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ISIS and the New Face of Narcoterrorism

The disturbing connection between drug trafficking and modern terrorism

Douglas Century
October 06, 2014
Opium poppies in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marines via ISAFmedia)
Opium poppies in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marines via ISAFmedia)

Narcoterrorism, a word first coined by Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry in 1983, then made infamous with Pablo Escobar’s violence targeting the government of Colombia, has now vastly expanded from being a crisis limited to Latin America. In fact, I’d argue that whatever the nomenclature, Israel was among the first nations to be affected by the phenomenon of narcoterrorism. During the 1970s, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization controlled clandestine laboratories in Lebanon, laying some of the foundations for the current narcoterrorism infrastructure, which boosted the PLO’s stashed bank accounts. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, an estimated 40 percent of the PLO’s weaponry was financed by the trafficking of heroin and hashish.

For Israel, the threat is closer to home than the remote highland regions of Afghanistan, where approximately 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium originates. The poppy plant’s bulbs yield an enormously lucrative harvest, which through the work of often-impoverished Afghan tribesman becomes dark-brown opium paste. The raw opium then gets processed into heroin and smuggled into Western Europe and Russia where rates of opiate addiction have risen to alarming levels. Due to the widespread collusion between the Afghan government, police and intelligence operatives, and tribal opium kingpins, the heroin-terror connection is certain to increase—with disturbing repercussions for Americans at home and abroad.

The best case in point is the story of the Berro crime family. For decades, from their base in Lebanon’s Bekka valley, the Berro clan produced some of most pure heroin on the planet. The Bekka is a fertile valley east of Beirut on the northernmost tip of the Jordan rift, and it’s been a locus of Middle Eastern agriculture since Roman times. Even today, it remains Lebanon’s most important farming region; yet, hidden among the legal crops, Lebanese traffickers also produce enormous amounts of heroin and hashish.

On July 29, 1988, the Reef Star, an 878-ton freighter registered in St. Vincent’s and the Grenadines, was making passage through the Suez Canal, but none of the Berro clan realized that the ship’s captain was an informant working for the Anti-Narcotics General Administration, or ANGA—the Egyptian counterpart of our own Drug Enforcement Administration. (ANGA, founded in 1898, is regarded as the oldest drug enforcement agency in the world.) When the Reef Star was in the locks of Suez, the Egyptian authorities stopped the ship and seized 300 kilograms of heroin, 288 kilograms of processed hashish, and three metric tons of opium.

It was the biggest drug bust in the Middle East. In June 1989, after a fast-tracked trial, a judge in Egypt convicted 19 defendants of capital crimes in the Reef Star case. Kayed Berro—then living on a student visa in Orange County, CA, where he was completing a Masters’ Degree in Engineering at U.S.C.—and his father Mohammad, the owner of a successful hotel on the Israeli-Lebanese border, were both sentenced to death in absentia. By staying on the lam and later slipping back into Lebanon, they managed to escape capital punishment. Once a sophisticated but strictly capitalist heroin player, Kayed Berro is now, some 25 years later, believed by United States intelligence and counter-narcotics authorities to be an important financier for the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Indeed, as U.S. law enforcement agencies now acknowledge, narcoterrorism is the face of 21st-century organized crime. Far-flung groups like Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Al-Shabab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria are two-headed monsters: hybrids of highly structured global drug-trafficking cartels and politically motivated Islamic terrorists. Increasingly, the sale of narcotics is the first-line of financing for acts of terror; the March 11, 2004, coordinated train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people cost relatively little—an estimated $70,000—and were financed through the sale of hashish and ecstasy. Al-Qaeda spokesmen immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings.

ISIS, perhaps the greatest current threat to stability in the Middle East, is also engaged in narcoterrorism. Counter-narcotics experts tell me that ISIS now receives a sizable amount of its revenue through narcotics, specifically through drugs manufactured at labs they’ve seized in the Syrian city of Aleppo. These are former legitimate pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, containing the chemicals and equipment necessary to make high-grade, Breaking Bad-style methamphetamine that can then be distributed throughout the Middle East and Europe.

According to Edward Follis, the DEA’s former country attaché in Kabul, and the coauthor of my latest book, The Dark Art, ISIS is currently “trying to expand its portfolios just like you or I would be diversifying the types of stocks and bonds we hold. They’re getting into human trafficking, sale of pirated information technology, the illegal oil trade, and now drugs to try to diversify their revenue stream.”

Indeed, almost all terrorist groups in the world receive some of their funding from the illegal narcotics trade, whether it’s from sales of drugs or by levying “fees” on the farmers that grow the plants.

Despite our best efforts and the millions spent by the United States and other democracies in counter-narcotics funding, the drug crisis is at an all-time high in Afghanistan. Opium cultivation continues to spike, year after year, and heroin production accounts for approximately $3 billion, or 15 percent of the Afghan GDP.

Still, amid all the dispiriting headlines, there remains cause for cautious optimism, given the major policy shift in Washington toward treating Islamic narcoterrorists as we would Mafia bosses, targeting them for arrest and extradition to face justice in the U.S. federal court system, rather than, as the CIA often did, allowing them to continue their drug-trafficking operations as long as they were willing to work for us as classified intel sources.

Douglas Century, a Tablet contributing editor, is the author of Barney Ross: the Life of A Jewish Fighter. His latest book, The Dark Art: My Undercover Life Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Narcoterror Organizations, coauthored with former DEA Special Agent, Edward Follis, from which parts of this article are excerpted, is out this week from Gotham Books.

Douglas Century is the author and coauthor of numerous bestselling books including Hunting El Chapo, Takedown, Under and Alone, Brotherhood of Warriors and Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

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