Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Student exposes link between terrorism and drug trade

book jacket

Gretchen Peters, a master's student in DU's Korbel School of International Studies, published "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda" after researching the connection between terrorism and the illegal drug trade.

As Gretchen Peters gazed at a vast purple poppy field in Afghanistan, she realized she had uncovered a little-known facet of the United States’ understanding of terrorism. The poppies were processed into heroin and opium, and that heroin and opium was the major source of income for the Taliban and al Qaeda. The ties between drugs and terrorism fascinated Peters, a journalist and first year master’s student in DU’s Korbel School of International Studies.

After researching the inner workings of terrorist groups, Peters published a book about her discoveries. Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda (Thomas Dunne, 2009) exposes the drug trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the financial backbone of those countries’ corrupt leadership. Peters shared her insights on the startling connection between drugs and organized crime with DU Today.

How did you first learn of the connection between the drug trade and the Taliban?

I guess you could say I started working on this during my first trip to Afghanistan in 1996, when I wrote an article for the Associated Press about how the Taliban cracked down against hashish smokers, but encouraged and taxed the opium trade, since opium, they said, was sold to “infidels” in the West. After December 2001, when the Taliban was toppled from power, the huge narcotics industry, and the way in which it supported the Taliban, was virtually ignored by the U.S. government and the media. For me it was the bright shining lie of the Afghan war — the 13-ton gorilla in the room that no one wanted to discuss.

How did the heroin trade become such an integral part of the Taliban’s funding?

The Taliban is not a monolithic organization. There are many different factions of the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some appear to get most of their criminal earnings from extortion and protection rackets and abduction for ransom. They all portray themselves as holy warriors and depend on the alms of the local people for support, but I do not think donations play as big a role as our intelligence community insists.

What are we doing to help reduce the impact of the drug trade in other countries?

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. is contributing billions of dollars to train and better equip police forces, to train judges and prosecutors and to help shift Afghan farmers off of poppy onto licit crops. I am not sure the extent to which the U.S. government funds public education programs about opium, but they are certainly prevalent. One sees billboards and advertisements warning about the dangers of addiction all around both countries. I think there needs to be more public education. That seems to be the most effective way in terms of cost to reduce the number of people using narcotics. Studies have shown that Afghans and Pakistanis respond to public messages that remind them that using narcotics is banned by the Koran, and that there is no cure for addiction. But education campaigns should be realistic and not resort to fear mongering and moralizing. In my opinion, that is going to backfire.

Your book outlines a nine-point strategy for cutting drug money from terrorist groups. What’s the most vital part of that strategy?

What’s most vital is to recognize that a blend of conditions and issues led Afghanistan down the path it is on today, and it will take a blend of interventions to get it on the right track. You can’t just do one or two points. There will have to be a broad-based and holistic effort. It will take time, probably about a decade of sustained effort, not at the current U.S. troop levels, but certainly a sustained level of intervention. I am concerned the American public thinks this is all going to be over in 18 months, and that just isn’t the case.

Is there a link between the Taliban gaining power and the increasing presence of heroin around the globe?

There is certainly a link between the Taliban’s gaining strength and the growing size of the opium industry in Afghanistan. But the drug trade globally is controlled by smuggling networks, and the Taliban, so far, just taxes and protects the trade inside Afghanistan and to a small extent Pakistan. There do seem to be exploding addiction rates in countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Iran, Russia and central Asian nations.

Knowing that the drug trade and the Taliban are closely connected, what do you see for the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

I try to have hope for both countries, which are both close to my heart. One thing I have learned from working there over more than 10 years is that it is very hard to predict what is coming down the pipeline. But I, for one, hope it is something better. The people of both nations deserve it.


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