Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thanks, that was useful

Maybe it is a natural backlash after years of over-dramatic reporting on the then-called Global War on Terror, or the sign that John Mueller is winning hearts and minds, but there have been an interesting number of articles out there on how the terrorist threat is largely overestimated. It certainly is in some cases, but pushing this point to the extreme makes for rather absurd articles. a Foreign Policy blog post on “Drugs, Failed States, and Terrorists. Oh My” on the Foreign Policy blog criticizes United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa for stating that:

“‘There is more than just spotty evidence’ indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.”

The post’s author goes on to add that:

“There seems to be an awful lot of hand-waving happening here. What we know is that drug smugglers are moving cocaine through West Africa, including regions where Al Qaeda linked militants also operate. This, in itself, may be cause for concern. But many, including prominent politicans, seem to be assuming that an established link exists when the only reported case of a suspected al Qaeda affiliate making a coke deal --again trotted out as evidence in this article -- was with someone who turned out to be a DEA agent. Until there's some more evidence, a little more cautious reporting might be in order.”

More cautious reporting is always welcome, but I fail to see why it would be needed here. It is an established fact that the FARC engages in, and benefits from, cocaine production and trafficking in South America. It is equally established that a number of AQIM members, particularly in its cells of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali, are as much traffickers as they are terrorists, and make a living of convoying cigarettes, arms, migrants, and drugs through the Sahara.

Now if cocaine trade has increased in West Africa as much in the past six years as UNODC reports, is it that much of a stretch to conclude that these two groups have financially benefited from at least part of this increase? Costa is stating the obvious here. The story that came out last December about the DEA investigation is interesting to get the details of how some deals are done, and what type of intermediaries get involved, but it does not teach us anything we did not know regarding the fact that a number of terrorist groups, in West Africa and elsewhere, gets funded through drug trafficking.

Oh, and one last sentence from this FP post:

“if al Qaeda is getting into the cocaine business, it would seem to suggest that the organization is moving outside its core competency in order to raise money”

This completely neglects the fact that there is not one Al Qaeda in this part of the world. AQIM is remotely linked to AQ central, and is itself largely divided between competing cells and leaders with different levels of ideological commitment and strategic priorities. Trafficking all sorts of goods, including drugs, has always been a core competency of some of AQIM southern cells.

19 comments:

  1. Unless the knowledge that terrorist groups benefit financially from drug trafficking is going to somehow impact the way we interdict the drug trade or the resources and energies that we devote to that mission, then who cares?

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  2. Im still amazed that more effort isnt made at finding out where the profit from the drugtrade is being funelled. Seems to me that people never talk about how many billions of the world economy is based in drug and porn money.

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  3. Seems to me that people never talk about how many billions of the world economy is based in drug and porn money.

    Again: who really cares? If we establish that it makes up, say, 50% of the financing of violence, terrorism, and/or insurgency, then what does that data inform? What will we do differently?

    I'm being serious here; my questions are not rhetorical.

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  4. We care because knowing how the patterns of drug trade evolve tell us what groups will get more or less money based on that drug trade. If we assume that better funding leads to stronger operational capability (not the only factor, but one nonetheless), then knowing that--for instance--the European demand for cocaine is booming, leading cocaine routes to shift from the Caribbean to West Africa, tells us something about how this may affect the harming capability of AQIM. How could changes in terrorist groups' capability not be something we care about?

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  5. "core competency"

    It's odd to see certain terms span different fields and intellectual endeavors. I see core competency EVERYWHERE. Anyone know where the term originited, discipline-wise?

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  6. Madhu -- It's odd to see certain terms span different fields and intellectual endeavors. I see core competency EVERYWHERE. Anyone know where the term originited, discipline-wise?

    I don't know the answer to your question, but one of DOD's core competencies is using the term "core competencies."

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  7. Alma -- If we assume that better funding leads to stronger operational capability (not the only factor, but one nonetheless), then knowing that--for instance--the European demand for cocaine is booming, leading cocaine routes to shift from the Caribbean to West Africa, tells us something about how this may affect the harming capability of AQIM. How could changes in terrorist groups' capability not be something we care about?

    I think the causality chain here is a little bit long to be making any deductions about capability. Maybe you could elaborate some more on what information would be helpful, and how.

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  8. And also, are we talking about economic trends related to drug trafficking informing our assessment of enemy capability, or analysis of the enemy's financial gain from drug trafficking somehow informing our drug policies/policing? Are we working backwards from the question "how is the enemy financing his operations?", or forewards from the question of "what can economic trends tell us about the economic and operational choices that terrorist groups will make in the future?"

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  9. Both. Why would these questions be mutually exclusive? My earlier comment focused on the second question, but the first one is relevant too. Although preventing terrorist groups from benefiting from drug money is only one of the many reasons why counter-narcotics are and should be increasingly active in West Africa.

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  10. Although preventing terrorist groups from benefiting from drug money is only one of the many reasons why counter-narcotics are and should be increasingly active in West Africa.

    But what about preventing anyone from benefiting from drug money, because it's illegal? Is the argument that we should more aggressively support counter-narco efforts because it's possible that terrorists are getting money from it?

    I guess my point is this: for the purposes of CT, how does the source of the financing impact operations? And for the purposes of policing, how does the identity of the beneficiary of drug trafficking impact operations?

    What do we do differently if we find that drug profits finance a greater or lesser percentage of terrorist operations? This question is relevant beyond terrorism, of course: we know that the Taliban benefit from drug profits (and also from the trade of other illicit materials like timber, in some cases, but also from extortion related to the trade of licit materials), but we still don't know what that means to us except that we should cut down on drug trafficking. Well, ok, I guess.

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  11. And "the causality chain here is a little bit long"? Are you saying that there is no link between finances and capability?

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  12. Are you saying that there is no link between finances and capability?

    No, not at all. I'm saying that the source of the financing is basically irrelevant to improvements in capability, and that the amount is what matters more. Which is so plain to everyone, of course, that it seems stupid to even write it.

    By saying that the "causality chain is a little long here," I'm really saying knowing things about the relative popularity of cocaine in different regions of the globe is so far distant from terrorists' or insurgents' operational capabilities as to be almost useless for the purposes of deducing anything meaningful.

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  13. Relative popularity of cocaine in different regions leads to shifts in cocaine trade which leads to shifts in which groups benefit from this trade which leads same groups to see their drug trade revenues go up or down which leads to higher or lower operational capabilities (all other things such as skills, recruitment, etc. being kept constant). This is such a simple argument that yes, I really should not have to be explaining it.

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  14. I'm saying that the source of the financing is basically irrelevant to improvements in capability, and that the amount is what matters more.

    I totally disagree here. The source of the financing can, and often does, dictate the amount, wouldn't it? If all they're doing here is smuggling this stuff from the coast to the Mediterranean and the reap a huge profit off of it with minimal overhead, why wouldn't we be interested in this? Especially when compared to smuggling of other, bulkier goods such as weapons or people. No, the source of the funding is important because it often determines the amount.

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  15. Relative popularity of cocaine in different regions leads to shifts in cocaine trade which leads to shifts in which groups benefit from this trade which leads same groups to see their drug trade revenues go up or down which leads to higher or lower operational capabilities (all other things such as skills, recruitment, etc. being kept constant). This is such a simple argument that yes, I really should not have to be explaining it.

    Yes, but like you said, "all other things being kept constant." One problem here is that other things aren't kept constant. And that doesn't just go for the factors surrounding capability improvements, but for all the factors that impact drug economics, too. Relative popularity can lead to fluctuations in price. It can lead to emphasis on different geographic transit routes, or not. It can lead to differing profit margins for different groups, or not. It can lead to higher or lower operational capabilities, or not.

    If cocaine suddenly booms in popularity in the U.S. and decreases in popularity in Europe, does that mean that profits from the trade are more likely to benefit Mexican drug gangs than AQIM? Sure, probably. But what if that lull in Europe is accompanied by skyrocketing interest in heroin, or marijuana, or conflict diamonds, or sex workers? We can speculate about second- and third-order effects, but we're talking about something like a 12th or 14th order effect here.

    All of which brings me back to my original point: even if we CAN derive certain conclusions from trend data related to narcotics trafficking, how do those conclusions impact our actions, our conceptual framework or our operations?

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  16. I totally disagree here. The source of the financing can, and often does, dictate the amount, wouldn't it? If all they're doing here is smuggling this stuff from the coast to the Mediterranean and the reap a huge profit off of it with minimal overhead, why wouldn't we be interested in this? Especially when compared to smuggling of other, bulkier goods such as weapons or people. No, the source of the funding is important because it often determines the amount.

    Aside from changing your last sentence to "it often impacts the amount" (from "determines"), I agree with you. I'm just not sure of the point. Are you saying we should try to push AQIM out of the cocaine trafficking business and into the people trafficking business because it's more difficult and the profit margins are lower?

    What does this information MEAN to us?

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  17. Are you saying we should try to push AQIM out of the cocaine trafficking business and into the people trafficking business because it's more difficult and the profit margins are lower?

    Don't be ridiculous. I'm saying that if they are in the cocaine trafficking business, and business is good, we should try to push them out of that because we can and it's in our best interests. And if they get into other businesses, then we should try to push them out of those as well if we can.

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  18. And if they get into other businesses, then we should try to push them out of those as well if we can.

    Good thing we have unlimited time, personnel, and resources!

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  19. @ Gulliver 11:22 comment:

    Hysterical.

    I am going to steal that line and apply it in following way:

    One of ---- School of Medicine's core competencies is using core competency.

    Academic jargon does travel. This one's got frequent flyer miles.

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