Paying for Terror
How jihadist groups are using organized-crime tactics--and profits--to finance attacks on targets around the globe
Foreign fish. The big fish--the Indian mobsters, Moroccan hash dealers, and Afghan drug barons--are swimming overseas, however, and U.S. law enforcement is starting to train its sights on the worst of them. After being shut out of Afghanistan for two decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration is making progress in going after top Afghan traffickers tied to the Taliban. DEA agents are applying the same sort of "kingpin strategy" that helped to break the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia by targeting whole trafficking organizations. The agency has identified some 10 of these "high-value targets," led by Afghans who have amassed fortunes of as much as $100 million, officials say. Two already have fallen this year: In April, agents nabbed a man they've dubbed "the Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan," Taliban ally Bashir Noorzai, by enticing him to a New York meeting. Noorzai is said to have helped establish the modern Afghan drug trade, and so lucrative were his operations that the indictment against him calls for the seizure of $50 million in drug proceeds. Then in October, the Justice Department announced the extradition of Baz Mohammad, another alleged "Taliban-linked narcoterrorist," charged with conspiring to import over $25 million worth of heroin into the United States and other countries. Mohammad, according to an indictment, boasted that "selling heroin in the United States was a 'jihad' because they were taking the Americans' money at the same time the heroin was killing them." He is now awaiting trial, in a New York jail.
The DEA's experience, however, illustrates some of the problems in grappling with the nexus between organized crime and terrorism. Despite post-9/11 calls for cooperation, the DEA's ties to other U.S. agencies are often strained; the drug agency is not even considered part of the U.S. intelligence community. Pentagon officials, worried over "mission creep," routinely refuse to give DEA agents air support in Afghanistan. Other turf issues still plague the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, and other agencies, making collaborative work on the crime-terrorism issue problematic. The intelligence community, for example, remains leery of seeing its people or information end up in court. "It's the same wall we saw between law enforcement and the intelligence world," says one insider. "Only now it's between terrorism and other crimes."
"We have stovepiped battling terrorism and organized crime," agrees Charles, the State Department's former top cop. "You cannot meet a complex threat like this without a similar response. And we don't have one." Indeed, interviews with counterterrorism and law enforcement officials in a half-dozen federal agencies suggest that cooperation across the government remains episodic at best and depends most often on personal relationships. "The incentives are all still against sharing," complains one analyst. "The leadership says yes, the policies say yes, but the culture says no. The bureaucracy has won."
Washington looks like a model of cooperation compared with Europe, however, where the walls between agencies and across borders stand even higher. "If we don't get on top of the criminal aspect and the drug connections, we will lose ground in halting the spread of these [terrorist] organizations," warns Gen. James Jones, head of the U.S. European Command, who has watched the rise in terrorist rackets with mounting concern. "You have to have much greater cohesion and synergy."