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3) Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and drug-trafficking

For a while there was a virtual embargo in this country on an important aspect of al-Qaeda that has been widely reported in France, England, and Canada. This is that al-Qaeda earns on-going revenues not only from a spectrum of legitimate businesses but also from drug-trafficking. (See London Daily Telegraph, 9/15/01, 9/16/01; Montreal Gazette, 9/15/01; Le Monde, 9/14/01).

Searching my Academic Lexis-Nexis on 9/16 for "bin Laden" and "drugs" I found only one sentence on this topic in a US paper, buried deep in a long story in the LA Times:

"CIA officials say the underground network frequently crosses into gangsterism. One official cites `ample evidence' that Bin Laden's group uses profits from the drug trade to finance its campaign. Followers also have been tied to bank robberies, holdups, credit card fraud and other crimes." (Los Angeles Times, 9/15/01)

Very belatedly, the New York Times, on 12/10/01, confirmed the bin Laden-heroin connection. It noted that after al-Qaeda mujahedin collaborated with the US in Bosnia, "The bin Laden financial machine blossomed, according to officials who have been informed of intelligence information on the matter. Charities around the Arab world proclaimed that they were raising money for humanitarian purposes in Bosnia, but in fact portions benefited Islamic extremist groups in the area, including Al Qaeda.

"Militants linked to Al Qaeda also established connections with Bosnian organized crime figures. The officials said Al Qaeda and the Taliban found a route for the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan into Europe through the Balkans."

In other words, the CIA knew that al-Qaeda was involved in heroin-trafficking, but (as is so often the case with big-time drug-traffickers) was not widely sharing it. Why is this? Le Monde in particular has charged that bin Laden's network now uses the drug connections which bin Laden developed with his friend, the former CIA protege Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This claim is developed at some length in a well-documented but tendentious book by a Swiss journalist who draws on European intelligence sources: Richard Labeviere, Dollars for Terror: The United States and Islam. (See especially pp. 105-18; this book was originally published in French).

As the CIA began to withdraw its support for Afghan mujaheddin a decade ago, the US State Department complained publicly about the drug production and trafficking of the CIA's proteges. The fighting which broke out between anti-Soviet guerrilla factions as both the CIA and USSR departed often took on the flavor of a drug war. Jonathan Marshall has described (Drug Wars, 51) how Hekmatyar and another leader, Mohammed Yahya, "fought a bloody battle in September 1989 for control of a strategic opium shipment route."

On 9/30/01 the London Observer reported that British and US would soon enter Afghanistan to fight another drug war: to target and destroy the drugs stockpiles of the Taliban, out of fear that the Taliban plans to flood the West with 20 billion pounds worth of heroin. But three weeks later Jane's Intelligence Review discounted this "heroin onslaught theory" as "premature:" the Taliban's role consisted merely of taxing the illicit drug traffic, not controlling it.

In another article, Jane's Intelligence Review reported that while "poppy cultivation has almost totally disappeared" from the areas of Afghanistan under Taliban control, "a rising tide of narcotics - both opium and the heroin refined from it" was flooding out of the northeast corner of Afghanistan under the control of America's new anti-Taliban allies, the United Front or Northern Alliance.

The article noted that "Compared to the key [Taliban] southern and southeastern provinces - Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Nangahar - where most Afghan opium production has been concentrated, output from the UF-controlled zone has been small - less than 5% - of a national production estimated in 2000 at some 3,300 tonnes. However, the arrival in Badakhshan of Mashriqi opium traders, who generally provide credit to farmers, has both stimulated northeastern production and, perhaps more importantly, has turned the region into a vital conduit for southern opium and heroin moving north into Central Asia. Increased security measures and interdiction along the Afghan-Iranian and Pakistani-Iranian borders have also encouraged this shift towards northern trafficking routes."

The claim that drug-trafficking had shifted from Taliban to Northern Alliance territory was developed further on 11/25/01 by the London Observer, which attributed the shift to the Taliban's ban of 2000 on opium-growing: "During the ban the only source of poppy production was territory held by the Northern Alliance. It tripled its production. In the high valleys of Badakhshan - an area controlled by troops loyal to the former President Burhannudin Rabbani - the number of hectares planted last year jumped from 2,458 to 6,342. Alliance fields accounted for 83 per cent of total Afghan production of 185 tonnes of opium during the ban.

"Now that the Alliance has captured such rich poppy-growing areas as Nangrahar, production is set to rocket. Helmand, too, is being replanted by its Taliban rulers, who have abandoned their anti-opium stance and want to cash in on their remaining sources of revenue.

"Western and Pakistani officials fear that, within a year or two, Afghanistan could again reach its peak production figures of 60,000 hectares of poppies producing 2,800 tonnes of opium - more than half the world's output.

"Alliance factions and other warlords deny benefiting from opium production, but it is an open secret that nearly all tolerate it. Most are happy just to cream off the taxes, but others have been more directly involved. Hazrat Ali, one of the new warlords in control in Nangrahar, ran Jalalabad airport in the mid-Nineties at a time when weekly flights to India and the Gulf carried huge amounts of opium to Western markets. During the war against the Russians, the huge and illicit drugs trade nurtured by the mujahideen was ignored and tolerated by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies in return for their commitment to fightthe Soviet Union.

(Hazrat Ali is now directing the Afghan ground attack against the Tora Bora cave complex where Osama bin Laden is suspected to be hiding. Meanwhile his former purchaser and heroin producer in the Northwest Territory, Ayub Afridi, has been released unexpectedly from a Pakistan prison. See Flash 5 (A): Pre-1990 Drug Networks Being Restored Under New Coalition?)

In simpler terms, the US did not proclaim a war on drugs against the Taliban or bin Laden, because of its awareness that the bulk of the Afghan drug-trafficking was now in the hands of those about to become the US' latest drug-trafficking proxy, the Northern Alliance. This recurring pattern in the CIA's long-time involvement with drug traffickers is explored further in my section on "AFGHANISTAN, COLOMBIA, VIETNAM: THE DEEP POLITICS OF DRUGS AND OIL."

P.S. If you explore some of the websites below, you may come to agree that the bin Laden drug network was securely grounded in a milieu of drug-funded terrorist intrigue which the CIA has been allied with in the past: not just in Afghanistan (as widely reported), but in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and elsewhere.

Cargo planes fly twice a week between the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the Boston Globe, 9/26/01 these planes fly south with drugs. The Financial Times, 9/24/01, reported a claim "that, at least up until six months ago, two flights a week were travelling from Dubai to Kandahar, Mr bin Laden's Afghan base, with boxes of dollar bills."

Until recently the United States has apparently tolerated these flights, even though dollars going into Afghanistan were likely to be used abroad for illicit purposes, including terrorism. This was probably because of the complex and difficult games the CIA has played for years with the United Arab Emirates. These first reached public notice with the exposure of the CIA-linked and UAE-financed bank, BCCI.

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