Crime-terror nexus battles drug control

A complex web connecting the global illicit drug trade with organised crime and terrorism poses a significant threat to international peace and security – with Flinders University criminology experts calling for renewed investigations into the problem.

The constant struggle means when one illicit drug supply is cut or blocked, new production and supplies of cocaine, methamphetamine and other in-demand drugs will soon make their way into affluent markets including Australia.

Their comments follow a large systematic review of current research on the ‘crime-terror’ nexus involving the Taliban in Afghanistan and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (‘FARC’), reflects warnings of the extent of the problems in the 2023 UN Secretary-General’s Annual Report.

“Terrorist groups such as the Taliban and FARC have played significant roles in the expansion of opium and coca cultivation, with up to 50% and 60% of their respective income generated from drug trade revenues,” says Flinders University College of Business, Government and Law PhD candidate Hamid Azizi, the first author of a new article in Global Crime.

“With total budgets derived from drug trade revenues amounting to as much as US$500 million for the Taliban and up to US$3.5 billion for the FARC, this underscores how revenue from the illicit drug has fueled conflict and instability in Afghanistan and Colombia for decades.”

Criminology PhD candidate Hamid Ullah Azizi has worked with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Mr Azizi, who worked for many years at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says the interconnectedness of illicit drugs, organised crime and terrorism was especially strong in unstable, “fragile” economies and regions – making counter-narcotic campaigns difficult to negotiate safely.

“Our review underlines the importance of an innovative policy response to reduce the drug-terrorism nexus, including engaging with sustainable development goals to offer positive socio-economic benefits or alternative livelihoods for local communities which may rely on an illicit drug production for decades.

“Despite a successful ban on opium cultivation in Afghanistan’s 2022-23 cultivation season, the UNODC then reporting growing domestic production of methamphetamine – and which can find its way to various markets including Europe and Australia.

“Furthermore, the Taliban’s opium ban has led to a substantial increase in opium prices, ultimately benefiting those holding opium stocks from previous year’s yields in Afghanistan and are linked with regional and international organised crime groups – as seen recently in escalating instability in some rural areas such as near the Central Asia border.”

In a broader context, these findings underline the need to examine the crime-terror nexus in other settings, such as Al-Qaida, in the Islamic Maghreb, which protects cannabis and cocaine trafficking in North and West Africa, and Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, which facilitates the trafficking of heroin and cocaine in the region.

Coauthors, including Flinders University Associate Professor Caitlin Hughes, says future independent empirical studies should focus on the crime-terror nexus in general, and in particular, on the Taliban’s drug trade nexus post-regime change as well as the FARC’s linkages with cocaine trade post 2016 Peace Agreement.

The Global Crime review article covered 31 studies – 23 about the Taliban, seven about the FARC, and one about both groups. The studies suggest that both groups generated a significant portion (between 10 to 50 percent for the Taliban, and 40 to 60 percent for the FARC) of their income from the drug trade ranging from US$19 million to US$500 million for the Taliban and US$140 million to US$3.5 billion for the FARC.

“Our findings show that Taliban and FARC have four key roles in the drug trade: tax collection, provision of protection, drug trafficking, and brokerage,” says Associate Professor Hughes.

“This is important as it shows that the drugs-terrorism links are not just about revenue raising. Instead, it is also about expanding network and territorial control, protection of vulnerable groups (e.g. farmers), expanding military capacity, exerting control over the drug trade itself and solidifying a political power base of the Taliban and FARC.

“Our review also shows that despite the frequency of statements about the drug trade fuelling terrorism, there is large variance between estimates of tax revenue and of the overall revenue derived. The extent of variance between estimates both for the Taliban and for the FARC is surprising.

“Fourth, the multiplicity of roles and ways that the Taliban and FARC are involved in the drug trade reinforces the deep connections that can occur and the difficulty of reducing involvement in the drug trade through simple solutions e.g., seizures of drugs or arrest of drug traffickers.”

The Flinders University criminology investigation continues to look for new insights to build innovative and sustainable solutions to reduce illicit drug production in these regions.

The research article, ‘A systematic review of the extent of the Taliban and FARC’s involvement and profit from drug trade and methods of estimating income from the drug trade’ (2024) by H Azizi and CE Hughes has been published in the journal Global Crime (Taylor & Francis Online). DOI: 10.1080/17440572.2024.2351818

Acknowledgements: This research was funded by the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship (International). Hamid Azizi declares that he did not utilise any United Nations internal or privileged information to which he had access as a staff member for the research and preparation of this work. Any UN reports, and information used in this research were publicly accessible.

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