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Bin Laden's Hustlers By: Josh Lefkowitz and Erick Stakelbeck
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 21, 2004

An eye-opening report issued by the United Nations earlier this month revealed that every Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attack to date—with the exception of 9/11—has cost under $50,000 to carry out.

Much of these funds, according to the report, “have been collected locally, whether through crime or diverted from charitable donations.”

The numerous closures of Muslim “charities” in the U.S. since 9/11, including the recently-indicted Holy Land Foundation (which allegedly raised money for Hamas), in large part verify the UN’s assessment.


But what about Al-Qaeda’s links to international crime, in particular, the drug trade?


A recent staff report released by the 9/11 Commission stated that “no substantial evidence” had been found that Al-Qaeda has played a major role in the drug trade, either before or after 9/11.


But from Southeast Asia to Western Europe, the opposite is true, as Al-Qaeda is using illegal drug money to help finance devastating attacks like last March’s Madrid train bombings.  


The epicenter for much of this Al-Qaeda drug activity is Afghanistan, where poppy cultivation has risen sharply since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The poppy is converted into opium and heroin by criminal gangs, who then smuggle it out of Afghanistan and to the West (95 percent of the heroin in Britain, for instance, derives from Afghani opium).


Al-Qaeda works closely with these Afghan drug smugglers to secure safe routes for their shipments through neighboring Pakistan and Iran. But Al-Qaeda’s assistance comes with a price: the group places heavy taxes on the shipments, and often takes some of the drugs as payment, using them later to buy weapons.  


Tactics similar to these were employed by the Madrid bombers, who, Spanish authorities believe, used 30 kilos of hashish to buy explosives that were used in that attack (which killed 200 people and wounded over a thousand more).


The men were also suspected of having links to Morocco’s thriving hashish trade, which serves as a source of revenue for Islamic terrorists in North Africa and Europe.


But even prior to Madrid, a pair of discoveries by the U.S. Navy in December 2003 underscored Al-Qaeda’s increased involvement in the drug business.


In one of those incidents, the U.S.S. Dectaur intercepted a ship in the Persian Gulf that contained two tons of hashish worth between $8 and $10 million. Intelligence gained from this raid led the Navy to two other ships in the area, which were both loaded with methamphetamines and heroin.


In total, ten people arrested during these operations had Al-Qaeda ties.


Likewise, just two weeks later, while conducting a routine search of a small fishing boat in the Arabian Sea, a U.S. Navy vessel found several Al-Qaeda members huddled around a large stash of narcotics. 


Yet Al-Qaeda is not the only terrorist organization active in the drug trade. Both Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al-Qaeda-funded group based in Southeast Asia, and Hizb-i-Islami, which operates in and around Afghanistan, are known to deal in narcotics as well.


In addition, the Shiite group Hezbollah has long engaged in drugs-for-cash deals, with operatives smuggling cocaine from Latin America (often by way of the notorious “tri-border” region, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet) to Europe and the Middle East.


In the past, Hizbollah has also smuggled opiates out of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a lawless area that is a haven for drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. The increased cooperation between these two factions seems contradictory at first glance, given Islam’s historically strong opposition to drug use. But for the terrorists, drug trafficking serves as a lucrative means to further their jihad against the West. 


As a U.S. defense official told the Washington Times: “Bin Laden does not mind trafficking in drugs, even though it’s against the teaching of Islam, because it’s being used to kill Westerners.” 


It’s clear that terror groups tied to the drug trade are reaping the benefits. Taliban remnants in Afghanistan, for example, are reportedly spending millions of dollars per month to plan attacks that would disrupt that country’s upcoming elections.


And over the past several months, during raids on Al-Qaeda safe houses in Saudi Arabia, Saudi security forces have seized close to a billion dollars worth of cash, weapons and equipment. It’s no secret that Al-Qaeda elements in the Kingdom have close ties with drug smugglers in Yemen and Afghanistan. 


Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently admitted that there was growing concern amongst American officials concerning the drugs-and-terror link, and said that the U.S. is working on a strategy to combat Al-Qaeda’s involvement in the narcotics trade.


Until that plan is devised, however, cutting off the increasingly creative sources of funding for Al-Qaeda and its ilk will remain one of the more complex—and crucial—challenges in the War on Terror.

Josh Lefkowitz is a terrorism analyst and Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research institute.

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