Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
Al Qaeda may be avoiding the heroin trade, but nearly everyone else in the region--from warlords to provincial governors to the Taliban--is not. The reasons are apparent: Afghanistan's opium trade is exploding. The cultivation of opium poppies, from which heroin is made, doubled from 2002 to 2003, according to CIA estimates. Then, last year, that amount tripled. Afghanistan now provides 87 percent of the world's heroin. "We have never seen anything like this before," says Charles, the former State Department narcotics chief. "No drug state ever made this much dope and so quickly." The narcotics industry now makes up as much as half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, analysts estimate, and employs upward of 1 million laborers, from farmers to warehouse workers to truck drivers. And now Afghans are adding industrial-level amounts of marijuana to the mix. U.N. officials estimate that some 74,000 to 86,000 acres of pot are being grown in Afghanistan--over five times what is grown in Mexico.
Corruption. And if al Qaeda itself is staying out of drugs, its allies certainly are not. The booming drug trade has given a strong second wind to the stubborn insurgency being waged by the Taliban and Islamist warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both the Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami army control key smuggling routes out of the country, giving them the ability to levy taxes and protection fees on drug caravans. Crime and terrorism experts are also alarmed over the corrosive, long-term effects of all the drug money, not just within Afghanistan but across the region. The ballooning dope trade is rapidly creating narco-states in central Asia, destroying what little border control exists and making it easier for terrorist groups to operate. Ancient smuggling routes from the Silk Road to the Arabian Sea are being supercharged with tons of heroin and billions of narcodollars. Within Afghanistan, drug-fueled corruption is pervasive; governors, mayors, police, and military are all on the take. A raid this year in strategically located Helmand province came up with a whopping 9 1/2 tons of heroin--stashed inside the governor's own office.
The smuggling routes lead from landlocked Afghanistan to the south and east through Pakistan, to the west through Iraq, and to the north through central Asia. Throughout the region the amounts of drugs seized are jumping, along with rates of crime, drug addiction, and HIV infection. Particularly hard hit are Afghanistan's impoverished northern neighbors, the former Soviet republics of Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. Widely praised demonstrations in Kirgizstan this year, which overthrew the regime of strongman Askar Akayev, have brought to power an array of questionable figures. "Entire branches of government are being directed by individuals tied to organized crime," warns Svante Cornell of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "The whole revolution smells of opium."
_ Neighboring republics are little better off. Central Asia's major terrorist threat, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has largely degenerated into a drug mafia, officials say. In Kazakhstan the interior minister tried to investigate corruption by going undercover in a truck packed with 9 tons of watermelons, motoring 1,200 miles from the Kirgiz Republic to the Kazakh capital. His team had to pay bribes to 36 different police and customs officials en route--some as little as $1.50. (Others merely accepted their bribe in melons.) The cargo was never inspected. What is happening in Iran, meanwhile, is "a national tragedy," according to the U.N.'s Costa. So much Afghan dope is being shipped into the country that it now has the world's highest per capita rate of addiction. The ruling mullahs in Tehran have taken it seriously; Iranian security forces have fought deadly battles with drug traffickers along their border, losing some 3,600 lives in the past 16 years. But even as their troops fight, the corruption has reached high officials of the Iranian government, who are using drug profits as political patronage, sources tell U.S. News. "There are indications," says Cornell, "that hard-line conservatives are up to their ears in the Afghan opium trade."