WASHINGTON: As terrorist groups increasingly work with drug gangs and other international criminals, they pose new threats to the United States – but they also create new vulnerabilities that savvy Americans can use to attack them, said the Pentagon’s top drug war expert, William Wechsler.
The US needs to go beyond thinking of terrorist groups purely as terrorists and attack them “as business enterprises and criminal enterprises,” said Wechsler, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats, addressing a small audience at the annual irregular warfare conference hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, IDGA. Tactically, Wechsler said, that approach offers new ways to target terrorist finances and logistics. Strategically, it opens the possibility of a moral judo in which the terrorists discredit themselves. When the US exposes terrorists’ ties to crime, said Wechsler, “it undermines their support within their own populations because most people in the world don’t like this kind of activity. There aren’t a lot of people in the world who love drug trafficking and think it would be great if their son or daughter was hooked on drugs.”
As a prime example, Wechsler singled out Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed, Lebanese-based group is infamous for killing 241 US Marines in Beirut in 1981 and for fighting the vaunted Israeli Army to a standstill in 2006, but its fundraising network reaches far beyond the Middle East and has growing ties to Latin American crime. Last year, as the Drug Enforcement Agency investigated trans-Atlantic criminal gangs that shipped Latin American cocaine and stolen US cars to Europe by way of north-west Africa, agents discovered that a Lebanese intermediary was laundering the money by way of the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank, with Hezbollah taking a cut. State Department sanctions prompted “a run on the bank” that led to its collapse, Wechsler bragged. It also created a broader backlash against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“You saw, in the open press, op-eds in the Lebanese papers from bankers saying, ‘When Hezbollah came into our banks, we looked the other way, but now we see it can destroy our banks. Between our banks and Hezbollah, we choose our banks,’” Wechsler said. Hezbollah’s opportunistic involvement in international crime had turned from an asset to a liability that hurt them literally where they lived, in Lebanon.
Opportunistic ties between politically motivated groups and money-grubbing crime aren’t new, Wechsler noted – nor is the potential for a backlash. Over a century ago, in 1907, Bolshevik revolutionaries with bombs and guns seized a bank stagecoach in Tiflis, killing forty people. “The people behind the attack were named Lenin and Stalin,” said Wechsler. “The money” – millions in contemporary dollars – “was intended to finance their revolution, [but] the fact that it was such a brazen criminal act was seen by the Bolsheviks’ allies in the wider movement in Russia to be beyond the pale, and it created a schism.”
What’s different today is the worldwide scope of those connections, driven by the same globalization that has boosted legitimate international trade, Wechsler said. Thanks to the internet, terrorists and criminals can even learn new brutalities from one another without direct contact. “The [drug cartel] guys in Mexico didn’t come up by themselves with the idea of beheading someone, videotaping it, and posting it on the internet,” he said. “They watched terrorist organizations doing this, and they thought, ‘What a great idea.’”
Close coordination between the military, the intelligence community, law enforcement, civilian agencies like the Treasury’s famed Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and foreign allies is crucial to success, Wechsler said, and that’s an area where there has been made real progress. Back in the 1980s, when cocaine was pouring into Florida, inspiring pop-culture classics like Scarface and Miami Vice, the military was immensely reluctant to get involved in the drug war, he said, but today it’s routinely integrated into the Joint Interagency Task Force that has helped cut trafficking to Florida to a fraction of its former levels, he said: “That’s why there aren’t any TV shows about this any more.”
Abroad, the US has played a crucial supporting role in helping Colombia push back its drug-fueled insurgency, Wechsler said, a model for our future involvement in Afghanistan as the Kabul government increasingly takes the lead. “One of the underreported stories about Afghanistan is the real positive development of the DEA-mentored elite [police] units,” Wechsler said, “and the great success of a specialized drug court system.” While the US military has very limited authorities to detain suspected insurgents, both drug use and drug trafficking are common among insurgents, for whom opium is a major source of funding, and evidence of drugs allows the US to refer the detainees to a dedicated Afghan law enforcement system, with its own specialized cops, courts, and prosecutors, “that has about a 90% successful conviction rate, and you can take them off the battlefield for years and years.”
Wechsler emphasized that, while we’ve had some successes, this requires long-term commitment. “When somebody is foolish enough to line up a thousand tanks in the desert against us, we can have a very quick and satisfying victory… When you’re dealing with these kind of threats, the time frame is always generational.”