Illegal Drugs and the War on Terror


By Joe Campbell
December 21st, 2008

In researching a post I was working on, I came across a Congressional report from 2004 that I was surprised I hadn’t heard about. Entitled “Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat: Causal Links and Implications for Domestic Drug Control Policy” [pdf], it lists five potential links between drug trafficking and terrorism:

  1. Supplying cash for terrorist operations;
  2. Creating chaos in countries where drugs are produced;
  3. Generating corruption in law enforcement, military, and other governmental and civil-society institutions that either build public support for terrorist-linked groups or weaken the capacity of the society to combat terrorist organizations and actions;
  4. Providing services also useful for terrorist actions and movements of terrorist personnel and material, and supporting a common infrastructure, such as smuggling capabilities, illicit arms acquisition, money laundering, or the production of false identification papers;
  5. Competing for law enforcement and intelligence attention.

The report focuses on how drug trafficking undermines the War on Terror – but it makes clear both the current quagmire that is the Drug War and the ways in which the incentives created by the War on Drugs undermine the War on Terror.

Now at first glance, it may seem as if the War on Terror and the War on Drugs should be benefit one another. After all, a successful policy that made heroin production and trade less profitable or more difficult would deprive the Afghan Taliban from one of their primary sources of cash. A successful anti-smuggling policy would make it harder for drugs to slip across the border as well as terrorists and weapons.

The Bush administration meanwhile has sought to conflate the two wars – for example, by running ads immediately in the aftermath of 9/11 claiming that drug money paid for terrorism1 and by repeatedly using measures from the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures to go after drug offenses.

But looking more closely, one can see that the War on Drugs has often impeded the War on Terror in these very areas. For example, critics of the Bush administration’s drug policy in Afghanistan believe we are in fact driving poor farmers to seek the protection of the Taliban. By using laws designed for the War on Terror in the Drug War, it undermines claims that the War on Terror is “different” and should unite all of us. By using these new powers more often, law enforcement undermines it’s credibility. It’s a vicious cycle.

    1. At the time, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were not making money from the heroin trade however, so this was rather misleading. The Taliban in fact had prevented poppy-farming until they needed it as a source of revenue after they were ousted from power. The commercials based their claims on FARC in Columbia. []

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