National and International Issues

The Nexus Between Terrorism and Drugs

The nexus between drugs and terrorism does not only have a global manifestation as a major source of extortion, terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking, but also plays an important role as a network, mainly by the non-state actors against the state, to achieve the goals for the evil cause of creating instability, and affecting the socioeconomic lifestyle of the poor, especially as a result of war, terrorism and corruption.

The conceptual history of the nexus between terrorism and narcotics goes back to 1983, when the terminology “narco-terrorism” was introduced by Peruvian President Belaunde Terry as “acts of terror against a state’s drug enforcement agency”.1 Initial examples of narco-terrorism included car bombing, assassination attempts and other acts of terror conducted by drug traffickers in Peru and Colombia.2 Like the umbrella abstraction of terrorism, narco-terrorism faces certain definitional shortcomings. While narco-terrorism can simply be defined as an act of terrorism conducted and carried out by drug criminals, an understanding of the term is presented by Rachel Ehrenfeld who defines narco-terrorism as “the use of drug trafficking to advance the objectives of certain groups and terrorist organizations”. This definition befits the example of Pablo Escobar of Colombia and his Medellin cartel which used acts of terror to influence governmental policies.3 However, the most comprehensive definition with greater acceptance describes it “as part of an illegal complex of drugs, violence and power, where the illegal drug trade and the illegal exercise of power have become aggregated in such a way that they threaten democracy and the rule of law”.4
The United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) provides another school of thought in the definitional underpinning of this in the following words: “Narco-terrorism may be characterized by the participation of groups or associated individuals in taxing, providing security for, or otherwise aiding or abetting drug trafficking endeavours in an effort to further, or fund terrorist activities”.5 This definition further explores the interlink between narcotics and terrorism, that terrorists may use the revenue generated from drug trafficking to pursue terrorism. This also points to the junction of criminals and terrorists-crimes and terrorism. This junction is elucidated in the Crime-Terror Continuum (CTC) model presented by Tamara Makarenko, in which Tamara places crime and terrorism on polar opposite sides and explains the decrease in the distance between them with incremented interaction between both, since the 1990s.6 Tamara explains the interaction through four different lenses based on the motivations and situations that modify their motivations and actions. The lens includes alliances, operational motivations, convergence and the black hole, which also shows the dynamic nature of the motivations of narco-terrorists.7 Makarenko while further emphasizing upon this link believes that drug trafficking is the most prevalent criminal activity carried out by terrorists as opposed to human trafficking or arms trade and others. The CTC model explores the amalgamation of drug trafficking and terrorism in one organization.8
The history of such acts of terror used by the Mexican cartels dates back to the 2000s when Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) lost its influence and a wave of democratization emerged in the state.9 This disrupted the arrangement made between PRI and the Sinaloa cartels that had decreased crimes to a certain degree, but since the fall of PRI, there came a spike in cartel crimes.10 Mexico’s own terrain makes it tough for the law enforcement authorities to manage and control the land between the mountains ranging from North to South.11 After 2000s, the situation worsened and the cartels extensively indulged in crimes of killings, kidnappings and extortions.12 There was even no decrease under the reign of President Felipe Calderon, who used military might against the cartels in 2006. Instead, the scholarly opinion in this regard is quite different, which describes that the use of force has increased the acts of terror by the cartels during the course of 2006-2012, causing almost 83,000 casualties.13 While discussing the case of Mexico, Knowles described it as “organized employment of violence against the local populace, the security forces and government to intimidate anyone contemplating resistance to drug trafficking”.14
The phenomenon of narco-terrorism has crossed the Latin American borders and with the passage of time, is becoming prevalent in the South Asian region, especially in Afghanistan. The rise of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased with the decline in opium production in the Southeast Asian region, also known as the ‘Golden Triangle’, which amounted to almost 50% of the world’s opium production. The three vertices of this triangle represent Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.15 The Soviet invasion resulted in the protection of the drug trade in Afghanistan, as McCoy notes, “Although the drug pandemic of the 1980s had complex causes, the growth in global heroin supply could be traced, in large part, to two key aspects of U.S. policy—the failure of DEA in prohibiting drug trafficking and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) protection of drug lord allies in its covert wars”.16 Furthermore, the inclination of the local populace towards the drug trade increased due to the ramifications of the Soviet invasion which included mass displacements and heightened poverty.17 However, the post-9/11 era provides a greater picture of the narco-terror juncture in Afghanistan with opium production increasing from 70% to 92%. The already distorted scenario in Afghanistan with poor governance, declining economic conditions, surging poverty and inflation all soared after the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion of the war-torn country.18 This was accompanied by the presence of militant organisations, lawlessness and ethnic warlords, which gave birth to what we can define as narco-terrorism.
Afghanistan has been a conflict zone since the Soviet invasion where conflict actors and warlords have benefitted in terms of revenue generated from the opium trade and that is why they have often sheltered and encouraged it to a possible extent. Afghan warlords, during the Soviet occupation and afterwards, benefitted from the drug trade and several warlords in the post-Soviet withdrawal period became drug lords.19 Later, the Taliban regime banned poppy cultivation and the drug menace was reduced to a great extent, though some analysts allege that Taliban government institutionalized drug production by putting it under the taxation process for revenue generation.20 However, the situation abruptly changed with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and fall of the Taliban Government. The Karzai government and the U.S. and its NATO allies were indulged in a ‘war on drugs’ and a ‘war on terror’ hence combining the two phenomena and making Afghanistan a state in the grip of narco-terrorism.21
While discussing the case of Afghanistan through the lens of narco-terrorism, it is pertinent to explore the trade routes out of Afghanistan. Being landlocked, these routes have to pass through neighbouring countries. Pakistan has also been used as transit point for drug smuggling from Afghanistan. These routes either pass through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) or from Balochistan. In both KP and Balochistan, narco-terrorism has been a significant challenge for the law enforcement agencies (LEAs). Additionally, there are multiple factors that contribute to the drug trafficking in Pakistan, including poverty, corruption and the lack of effective law enforcement. The drug trade has become a lucrative business in the region, and various criminal networks and militant groups have been involved in the production, trafficking and distribution of drugs. Poppy cultivation is though effectively discouraged in the tribal areas of Pakistan on religious grounds, the same is the only promising mean of economic survival in the border regions of Afghanistan. The local ethnic and familial ties between cross-border Pushtun families also provide easy access to traffic drugs through the ‘hawala system’, i.e., the system, in which havaldar transfers illicit drug money.22 Obviously, Pakistani militant groups also benefit from this phenomenon who use the funds to meet their operational and other requirements to carry out terrorist activities against the state of Pakistan.23 For instance, Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) which mainly targets the Khyber routes and later utilizes the plundered money for terrorist activities in Pakistan.24 The Pakistani government has taken successful steps to combat opium cultivation and trafficking within its borders, but the problem remains persistent due to the lack of resources and the challenge of effectively policing the porous border with Afghanistan.
Strong evidences suggest the linkage of terrorist groups in Pakistan with the narco-mafias. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been involved in the production and trafficking of opium and heroin in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. The drug trade provides a significant source of funding for the Taliban's activities. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the TTP was involved in the production and trafficking of opium and heroin in FATA. In recent years, the emergence of new militant groups in the region has led to an increase in drug trafficking. In 2010, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated three TTP leaders, including Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Qari Zakir, as drug traffickers, freezing their assets and prohibiting the U.S. citizens from doing business with them. This was the time when Pakistan’s LEAs started objectively countering the TTP leadership’s involvement in narco business. In 2012, Pakistani authorities arrested a TTP commander named Muhammad Asif for his involvement in drug trafficking. Asif was in charge of the TTP's drug smuggling network, which operated in the Mohmand Agency of FATA. In 2014, Pakistan’s military launched an operation in the Khyber Agency of FATA, targeting TTP's drug smuggling network. During the operation, security forces seized large quantities of drugs and arrested several TTP militants. In 2018, Pakistani authorities arrested a TTP commander named Sher Muhammad alias Mullah Toofan in Karachi. Toofan was involved in the trafficking of drugs, which were used to fund the TTP's activities. According to a report by the UNODC, law enforcement agencies in KP seized a total of 2,214 kilograms of heroin and 85,032 kilograms of hashish only in 2019. These are some of the evidences which substantiate that TTP has been involved in the cultivation and trafficking of drugs, and the profits are used to fund their operations. Where the control of drug trafficking routes and territories has been a source of clashes between different militant groups, it has also fueled violence and conflict between the various tribes in the FATA region. 
Similarly, in Balochistan lies a major transit point for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Iran and the Middle East (ME). The drug trade has been linked to various militant groups operating in the province, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). BLA has been involved in drug trafficking to fund its operations. In 2013, Pakistani authorities arrested a senior BLA leader named Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, who was reportedly involved in the production and trafficking of drugs in the province. The BLF has also been involved in drug trafficking. In 2014, the Pakistani military launched an operation in the Mastung district of Balochistan, targeting the BLA's drug smuggling network. During the operation, security forces seized large quantities of drugs and arrested several BLA militants. In 2015, Pakistani authorities seized a sizable quantity of drugs, including heroin and hashish, in the Turbat district of Balochistan. The drugs were believed to be linked to BLF. Similarly, Lashkar-e-Balochistan (LB) has been involved in drug trafficking as well. In 2017, Pakistani authorities arrested several members of LB, including its leader, for their involvement in the drug trade in Balochistan. Overall, the involvement of militant groups in drug trafficking has had a significant impact on the security and stability of Balochistan. The drug trade has provided funding for these groups, enabling them to carry out attacks and other criminal activities in the province. According to a report by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), law enforcement agencies in Balochistan seized a total of 76,249 kilograms of narcotics in 2019. The drug trade in Balochistan has also been linked to other criminal activities such as extortion, kidnapping for ransom and arms smuggling. The drug trade has fueled the activities of sub-national gangs, which have carried out attacks on law enforcement agencies and civilians.
Overall, the manifestation of narco-terrorism in FATA and Balochistan has had a destabilizing effect on these regions. The drug trade has provided funding for terrorist activities and criminal gangs, which have contributed to violence and conflict in these areas.

1.      Fernando   Celaya Pacheco, ‘Narcofearance: How Has Narcoterrorism Settled in Mexico?’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 12 (30 November 2009): 1021–48,
2.      Emma Björnehed, ‘Narco-Terrorism: The Merger of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror’, Global Crime 6, no. 3–4 (August 2004): 305–24,
3.      Kimberley Thachuk and Kimberley L. Thachuk, Transnational Threats: Smuggling and Trafficking in Arms, Drugs, and Human Life (Praeger Security International, 2007).
4.      Pacheco, ‘Narcofearance’.
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8.      Raphael D. Marcus, ‘ISIS and the Crime-Terror Nexus in America’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 0, no. 0 (4 May 2021): 1–26,
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