Drugs and the Financing of Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 20

The financing of terrorism through illicit drug trafficking has been touted as a major problem since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Indeed, during the last decade, Afghanistan has been the most important opium producing country in the world. It was under Taliban rule in 1999 that opium production reached its height with a 4,581-ton yield. Moreover, the fact that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden found a safe haven in that country, raised concerns about the possible emergence of a more global and pernicious alliance between drug traffickers and terrorists. But three years after the ouster of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s opium production is expected to exceed even 1999’s record high, thus raising concerns that the country is on the verge of becoming a “narco-state” and a bastion of “narco-terrorism.” Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, warned of “mounting evidence of drug money being used to finance criminal activities, including terrorism,” and declared that “fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism.”

The fact that the very term “narco-terrorism” appears to be too vague and counterproductive in terms of addressing either drug trafficking or terrorism – since it brings very different actors into too broad a category – has not kept most observers and politicians from resorting extensively to such a notion. Still, it is worthwhile examining the extent to which terrorism is funded by the illicit drug economy, if only to highlight the minimal role this plays in al-Qaeda’s finances.

A few cases have been highlighted by the media as evidence of al-Qaeda tapping into the opium economy of Afghanistan, even though the claims in themselves do not constitute an argument for the existence of any organized form of “narco-terrorism.” Doubtless, terrorist outfits are not less likely than others to at least try to benefit from such a resource, especially in a country like Afghanistan where the opium economy is estimated to equal half of the country’s legitimate gross domestic product. However, for the term not to become hackneyed, it seems that “narco-terrorism” should not refer to terrorist groups that have been only partly funded by illegal drugs, but rather to identify organized narcotics traffickers who seek to affect the policies of a government by terrorist means. Moreover, when one considers the direct and/or indirect involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence in the drug trade, it further complicates the adequacy of a category such as “narco-terrorism” and would require comparing how different actors like resistance guerrillas, intelligence and counter-insurgency agencies, and terrorist organizations use the drug economy.

In post-Taliban Afghanistan and prior to 2004, the U.S. has condoned opiates production both in areas traditionally controlled by the United Front (Badakhshan) and in areas held by various local commanders whose support was deemed strategically necessary to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Since then, some media reports have alleged continuing links between terrorists and illicit drug traffickers and have claimed that organizations involved in or benefiting from drug trafficking include al-Qaeda, Taliban remnants and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. [4] According to Western intelligence agencies, “recent busts have revealed evidence of al-Qaeda’s ties to the trade.” Such ties were inferred by various seizures of narcotics such as the one made by the U.S. Navy in the Arabian Sea on a small fishing boat aboard which “several al-Qaeda guys sitting on a bale of drugs” were found. In another case, the Kabul house of a drug trafficker was raided and a dozen satellite phones, used to call numbers “linked to suspected terrorists” in Turkey, the Balkans and Western Europe, were found. Hitherto, arguably the most serious case involving a connection between drug traffickers and “terrorists” is that revolving around the network of Haji Juma Khan, an Afghan national. According to some reports, western intelligence agencies are said to believe that Khan is the head of a heroin-trafficking organization that is a “principal source of funding for the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists.” Khan’s boats would allegedly ship Afghan heroin out of the Pakistani port of Karachi and would return from the Middle East loaded with arms for both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Mirwais Yasini, the head of Afghanistan’s Counter Narcotics Directorate, who estimates that the Taliban and its allies derived more than $150 million from drugs in 2003, also alleges that there are “central linkages” between Khan, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Conversely, the independent commission investigating the September 11th attacks recently declared that “the US government still has not determined with any precision how much al Qaeda raises or from whom, or how it spends its money.” According to this report, al-Qaeda is mainly funded by rich individuals from the Persian Gulf and by some Islamic charities. Of greater interest, still, is the commission’s assertion that there is “no substantial evidence that al Qaeda played a major role in the drug trade or relied on it as an important source of revenue either before or after 9/11.” [2]

However, if al-Qaeda is connected to the opium economy of Afghanistan, it would not be at the production level but higher up in the chain of drug processing and trafficking, most likely involving the protection of heroin laboratories and trafficking caravans. As for where the money generated from drug production and trafficking goes, it has always been divided iniquitously, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, among farmers who receive the smallest share; producers/warlords who condone or encourage production in their territory, and local and regional traffickers who get the biggest share. Moreover, al-Qaeda is likely to have become involved in the drug trade after the ouster of the Taliban who were after all levying taxes on the opium trade. It is also important to stress that it was the Taliban who benefited from al-Qaeda’s funding and not the other way round. Indeed, as stated by the 9/11 commission, “prior to 9/11 the largest single al Qaeda expense was support for the Taliban, estimated at about $20 million per year.” Moreover, knowledgeable observers agree that the drug trade was at that time the Taliban’s second source of revenue, estimated at $80 or $100 million in 1999. This reliable estimate casts serious doubt on allegations that the Taliban earned more from drugs in 2003 than in 1999 when opium production was higher and when they controlled 85% of Afghanistan. Besides, the 9/11 commission declared that “intelligence collection efforts have failed to corroborate rumours of current narcotic trafficking. In fact, there is compelling evidence the al Qaeda leadership does not like or trust those who today control the drug trade in Southwest Asia, and has encouraged its members not to get involved.”

In the absence of evidence pointing to “narco-terrorism” in Afghanistan or elsewhere, reports alleging its existence seem to originate from “political intelligence” for which “truth is not the goal” of intelligence gathering – it is “victory.” [3] Hence, it may be that recent efforts to link the narcotics economy to terrorism really aims at linking the war on drugs to the war on terrorism, and vice-versa. While drugs and terrorism are not necessarily the two faces of the same coin in Afghanistan, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism may serve the same political agenda. A clear example is the current efforts of the U.S. Southern Command to guarantee the prolongation of its enhanced funding by raising the threat of “narco-terrorism” in Latin America, where “U.S. military aid and training, which previously were focused on counter-narcotics operations, have now been re-tasked as counter-terrorism responsibilities.” [4]

The argument that the threat of narco-terrorism – whatever its definition – in Afghanistan and elsewhere is hyped by political and sectional interests rather than originating from hard intelligence is clearly not without foundation. Moreover while there is little doubt that some proceeds of the illicit drug trade contribute partially to the funding of some terrorist outfits, drug trafficking is still far from being the main financing source of global terrorism. Indeed, it is clear that terrorists and drug traffickers have differing long-term goals which should be considered in the methods used to counter both. Thus, fighting drug trafficking does not necessarily equate to fighting terrorism, even though “narco-terrorism,” depicted as a threat by certain sectional interests, arguably legitimates and reinforces a failed global war on drugs.


1. The most comprehensive report is: Tim McGirk’s, Terrorism Harvest, Time Asia Magazine, Volume 164, N° 6, August 9, 2004.

2. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, https://www.9-11commission.gov/staff_statements/911_TerrFin_Ch1.pdf.

3. Tom Barry, The neo-con philosophy of intelligence, Asia Times, 19 February 2004, https://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/FB19Aa01.html.

4. Eleanor Thomas and Lindsay Thomas, U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) Struggles to Justify its Role in the War on Terror, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 2 September 2004, https://www.coha.org.