An ISIS clerk makes payments to families of dead jihadists using U.S. currency in early 2016. (ISIS image)

Natural Resources Exploitation and ‘Jihadist Drugs’ Fueling Terrorist Groups

A new report warns that the illegal exploitation and taxation of gold, oil and other natural resources is overtaking traditional sources of threat finance, such as kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking, funding terrorist and militant groups.

The World Atlas of Illicit Flows compiled by INTERPOL, RHIPTO – a Norwegian UN-collaborating centre – and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime provides the first consolidated global overview of their significance in conflicts worldwide.

Of the $31.5 billion in illicit flows generated annually in conflict areas, 96 percent goes to organized criminal groups, with this money helping fuel violent conflict.

Based on public reports and criminal intelligence, the World Atlas identifies more than 1,000 routes used for smuggling and other illicit flows.

The proceeds of environmental crime – which encompasses not just wildlife crime, but also fuel smuggling and illicit mining of gold, diamonds and other minerals and resources – have become the largest source of income for non-state armed groups and terrorist organizations. The illicit exploitation of natural/environmental resources is estimated at 38 percent share of illicit flows to armed groups in conflict. When incomes from these natural resources are combined with their illicit taxation and extortion (26 percent) by the same non-state armed groups, the figure becomes as high as 64 percent.

In addition to environmental crime, there has been an increasing number of intelligence reports regarding extensive smuggling and use by jihadist fighters, especially those loyal to the Islamic State, of tramadol, an opioid pain reliever, as well as Captagon, a psychostimulant for increased alertness. Both have been nicknamed ‘jihadist pills’ or ‘courage pills.’ Captagon is a brand name for the drug fenethylline, a combination of amphetamine and theophylline, which increases alertness. Tramadol provides pain relief and can also allegedly reduce fear and stress during battle by in some cases releasing serotonins, creating a feeling of well-being or happiness.

This kind of drug use is predominantly seen in the Middle East and is very prevalent in Syria and Iraq, including by Chechen fighters, but is also becoming increasingly common in the Trans-Sahara, including Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Libya. The Islamic State group has been directly involved in the smuggling and sale of jihadist drugs, and not only to their own fighters. Pills are entering the region from Greece and Tobruk, Libya, as well as via Lomé (Togo), Cotonou (Benin) and Nigeria. Most originate from India. The rising drug use by jihadist fighters in the Trans-Sahara, Libya and Nigeria most likely points to increased smuggling activity by Islamic State and related jihadist groups.

Of the 1,113 UN Security Council resolutions passed between 2000 and 2017, 35 percent mention forms of crime, and in each of the last five years more than 60 percent of the UNSC resolutions have mandated a response to criminal flows and markets.

“Organized crime is increasingly undermining peace, security and development,” said Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “It has become a global phenomenon, represented in a confluence of conflicts from Africa, to the Middle East and the Americas, and showing a distinct linkage to the response to international terrorism.”

Strengthening enforcement, information-sharing and analysis is essential in order to prevent, disrupt and defeat violent armed groups and the organized criminal actors who create an environment of impunity and instability.

For the seven main extremist groups of insurgents and terrorists, the combined funding totals about $1 billion to $1.39 billion a year. Illicit smuggling may also include trans-shipments in violation of UN sanctions.

In 2017, some 40,000 members of the Taliban received an estimated income of $75 million to $95 million from taxation – particularly of drugs, land and agricultural produce – and from donations from abroad.

In mid-2017, ISIS made an estimated $10 million a month. Though is this a dramatic drop from their 2014 monthly take, in all likelihood the group has considerable reserves of an unknown size.

The merged al-Qaeda groups HTS in Syria and JNIM in the Sahel make an estimated $18 million to $35 million and $5 million to $35 million, respectively, from illegal taxation, donations, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes, drugs and illegal taxation.

Al-Shabaab receives an estimated $20 million, half from the illicit charcoal trade and the rest from other forms of taxation

Boko Haram made an estimated $5 million to $10 million, mainly from taxation, bank robberies, donations from other terrorist groups and kidnapping for ransom.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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