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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Iran’s Narco-Terrorist Network: How Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Other Proxies Use Narcotics to Fund Their War Against the West.

A few months after the shocking attacks on October 7, the Jordanian government announced that it had launched airstrikes against farms and rural buildings across its border with Syria.  This is hardly news for this part of the world: Syria is infested with terrorist groups, several of which had sought to carry out violent atrocities in Jordan.  This time, however, the targets were not ISIS terrorists, but Iranian drug smugglers.  Nor was the airstrike a first of its kind for Jordan.  Earlier in the year it had conducted another bombing raid in Syria, hitting Hezbollah-linked drug enterprises.   

The Jordanian raids occurred soon after reports that Hamas terrorists involved with the October 7 outrage were high on Captagon, a type of methamphetamine produced by Hezbollah and Syria.  Matt Zwieg, Senior Director of Policy at FDD Action, stated that “The industrial-scale trade in captagon — for decades a drug widely used in war — has been a lucrative source of funds for the Assad regime and Hezbollah financiers. It makes sense that Hamas would want to use these drugs not only for war but as an additional source of funds.” 

The participation of Iran and its terrorist allies in the Middle Eastern drug trade is surprising, not least because use of these narcotics is prohibited by Islam.  A question then arises as to how the Islamic fundamentalist Iran maintains one of the harshest drug control regimes in the world, but yet tolerates drug production, trafficking and consumption by its proxies.  Furthermore, given that the Islamic State hides behind groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to fight its proxy war with Israel and the West, are these groups also camouflage for the Iranian government’s own active participation in the drug trade?    

When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he announced that drug use was “un-Islamic”, a declaration which kicked off a national “purification” program.  The Anti-Drugs Revolutionary Council immediately stepped up to fulfil the Supreme Leader’s edict and executed 582 alleged dealers even before the Islamic state could celebrate its first anniversary.  Since then, Iran has killed nearly ten thousand people for similar crimes.    Just over the first five months of 2023, the Islamic State hung 173 of its own citizens for drug-related offenses such as trafficking in heroin, cannabis and methamphetamine. 

For many years Iran attracted glowing appraisals of its efforts to stem the flow of drugs entering the country from neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Iran’s location to west of Afghanistan – one of the world’s largest opium producers – and gateway to Europe place it as a key trafficking route for heroin and other drugs to the West.   Despite Iran’s efforts in the drugs war, the country remains a conduit for over half of all Afghan opiates.   Still, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has never had anything but praise for the Islamic Republic.  Nearly twenty years ago, a representative from the Office congratulated Iran’s leaders, effusing that “definitely drug control is one of the positive stories (from Iran). If you go the border there is what we call the Iranian wall … against drugs.  Large parts have already been built. I’ve never seen something like this, it is outstanding.”   This ‘Iranian wall’ is a network of deep trenches, concrete barricades, sentry posts and barbed wire extending for hundreds of miles along Iran’s Afghan and Pakistani borders.   

Nor has UNDOC’s excitement abated over the years.  In 2014 the office produced a glowing report on Iran in which it claimed that the country had “built one of the strongest counter-narcotics enforcement capabilities in the region” and praised it for its efforts in accounting for “74% of the world’s opium seizures and 25% of the world’s heroin and morphine seizures”.  The report went on to note that Iran expends both blood and treasure in combatting the drugs trade from Pakistan and Afghanistan, with over Iranian 3700 law enforcement personnel killed in counter-drugs activities.   Just a couple of years ago Iran held an event marking International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, during which UNDOC’s Iran Country Representative read a statement by the organisation’s Executive Director applauding Iran for the “commendable and very successful drug control efforts of the Drug Control Headquarters and Iranian Law Enforcement against the flow of illicit drugs and organized drug crime networks and operatives”.  This eulogizing was echoed by the New York Times, which announced that Iran was the “West’s stalwart ally in the war on drugs”. 

Iranian counternarcotics efforts, however, are more a part of the state’s brutal apparatus of repression than any serious attempt to styme the flow of drugs through the country.   Although narcotics do funnel into Iran through areas such as Baluchistan in the southeast, this region is also home to significant Sunni populations and loci of sectarian conflict between Iran’s majority of Shi’a Muslims and Sunni minorities.   Hundreds have died in this conflict since 2005, with attacks as recent as December last year when the Sunni Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) stormed a police station in Baluchistan and killed a dozen officers.  Similarly, the alleged bombmaker responsible for the deadly Islamic State attack in Kerman in January of this year illegally entered the country through the Baluch border with the help of locals.  Counternarcotics efforts in the eastern regions double up as counterinsurgency and national security measures as the Iranian regime pursues brutal and repressive tactics under the guise of fighting the drug trade.   Entire male adult populations of Baluch villages have been executed after accusations of smuggling narcotics.   

Anti-drug violence is also useful for the Iranian government in instilling terror in the wider Iranian community, particularly during times of widespread anti-government demonstrations.   In the wake of the recent “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising throughout Iran, the country stepped up executions – most of which were drug-related – “as a show of force against its own people, who are demanding fundamental change” according to Human Rights Watch.  Over 60 people were executed in the first fortnight of May last year after unfair trials, and dozens more killed in Baluchistan on drug trafficking allegations.  The majority of those arrested and executed on drugs charges are poor and often members of minorities, their confessions extracted through torture.   

The massive amount of drugs transiting unfettered through Iran is at first glance surprising, given the ubiquitous and terrifying reach of the domestic security apparatus, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  Mohsen Sazegara, a key IRGC leader who fled to the west, described the organisation as “a government inside a government and an organization that has no equivalent anywhere in the world. It’s like a river that is overflowing, covering everything.”   

Originally established as a Pretorian Guard for the Revolution in 1979, the IRGC now boasts a core membership of 150,000 with several subdivisions, two of the most important being the Basij (Movement of the Oppressed) and the Quds (Jerusalem) Force.  The Quds, as the IRGC’s foreign arm, need little introduction.  Its former leader, Qassem Soleimani, was famously assassinated by the US in Iraq in 2020, when Secretary of State Pompeo declared “[t]here is no terrorist except Usama bin Ladin who has more American blood on his hands than did Qasem Soleimani.”   While the Quds spread terror beyond Iran’s borders, the Basij is entrusted with instilling fear and subservience in the domestic population.  More than just a secret police unit or morality police, it is a fearsome volunteer paramilitary force with an astounding three to five million members.  During the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the force for its role in supressing protesters even despite international condemnation of the Basij for using sexual violence, torture and murder against anti-regime protesters.     

Despite the cruelty and reach of the IRGC, the Iranian drug trade continues unabated. This is more extraordinary given that the IRGC also controls as much as two-thirds of Iran’s economy, with business ventures, banks and companies in nearly every sector of the economy.  Although narcotics trafficking is seldom part of any country’s official economy and instead operates within the shadows of the black market, the IRGC shines here too. 

Iran’s illicit economy is huge, estimated to be 35-44% of GDP with a value of 160-200 billion USD.   This became even more important to the country when international sanctions asphyxiated much of Iran’s legal economic activity.  Within this shadow economy the IRGC moves commodities in and out of the country through smuggling operations to the extent that former President Ahmadinejad – a strong supporter of the IRGC – once called the organization “our smuggle brothers”.  Not only do individual IRGC members benefit personally from these illegal activities, the IRGC relies on smuggling to finance its military and terrorist operations both domestically and around the world.  So adept is the IRGC at its illicit activities that the Trump administration came under fire for reimposing sanctions on Iran and restricting legal trade.   “The IRGC and its proxies,” alleged one expert, “are enriched by smuggling and enabled by sanctions. The Trump administration seems all too eager to feed this seven-headed dragon.” 

Despite its avowed anti-drug policies, Iranian officials are increasingly suspected of actively being involved with the domestic drugs trade.   Lower ranking IRGC members and retirees receive little pay and often are forced to supplement their salaries with menial jobs: trading in narcotics has a lucrative pull for these people.  Higher up the IRCG’s echelons, senior personnel celebrate luxurious lifestyles funded by the drugs trade with expensive cars, big houses and their children attending schools and universities in Western countries.  Although there is some debate as to whether domestic narcotics smuggling is officially endorsed by the IRGC or perhaps the organization just quietly ignores trafficking amongst its cadre, the IRGC does have surprising links with narcotics smugglers and producers around the world. 

Through its secretive Unit 840, the Quds regularly targets foreign dissidents and others for assassination, often using drug traffickers as gunmen.   Earlier this year the US charged an alleged Iranian drug trafficker for his role in a plot to murder an Iranian defector, linking the attempt to Unit 840.   Just the year before, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service announced that it had discovered that some of its citizens where on an Iranian government hit list, with US officials confirming that Iran recruited drug dealers and other unsavory actors to carry out its plans.  One of the most famous Iranian assassination plots was against the French philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Levi, who the Quds Force tried to murder in 2008 using an Iranian drug smuggler as the hitman.   A couple of years later the Quds tried its hand yet again in another assassination attempt, this time relying on Mexican drug cartels to target the Saudi ambassador to Washington.   

Incidentally, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, the former head of Unit 840, was himself assassinated in 2002 in a likely Mossad operation when two men on a motorcycle opened fire on him in Tehran, hitting him five times.   Shortly after Khodaei’s death, another Quds commander working in Unit 840, Col Ali Esmailzadeh, died after ‘falling’ from a roof.   This time suspicion fell on IRGC intelligence personnel, who are believed to have murdered Esmailzadeh after accusing him of espionage. 

Speculation that the IRGC is directly involved with international narcotics trafficking was confirmed when the US Treasury Department identified Gholamreza Baghbani, a senior Quds Commander and close confidant of Suleimani, as Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker or ‘Kingpin’.  During his time as base commander in the southeastern Iranian town of Ansar in 2011, he used his experience with Afghan militias to negotiate a deal whereby he supplied Afghan drug traffickers with heroin precursor materials, and also granted them permission to move opium through Iran.  But Baghbani wasn’t interested in lining his pockets: in exchange he had the smugglers funnel weapons to the Taliban, which was then fighting the US and other Western governments in Afghanistan.   

Baghbani is a tiny part of what is believed to be the IRGC’s multi-billion dollar international trafficking operation.   Sajjad Haghpanah, an Iranian defector and former member of the IRGC’s domestic intelligence division, accused the IRGC of importing opium from Afghanistan for heroin production in Iran.  “They work with criminal gangs to move it overseas. They have their own ships, aircraft and haulage companies, everything needed for import and export. Their power is limitless.”  Another Iranian defector, former diplomat Abolfazl Eslami, alleged that “The IRGC has been involved in the drug trade for years. The group was motivated by both a desire to fund the militia independently and to destroy the West.”   

More recently, the Islamic Republic has also become a key supplier of methamphetamine, produced in high-quality laboratories under the supervision of professional chemists.    Iranian opiates and methamphetamines have been seized as far away as the United States, Australia and South America, with the IRGC and its Quds Force central to Iran’s global trafficking network.  Iran isn’t acting alone, however.  Over a decade ago, a hearing before the US Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence was told: 

Our research… has identified at least two parallel terrorist networks growing at an alarming rate in Latin America. One is operated by Hezbollah, aided by its collaborators, and another is managed by a cadre of notorious Qods operatives. These networks cooperate to carry out fundraising, money-laundering schemes, narcotics smuggling, proselytization, recruitment, and training. We can identify more than 80 operatives in at least 12 countries throughout the region. 

Iranian proxies, too, have eagerly joined their sponsor in the international drugs trade. 

As Iran began nurturing like-minded terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, it saw further opportunities for expanding its narcotics industries, and in doing so assist these new allies generate funds for their own military activities.   Hezbollah was one of Iran’s first proxies, established soon after the Israel-Lebanon war of 1982 when Iran sent 1500 IRCG personnel to Lebanon to train up Shi’a militias in the country.   This group is critically important for Iran.  The current head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council and envoy to Iran, Abdallah Safi al-Din is helping Iran beat international sanctions by facilitating the clandestine supply of both conventional weapons and parts for Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.  These efforts were recognized by the US government in 2018 when it designated al-Din as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, linking him to both terrorism and drug trafficking.   His brother Sayyed is second in command of Hezbollah, and  Sayyed’s son is married to Soleimani’s daughter, a union indicative not only of the close relationship between husband and wife but also that between the Quds and Hezbollah. 

By the time Safi al-Din took command of Hezbollah’s drugs and weapons trafficking networks in 2008, the organization had already over a quarter of a century of global trafficking behind it.  Hezbollah’s narco-trafficking started very soon after its formation when it built a roaring illicit trade with Israel, moving hundreds of tons of hashish, opium and heroin from Lebanon into the Jewish state.  During the early years, Hezbollah relied primarily on cannabis grown in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, but it wasn’t long before the terrorist group cast its eyes on a more notorious source for narcotics: South America.   Throughout the 1990s Hezbollah – along with Hamas – gained a foothold in the South American drug trade, centered on the “tri-border area” between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, a region of lawlessness renown for drug trafficking.   

Terror followed Hezbollah as it spread its malign influence in the region.   The organization gained international notoriety for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, killing 29 people.  Two years later it attacked the AMIA Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, murdering 85 people and then, on the following day, Hezbollah downed a Panamanian plane, this time killing a further 21 passengers and crew.  In all these attacks Iran was crucial in training and arming the terrorists, as well as funding the operations. 

Over the next two decades, US, Brazilian, Colombian and other police forces in South America arrested Hezbollah-linked individuals for cocaine smuggling, money laundering and sending weapons to Lebanon.   The US too, took note of the threat in its backyard, with a number of Congressional resolutions and hearings specifically on the role of Hamas and Hezbollah in South America.  But little seemed to dent Hezbollah’s widening activities in the region.   Hezbollah and Hamas even found a suitable patron: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, friend of other terrorist groups such as the Columbian FARC and ally of many drug cartels.   At Iran’s prompting, Chavez held meetings with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to ensure that these groups could base their operations in Venezuela and also use the country’s national airline for transport between South America, Tehran and Damascus.   

Hezbollah has survived regime change in Venezuela, the collapse of its suppliers in the Medellin Cartel and disbanding of FARC.  Just last year the US Treasury and the Drug Enforcement Administration designated key Hezbollah operatives and financiers for their roles in terrorist attacks, money laundering and cocaine smuggling in Latin America.  And, as always, Hezbollah remains a threat to Jews and Israelis in the region.  Barely a month after the October 7 atrocity, Mossad and Brazilian authorities uncovered a Hezbollah plot to attack Jews in Brazil, “directed and financed by the Iranian regime”.   Few regions on Earth are free of Hezbollah: it operates in Africa, Europe, the United States and even Australia.     

Although Latin America and other regions continue to be important for Hezbollah, it stumbled into its greatest endeavor right in its own backyard when it launched a billion-dollar narcotics industry.   After the 2006 war with Israel, sparked by Hezbollah when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, the organization was left reeling with little funds and a massively depleted weapons stockpile.  But just as Iran had provided the Taliban with heroin precursor materials, this time the Islamic State helped out its Lebanese proxy by sending them equipment to start a new line of business: amphetamines, marketed as ‘Captagon’.    

Captagon quickly emerged as an important source of funds for Hezbollah, but by 2012, Lebanese anti-narcotics enforcement had successfully closed down many of the organization’s production facilities.  New opportunities, however, lay across the border in Syria.  At about the time of the closure of its amphetamine factories, Hezbollah – along with thousands of IRCG troops, Quds forces and other Iranian proxies – were already fighting in Syria supporting Bashir Assad in his fight against ISIS and other anti-regime groups.  It is unknown whether Assad established his own Captagon business independently of Hezbollah, but the two quickly began working together to create an empire worth billions.  

For the Syrian government, Captagon was a godsend.  With the country ravaged by years of a brutal civil war and international sanctions, the drug brings much-needed revenue to Assad, his family, and his regime.  Assad’s younger brother and commander of Syria’s elite Fourth Division, Maher al-Assad, joined the trade and uses his post to work closely with Hezbollah in the Captagon trade, while other members of Assad’s family have been identified as leading Captagon manufacturers and smugglers. 

Last year the UK’s Foreign Office estimated that the international Captagon trade to be worth $57 billion, with 80% being produced in Syria under Assad’s protection.  While Hezbollah is central to the drug’s production and distribution, other Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria assist in smuggling the drug into Israel and Jordan, and many more proxies help bring it into Iraq across Syria’s northeastern border.   Once the Captagon arrives in Iraq, other Iranian proxies there ship the drug through the country for distribution to the Gulf states.   One of the most important proxies moving Captagon in Iraq is Kata’ib Hezbollah, a well-armed terrorist group which gained notoriety for recent ballistic missile attacks on US in Iraq there and also the recent Tower 22 US base in Jordan which killed three US soldiers.   

But with so many Syrian groups, government departments and senior personnel all vying for a slice of the Captagon trade, fighting regularly breaks out at all levels.   Whereas the civil war has abated in many parts of Syria, the province of Deir ez-Zor in the east remains a tragic holdout that still suffers under relentless fighting on one side between US troops and their allies, and on the other, pro-regime militias and Iranian-backed groups.   In February of this year, the US bombed Iranian backed militias in this region during the American retaliatory airstrikes for Kata’ib Hezbollah’s attack on the Tower 22 base.   Dei ez-Zor is also a key Captagon smuggling route to Iraq.  Two years ago, Hezbollah and the IRGC established Captagon factories and hashish plantations in the province to reduce trafficking distances to Iraq, thereby avoiding armed robberies and attacks on their drug shipments through Syria.  However, fighting quickly erupted between the regime’s own groups as they quarreled amongst each other over the spoils of the trade. 

When Soleimani personally oversaw the creation of the Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF) in 2012, he hoped that his new militia would become Syria’s own version of the Basij.  Instead, like many regime militias, it quickly became enmeshed in the country’s drug trade.   Late last year the NDF raided a house in Deir ez-Zor and arrested a number of people for dealing in drugs.  While this may seem to be a virtuous act, just two days prior to the arrests the NDF had launched a grenade attack against Syrian government regime forces in retaliation for earlier raids on the NDF’s own drug safehouses.  On the same day as the grenade attack, unrelated fighting broke out between a Syrian Air Force intelligence militia and Luwaa Al-Qods, a pro-Assad Palestinian faction, again over the spoils of the drug trade.  The New Year brought only more troubles for the NDF.   Barely a week into 2024 and the organisation was already fighting local IRGC members over disputed drug smuggling monies, and then a week later, became entangled in pitched battles with a local government militia, again over the proceeds of narcotics smuggling.   

Most of Syria’s Captagon is destined for the Gulf states.   But nearly a decade ago and long before its use by Hamas in the October 7 massacre, the drug was renowned for inducing fearlessness in fighters from all sides in the Syrian civil war, “allowing Syria’s fighters to stay up for days, killing with a numb, reckless abandon”.   Soon the drug found its way to another Iranian-backed militia, this time the Houthi in Yemen.  The West Point Combatting Terrorist Centre in 2018 stated that Houthi fighters rely on female contraceptive pills to promote clotting of wounds and also on Captagon-type drugs to boost battle morale. In the words of one Yemeni official, “they take one tablet to stop them [from] bleeding and one to make them crazy.”’  The drug, however, remains relatively unimportant in Yemen, although the Houthi – like other Iranian proxies – rely so heavily on narcotics for generating revenue that Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen have become “open drug markets”.   

Yemen is a poor West African country, and like so many other impoverished African nations, it receives scant attention from the West.  If it weren’t for the recent Houthi attacks on Israel and Red Sea shipping, Yemen would continue to be little more than an infrequent topic for our press, and even now the Houthi’s drug trade is seldom mentioned.   This trade, however, generates billions for the Houthi and is crucial in funding its terrorism and ongoing civil war with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. 

The domestic market for Houthi narcotics is primarily the $12 billion local khat trade.  Legal to grow, ship and consume in Yemen, an estimated 90% of men and over 30% of women chew this traditional Yemeni narcotic.   Fortunately for the Houthi, khat grows almost exclusively in mountainous areas deep within their territory, providing the terrorist group with a near monopoly on the domestic khat supply –  including to its enemies in the Yemeni government.   As one Yemeni government official stated, “We’re fighting Houthis with our arms and funding them with our mouths.”   

Though legal within Yemen, Houthi khat production robs Yemen of much-needed resources for food and pushes the nation to the precipice of famine.  Only 3% of the country is arable and then only half that actually cultivated – an area of less than 1.5 million hectares.   Of Yemen’s precious arable land, the Houthi use a quarter for khat production and in doing so also consume 40% of the country’s scarce water resources.  Just last year the World Bank estimated that 60% of Yemenis experience “acute food insecurity conditions” with its agricultural sector only supplying 15-20% of the nation’s food requirements.  The World Food Programme, too, announced that their emergency response in the country in 2023 was the largest in the world as they tried to provide food assistance to nearly half Yemen’s population.   

While the Houthi supply the domestic market with khat, the organization smuggles billions in narcotics across its northern border to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.   Some of these drugs are alleged to have come from Iran, particularly Captagon and other amphetamines, while Hezbollah too has also been implicated in smuggling Captagon, cocaine and heroin to the Houthi, again ultimately destined primarily for Saudi Arabia.  Over the last two years, however, the Houth may have begun their own production of illegal narcotics for their Gulf clientele. 

Just as Houthi territory is important for growing khat, it has also become central to Yemen’s hashish production with farmers there diversifying into cannabis, even growing it on the rooves of their houses.   Unverified reports suggest that both the IRGC and Hezbollah have personnel on the ground in Yemen providing agronomic expertise to the Houthi in cannabis cultivation and harvesting.  Amphetamines too, may be next for the Houthi as reports emerged late last year of the organisation allegedly receiving equipment from Iran to build its own Captagon factories. 

With the enthusiastic participation of its proxies, the Iranian narco-terrorism industry reaches across the Middle East and as far away as the Americas, Africa and Australia.  Ultimately, however, within the shadows of this trade it is the people of the Middle East who suffer the most.  Poor and uneducated Iranians are executed on bogus drug charges as part of the regime’s attempts to instil terror in the wider population, while as far as Yemen, the Houthi recruit children as soldiers and slaves for a war fuelled by the narcotics trade.  Scarcely any tragedy or outrage in the Middle East – including that by Hamas on October 7 – occurs without some connection with this trade. 

The Islamic State and its proxies’ billion-dollar recreational drug trade with wealthy countries funds a terrorist machine that boasts ballistic missiles, armed drones and thousands of radical militants who seek little else than the very destruction of these affluent countries.  And many Westerners have allowed themselves to become willing donors to their cause.  The terrorist machine is funded by drugs found in parties in Riyadh, clubs in Berlin and boardrooms in the United States.  It is too easy to scoff at the hypocrisy of the Hezbollah’s spiritual leader who said, “narcotics trafficking is morally acceptable if the drugs are sold to Western infidels as part of the war against the enemies of Islam.”  But when those amongst us consume these drugs with a wilful ignorance of their source, then perhaps hypocrisy is preferable to a callous indifference to the sadness and havoc enabled by consuming these narcotics. 

author avatar
Pierre James
Pierre James is an independent researcher based in Australia with a focus on terrorism and Middle Eastern affairs. He has formerly written on the Holocaust and right-wing extremism. He is the author of The Murderous Paradise: German Nationalism and the Holocaust.
Pierre James
Pierre James
Pierre James is an independent researcher based in Australia with a focus on terrorism and Middle Eastern affairs. He has formerly written on the Holocaust and right-wing extremism. He is the author of The Murderous Paradise: German Nationalism and the Holocaust.

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