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Terrorists, Organized Crime Increase Teaming Efforts

March 29, 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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Future homeland security efforts will require greater cooperation among different organizations.

Securing the homeland will require closer cooperation among military and civilian government organizations as diverse threats adopt each others’ tactics and techniques. Terrorists, smugglers and other organized crime entities have learned from each other and, in some cases, are joining forces to threaten Western democracies in new ways.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, described a menacing trend in which “terrorism, drug trafficking and other types of transnational organized crime are increasingly intertwined.

“The convergence of crime, terrorism and insurgency is in my view a burgeoning geopolitical trend with grave implications for our national security,” Sheehan declared.

Nowhere is the link between transnational organized crime, insurgency and terrorism more apparent than in Afghanistan, he stated, where the Taliban continues to receive a large part of its revenue through heroin trade. William F. Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter narcotics and global threats, testified that more than 90 percent of world’s heroin comes out of Afghanistan, and the parts of Afghanistan where that heroin largely comes from are the parts where the Taliban has influence or even significant local control. “That is not an accident,” Wechsler said. “The Taliban and the narcotics traders are interrelated. You can’t go after one without going after the other.”

He continued that terrorists groups are adopting criminal techniques to fundraise, which is a trend that U.S. officials see accelerating. And, criminal organizations are adopting terrorist techniques. For example, drug cartels in Mexico adopted the terrorist tactic of beheading people and posting grisly videos after seeing terrorists do the same.

But another growing trend worries U.S. officials. Wechsler noted that terrorist organizations and criminal organizations that heretofore have been separate now are working together in ways that are new to U.S. officials. He cited the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in the United States, in which the Quds force—an Iran-based terror group—tried to use the Mexican Zetas drug cartel to carry out the murder.

“We used to—and still do—think of states as sponsors of terror,” Wechsler said. “There are also states that are sponsors of crime, that use criminal activity as a tool of the state, as a revenue producer of the state—and that’s a dynamic that we are watching very closely.”

Sheehan stated that various U.S. government agencies and organizations must increase their coordination to fight these multifaceted threats. “By integrating counterterrorism, counter narcotics and other types of transnational organized crime capabilities, resources and authorities, the impact of our actions are more strategic, more effective and [make] better use of available resources,” he told the subcommittee.

“In order to confront increasingly networked threats, we need to be increasingly networked as a government,” he explained. “Active threat networks will exploit the limitations the U.S. government often faces because of separate agency authorities, budgets and institutional cultures.”

Sheehan cited the ongoing fight against an evolving al Qaida network as an example. Prevailing in this effort will require involving the global information environment. “We know that al-Qaida cannot be defeated by kinetic action alone. In order to counter the residence of al-Qaida’s ideology, our approach must include a balance of capabilities implemented in close coordination with interagencies, our allies and local communities.”

One way to bring U.S. assets to bear in this new fight is to employ unique analytical and defense intelligence tools. Sheehan said this would help break down the walls between law enforcement and intelligence to ensure that all the information that the United States possesses can be used to enhance the analysis of the financial networks that are used by adversaries to support themselves.

Wechsler noted that coordinated efforts among various agencies working across both organizational and international lines has paid dividends. Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of the Treasury initiated an action against a Lebanese Canadian bank involved in drug trafficking from Latin America through West Africa into Europe. Drug money was laundered into used car sales in the United States, after which cars were brought to West Africa, and the money from those sales then was used to buy knockoff goods in China. That money was funneled back into Latin America. This global money laundering network was controlled by Hezbollah, which got much of the money. The coordinated U.S. government effort resulted in indictments and civil actions in U.S. courts for hundreds of millions of dollars, he added.

In that vein, Sheehan called for new Defense Department authorities for action. “Most of our authorities right now are narrowly construed toward counterterrorism, and those work,” he pointed out. “For some countries, we may need a little more flexibility to go in to establish relationships that build upon their capacity to take on these threats. Some of these threats are not pure terrorism—extortion groups and criminal groups—so if we have a broader range of authorities, then we can respond more agilely to each country with a different set of programs.”