Iran-based terrorist organization Hezbollah.25

With the push by the federal government to put the kibosh on bogus charities and front companies, drugs’ role in keeping extremists in the black is increasing. "Because there is pressure on the traditional funding sources . . . pressure on the money flowing to these groups, that leaves them to be entrepreneurs in how they will come up with the money for the different [terrorist] cells," said then-DEA Chief Asa Hutchinson in late 2002. That, said Hutchinson, leads terrorists directly to illegal drugs. "That is the evidence we see and the trend that we see."26

And the trend can be seen all over, including our hemisphere. "One of the biggest bastions of terrorism is not a world away," says US Senator Zell Miller. "A two-hour flight south from Miami will land you in Colombia, the most dangerous and terroristic country in the world."27

Coke Central

"The political setting in Colombia is extraordinarily complex," explains the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter, which is too polite an appraisal. Colombia is a train wreck masquerading as a country, a 440,000-square-mile disaster with a national anthem. Carpenter is spot-on in explaining why: "[T]he government in Bogotá is involved in a struggle with no fewer than four factions. Explicitly arrayed against the government are two radical leftist insurgent movements, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Both have been designated as terrorist groups by the US State Department. Violently opposed to FARC and ELN are the right-wing paramilitaries, most notably the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), also now designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization. . . . And finally there are the various narcotrafficking organizations," which Carpenter notes swing both ways, helping the insurgents or the paramilitaries depending which advances their business more.28

The important thing to the US government is not that Colombia is a piece of taffy with too many pullers; for Uncle Sam, the big concern is that Colombia is the heart of this hemisphere’s cocaine and (since the mid-1990s) heroin trade. Coca and poppies are grown in the Andes Mountains, processed in Colombian labs, and disbursed to traffickers who smuggle it into the US, straight to the beckoning bloodstreams of willing Americans.

To halt this pursuit of chemical happiness, the US government has determined that it must go to the source and stanch the flow of illicit junk by convincing and coercing the Colombians to cut drug production. This is not an easy task—to some extent FARC, ELN, and AUC are all dependent on dope proceeds to pay for their various insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. They do have other means of raising money, to be sure: AUC extorts money from wealthy ranchers, promising to help them protect their properties from the communistas. ELN and FARC have been adept at lucrative kidnappings (thousands of abductees a year) and extortions of their own, which they call "war taxes," laying levies on bananas, petroleum, and whatever else people want to get to market—including coca. But, however diversified their portfolios, it is here in drugs where serious money can be made.

Coke’s Revolutionaries

FARC is the largest of the guerrilla organizations and controls a rough and rural area in southern Colombia nearly the size of Switzerland. FARC has been around in one form or another since 1949 and today boasts as many as eighteen thousand members. It started as a populist movement geared toward land reform, filling the chasm between the nation’s rich and poor. From those early years, it took on a more Marxist flavor and, eventually, a terrorist one.

Instead of merely duking it out with government troops in traditional insurgency battles, FARC has led massacres of farmers not friendly to its cause, in at least one case hacking the victims to death with machetes; hijacked a Colombian senator’s plane, kidnapping the senator; led a "large-scale mortar attack" on the Presidential Palace where the president was being inaugurated in 2002 (twenty one nearby residents were killed in the attack); and kidnapped and murdered three Americans in 1999.29 Since 1980, FARC rebels have murdered at least thirteen US citizens.30

Involvement in the drug trade began by taxing it and offering protection from the government, establishing as early as 1982 a per-gram fee on coca-processing laboratories.31 By then, subgroups in the FARC organization already had protection deals with members of the Medellín Cartel. A 1983 CIA intelligence estimate reported, "These guerrilla groups initially avoided all connections with narcotics growers and traffickers, except to condemn the corrupting influence of drugs on Colombian society. Now, however, several have developed active links with the drug trade, others extort protection money from the traffickers, and some apparently use profits from drugs to buy arms." Being the good socialists they were, FARC rebels not only taxed the coca trade, but as the CIA noted, "in some areas established quotas . . . wages and rules for workers, producers and owners of the coca fields."32

Over time, FARC’s involvement became more pronounced, levying heavier taxes, additionally taxing the chemicals used to manufacture cocaine from the raw coca. Says Robin Kirk, "Soon they started buying base [the intermediary between coca and cocaine] themselves and sold it directly to traffickers."33 Carpenter notes evidence exists that FARC and ELN are even more intimately involved. "The strongest evidence emerged from raids conducted by Colombian military forces in early 2001 that uncovered documents, eyewitness accounts, and financial receipts showing that the rebels were directly engaged in the production and export of cocaine."34

The close involvement pays off. US olfactories hoover up nearly forty billion dollars worth of coke annually. Between stateside septums and jungle-hunkered insurgents, there are many middlemen, but the take-home for Colombia’s terrorist organizations is huge nonetheless. In the first year of the Reagan administration, FARC’s member role tallied about one thousand. By the time Bill Clinton was cleaning Bob Dole’s clock in 1996, FARC’s ranks were fifteen times larger.35 Its troops were well armed, sporting uniforms, and, in 2000, earning a hundred dollars a month more than members of the Colombian army.36 According to INTERPOL, just in its tax-slapping FARC pulls twenty dollars per kilo of base, thirty dollars per kilo of the fully refined stuff, plus twenty-five hundred dollars every time a trafficker wants to use a landing strip to fly blow either in or out at whatever stage of refinement.37

Adding more spice to the salsa, the Colombian government has arrested three members of the Irish Republican Army and confirmed the presence of Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists in the country, collaborating with FARC.38

Coke’s Counterrevolutionaries

Battling FARC and company is the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the loose-knit organization of right-wing paramilitaries founded as a direct counterforce to the Marxist guerrillas. But while they do not hold hands when it comes to politics, FARC and AUC do have something in common: AUC is up to its eyeteeth in the drug trade.

According to a confidential 2003 assessment prepared for the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, "it is impossible to differentiate between the self-defense groups and the narco-trafficking organizations."39 The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the report, explained the way AUC’s "budgeting" process works: "Through a handful of drug kingpins posing as paramilitary commanders, they control about 40 percent of Colombia’s drug trafficking. The AUC ‘sells its franchise’ to regional drug traffickers, who rely on the group for security in exchange for a cut of profits. . . . [A]s much as 80 percent of the AUC’s funding comes from drug trafficking."40 According to the report, AUC’s interests are geared more toward the advancement of its drug business than its fight against Marxist insurgents.

The prospect of fifteen thousand heavily armed combatants mainly concerned with advancing their interest in the drug trade is one about which the US government is less than keen. Before the month closed on the September 11 attacks, the Justice Department launched "Operation White Terror" and later uncovered evidence that AUC was cooking a deal "to trade $25 million cash and cocaine for weapons, including shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles; 9,000 assault rifles; grenade launchers and nearly 300,000 grenades; 300 pistols; and about 53 million rounds of ammunition."41

The principal leader of AUC, Carlos Castano, is not secretive about the self-defense forces’ drug-running: "Listen, that’s the nature of the economy here. The FARC finance themselves with the same money. So I have to take their sources away."42 It’s just a question of squeezing out the competition.

Fighting Back

Naturally, the US has been less than pleased with the troops supposedly battling narcoterrorists, being narcos themselves. The response to the problem has been to wring more tax money out of the federal budget and send it to the Colombian government so it will no longer rely on AUC forces to help battle the Marxist insurgents. President Clinton got the ball rolling with Plan Colombia, an outlay of $1.3 billion in military equipment and training designed to weaken the guerillas by decimating the drug crops from which they gain their funds. By summer 2003, the funds tallied $2.5 billion.

But for all the money dumped down this Andean-sized rat hole, success has been meager if not utterly elusive. First, there was the simple fact that drug warriors failed to get any traction; months after dropping the first hunk of funds into Colombia, crop eradication efforts had failed to budge the street price of cocaine. Had the efforts been effective, the price tag on a noseful of coke would have risen. It didn’t. One possible reason: DEA vastly underestimated the amount of cocaine Colombia could produce. The feds figured up to 580 tons per year, but while that total is double what the Colombia could manage in 1995, a report from the U.N. indicated that production capacity might really be closer to 800 tons.43 No wonder antidrug forces found it difficult to make a dent.

Second, efforts to get locals to grow alternate crops have been a wash. Few other crops pay like coca. Bananas can’t match blow for bucks; neither can coffee, rubber, corn, or much else. Depending on the licit crop, farmers can make ten times the lucre growing coca. Only opium poppies compete with those numbers.44 By any measure, coca is an ideal crop for poor Andean farmers. Once planted, a coca bush will mature in just eighteen months, pumping out maximum yields in about three years. The bushes thrive in poor soil, provide as many as six harvests a year, and will live a quarter of a century provided they’re well tended.45 Further, with most cash crops, farmers heap up additional expenses just getting the goods to market—a difficult, costly task in the Andes. With coca, farmers report that buyers actually come to them.46 "The notion that the potential income from bananas, maize, or citrus fruit can compete with the potential income from coca, marijuana, or opium poppies is about as realistic as assuming that a burger flipper at McDonald’s can earn as much as a software designer for Microsoft," Carpenter sums up.47

Not only are alternate crops bad business for farmers, even with the ever-flowering array of various and sundry subsidies, in some cases alternate crops get poisoned along with coca fields in government spray campaigns. During just one Plan Colombia-sponsored spray campaign, pilots fumigated 9,000 acres of pasture land, nearly 3,000 acres of bananas, 1,300 acres of yucca, and poisoned some 200,000 fish.48 They have to fly high to avoid guerilla antiaircraft fire, but the higher they go, the worse their aim. The destruction of legitimate crops has frustrated farmers and left them more willing to join organizations like FARC when their livelihoods and even health have been destroyed.

Third, there is the balloon effect. Since government cannot put equal pressure everywhere, when it pushes in one place, the trade expands in others. Like US jobs migrating to countries where the economics produce bigger profits, cocaine producers move to more profitable locales when the squeeze sets in. For instance, by March 2003, US drug czar John Walters was finally able to pronounce a "turning point" in Colombia. Cocaine production was down, according to government figures. But the success was an illusion. While cocaine production was down in Colombia some 15 percent, it was back up in neighboring Bolivia and Peru. Further, it turns out that both Colombia and Peru are planting more productive varieties of coca, which means even though total acreage may be down, actual amounts of cocaine produced may increase.49 And poppies have increased in Peru as well.50

In the end, Plan Colombia’s success is a shell game. The "pea" has not been eradicated, it has simply migrated to more profitable environs, like Peru—where only a few years ago authorities were gushing with enthusiasm about declining coca production as the trade simply shifted to Colombia.

Rock the Kasbah

Afghanistan is in the same bind. While the Taliban is now gone and al-Qaida is limping along in other corners of the globe, the poppies are back and thriving. "If there was serious government pressure, the peasants would stop growing poppies, especially if they were given free fertilizers and free seeds for other crops," said one heroin smuggler from Kabul in November 2001—but then thought better of it: "Then again, the peasants might choose not to. When they’re earning so much from the poppies, it’s not very likely. People will still grow poppies in secret. People get richer quicker that way."51

Sure enough, in 2002, opium production jumped to thirty-four hundred metric tons, "making Afghanistan the source of three-fourths of the world’s opium. . . ."52 Last year was no different, except bigger. According to U.N. estimates, in 2003 production jumped to thirty-six hundred metric tons.53 Despite the presence of thousands of US-led troops, U.N. figures show that poppies are being grown in twenty-eight of thirty-two provinces.54 And the heroin stores created from these crops are tremendous.

In a January 2004 armed raid in Istanbul, Turkish police seized a solid ton of the stuff. Stuck between Europe and Asia, Turkey is the key trafficking route for heroin from the East, especially Afghanistan, and evidence indicated that the huge stockpile came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.55 The same month, authorities in Pakistan found another 1.6 metric tons of heroin stashed in a cave near the Afghan border. From Pakistan, the drugs would have been smuggled through Iran on their way to Europe.56

And what’s good for European junkies is good for Afghani farmers.

Like coca in the Andes, poppies out-compete alternative crops in a big way. In the mountainous regions, the hardscrabble terrain is well suited to poppies and little else.57 They require less water than wheat, fetch twenty times the income of cotton, and because of opium’s indefinite shelf-life, growers can either harvest and sell the opium right there in the fields or save it for a rainy day.58

In the province of Konar, the agriculture ministry has offered incentives to farmers who pull up their poppy crops—$1,625 per acre. Even someone who flunked Econ 101 can see the problem here: poppies pull in about $20,000 per acre, not that such numbers stop some from taking the government money and continuing to grow dope on the side.59 Everybody’s doing it. In the village of Jata, even the local mullah has a crop.60

Bankrolling Terror

Before 9/11, the various efforts to stamp out drugs and terrorism were seen as separate ventures. But the moment the al-Qaida terror fleet shattered our delusions, we saw the two for what they were—sometimes isolated, other times symbiotic scofflaws. "We have learned, and we have demonstrated, that drug traffickers and terrorists work out of the same jungle; they plan in the same cave and they train in the same desert," said former DEA chief Asa Hutchinson.61

The reason for this close relationship—as with almost everything in the drug trade—boils down to money. "Drugs are the currency of terrorists," in the words of one US attorney from Texas.62

And lest there be any doubt what that means in the practical world, North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger cuts directly to the chase: "Americans must recognize that every time they buy cocaine or heroin, they are directly funding terrorists."63 That has been the government line since shortly after September 11. As we all know, thanks to ONDCP’s Super Bowl commercials, every heroin fix is a guaranteed deposit in First Terrorist Trust. But while many of the dots are there to connect, in the final analysis, the fundamental argument is bunk for one simple reason: Uncle Sam’s finger is pointing the wrong direction. He’s his own best suspect.

As with crime and corruption, the problem with the relationship between drugs and terrorism is not drugs. It’s the war on drugs. The illicit industry created by prohibition provides opportunities for terrorists and insurgents to get involved at various stages of drug production and make money otherwise unavailable to them. FARC wouldn’t be able to offer protection to coca-growers if the government were not coming after them with US-backed troops and materiel. Likewise, al-Qaida would have a hard time pulling in multimillions of dollars a year overseeing grain production; it is because Europe and the United States go to extreme lengths to keep their citizens’ circulatory systems heroin-free that opium poppies are so lucrative for terrorist organizations. Ditto for coca. It is even the same with cannabis in places like Morocco.64

Currently, the rhetoric about terrorism and drugs comes down to fighting two wars: one on bad people, the other on bad plants. Few are apparently ready to admit that by ceasing the war on the bad plants, the bad people will lose an important source of funding for their bad operations. The flip side, of course, is that because of prohibition they can fund those operations, making the war on drugs and our government (even if unwittingly) instrumental in bankrolling terrorists.65

Says President Bush, "It’s so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drugs profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder. If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America."66 Given the economics here, it makes much more sense to reply, "If you quit prohibiting drugs and artificially driving up their prices, you join the fight against terror in America."


Some may object that terrorists’ involvement in drugs goes beyond simply financing. Like Hezbollah’s dope-slinging efforts in the 1980s, the terrorists are, so the argument goes, using drugs to destabilize the country, as a "weapon of mass destruction"?67

Certainly, drug abuse does hurt many Americans, destroys families, and ruins lives. But the notion of the widespread nature of this menace is often a reflection more of our fear of drugs than reality. America did not have federal control of narcotics until 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Act. Similarly, marijuana was not illegal till 1937. Somehow the country went from newly liberated colonies to industrial powerhouse and world power all while dope was readily available at the corner—you guessed it—drug store. At various times and in various places many of these substances may not have been available, true, but one potentially destructive substance has been ubiquitous at all points in American history, alcohol. And the time it most destabilized the nation was during the thirteen years it was illegal.

The destabilization argument is a desperately flung red herring. Drugs do not destabilize—at least, nowhere near as badly as prohibition does. As we saw in the first chapter, it creates crime and violence. As we saw in the second, it corrupts the very public servants we trust to protect our lives and property. As we will see in coming chapters, it wreaks havoc on the Constitution and traditional American liberties, provides government the right to rob people of their property, militarizes the police, and expands the size and scope of the state to frightening proportions.

If our goal is to defend Americans against terrorism, we’re barking up the wrong coca bush. Our efforts must be directed toward scrapping drug prohibition.


1 Ira Teinowitz, "White House brings back ads linking drugs to terror,", 17 September 2002.
2 Ira Teinowitz, "White House to end drugs and terror ads,", 1 April 2003.
3 A little Saudi oil money is a big help as well.
4 David T. Courtwright, Forces of Habit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 184.
5 Lee Davidson, "Hatch links drugs, terror," Utah Daily Herald, 21 May 2003.
6 Robert D. Novak, "Ignoring narco-terrorism,", 10 December 2001.
7 Rachel Ehrenfeld, Narco-Terrorism (New York: BasicBooks, 1990), 24.
8 Stanley Penn and Edward T. Pound, "Havana haven," Wall Street Journal, 30 April 1984; Ehrenfeld, 31-51.
9 Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: St. Martin’s, 2002), 324-344.
10 Ehrenfeld, 56-66.
11 Martin Booth, Opium (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996), 313.
12 Ehrenfeld, 5, 69.
13 Ehrenfeld, 69.
14 James Meek, "Time running out in the opium war," London Guardian, 26 November 2001.
15 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2001), 119.
16 Rashid, 118.
17 Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (Roseville: Prima Forum, 2001), 315.
18 While the total sums do seem high at first glance, consider: "Estimates of the total money laundered around the world range from $500 billion to $1.5 trillion, most of it from the illegal drugs trade—and around 70 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan," notes Jermyn Brooks ("Terrorism, organized crime, money laundering," International Herald Tribune, 30 October 2001).
19 Bodansky, 322.
20 Rashid, 124.
21 Bodansky, 315.
22 Rashid,viii
23 Greg Krikorian, "Blood money: Drug cases eyed for ties to Mideast terrorists," Union Leader, 26 December 2002.
24 Dan Eggen, "US foils swap of drugs for weapons," Washington Post, 7 November 2002.
25 "DEA traces drug money to Hezbollah," San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2002; "DEA: Drug money funds terror group,", 1 September 2002.
26 Krikorian, "Blood money."
27 "Afghanistan, drugs and terrorism," Drugs and Conflict, Transnational Institute, December 2001.
28 Ted Galen Carpenter, Bad Neighbor Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 60.
29 Scott Wilson, "rampage by Colombian rebels marks new level of brutality," Washington Post, 3 June 2001; "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)," Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002, United States Department of State, April 2003.
30 Michael Catanzaro, "South America’s drug-terror link," American Enterprise, June 2002.
31 Robin Kirk, More Terrible Than Death (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 100-101.
32 Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), 43.
33 Kirk, 235.
34 Carpenter, 68.
35 Kirk, 236.
36 Timothy Pratt, "The drug war’s southern front," Reason, April 2000.
37 Carpenter, 68.
38 Catanzaro, "South America’s drug-terror link."
39 Scott Wilson, "Colombian fighters’ drug trade is detailed," Washington Post, 27 June 2003.
40 Wilson, "Colombian fighters’ drug trade is detailed."
41 "Colombian terrorists arrested in cocaine-for-weapons deal," DEA press release, 6 November 2002; Eggen, "US foils swap of drugs for weapons."
42 Pratt, "The drug war’s southern front."
43 "‘Plan Colombia’ not shifting US cocaine prices, US says,", 23 May 2001.
44 Carpenter, 107
45 Carpenter, 108.
46 Monique Stauder, "Colombian cocaine runs through it," Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 2001.
47 Carpenter, 111.
48 Laurie Goering, "Coca crop survives 1st wave," Chicago Tribune, 20 May 2001.
49 "The balloon goes up," The Economist, 6 March 2003.
50 "Specters stir in Peru," The Economist, 14 February 2002.
51 James Meek, "Time running out in the opium war," Guardian, 26 November 2001.
52 Marc Perelman, "US taking heat for an Afghan drug boom," The Forward, 6 June 2003.
53 Art Harris, "Bumper Afghan opium crop, UN warns,", 30 October 2003.
54 Pamela Constable, "Afghan poppies sprout again,", 9 November 2003.
55 "Turkey makes record heroin bust worth millions of euros," Agence France-Press, 29 January 2004.
56 "Pakistan seizes huge haul of Afghan heroin," Reuters, 29 January 2004.
57 Scott Baldauf, "Poppies bloom in Afghan fields, again," Christian Science Monitor, 21 August 2002.
58 The "20 times" figure comes from Constable, "Afghan poppies sprout again."
59 Baldauf, "Poppies bloom in Afghan fields, again."
60 April Witt, "Afghan poppies proliferate," Washington Post, 10 July 2003.
61 Eggen, "US foils swap of drugs."
62 Eggen, "US foils swap of drugs."
63 Catanzaro, "South America’s drug-terror link." Ballenger’s exclusion of marijuana here points to a lie in some of the ONDCP ads, like the "Dan" one—namely, the fact that plenty of pot smoked in the US is homegrown and has nothing to do with terrorist financing. The joint that Dan bought probably is helping some lower income farmer in Kentucky send is daughter to college.
64 Isambard Wilkinson, "Cannabis profits ‘funding terrorism,’" London Telegraph, 9 August 2003.
65 David R. Henderson, "Supporting the drug war supports terrorists," Hoover Institution, 20 May 2002.
66 Patricial Wilson, "Bush to Americans: Quit drugs, join war effort," Reuters, 14 December 2001.
67 Steven W. Casteel, remarks made at DEA’s National Symposium on Narcoterrorism, "Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists, and Your Kids," hosted by the DEA Museum, 4 December 2001.