The Secret and (Very) Profitable World of Intelligence and Narcotrafficking

When Afghan drug kingpin Haji Bashir Noorzai was arrested in New York in 2005, it set off a chain of events that continue to echo today.

A federal jury in Manhattan convicted Noorzai September 22, for his involvement in an international narcotics trafficking conspiracy that sold tens of millions of dollars of heroin on world markets. The drug lord now faces life in prison and will be sentenced on January 7.

But things aren’t always what they seem.

Noorzai, described by federal investigators and journalists as “the richest man in Afghanistan,” enjoyed close and cosy relations with the Taliban’s top leader Mullah Omar, al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI).

Indeed, Noorzai had become one of the capo tutti capos of Afghanistan’s flourishing heroin rackets and profited handsomely from the protection of his Taliban “friends,” his ISI mentors and allegedly the CIA.

The Washington Post reported December 27, that Noorzai’s New York arrest was aided by a private security outfit, Rosetta Research and Consulting, a firm founded in 2003 by two “businessmen” which the Post refuses to name “because of the sensitive nature of their undercover work.”

“Mike A.,” a former Army Special Forces captain, “Patrick J.,” a former Treasury Department financial-crimes analyst and a group on investors connected to the law firm Motley Rice were principals in the sting that netted Noorzai. Rosetta’s mission according to the Post “was to assist in a mammoth legal case filed on behalf of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by tracking the flow of terrorist-connected money.”

In April 2005, Noorzai was lured to the United States from his Dubai estate “at the instigation of the Drug Enforcement Agency.” After a lavish 11 day holiday at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Manhattan where he enjoyed room service “and considered himself a guest of the U.S. government,” the drug kingpin was arrested.

But here’s the kicker: even as law enforcement sought his arrest as a world-class drug trafficker, Noorzai “was considered an asset by the intelligence side of the government.” And why wouldn’t they?

As I revealed in “Unconventional Warfare in the 21st Century: U.S. Surrogates, Terrorists and Narcotraffickers,” (Antifascist Calling, December 19, 2008) citing the Pentagon’s Army Special Operations Forces FM 3-05.130 published by Wikileaks, unconventional warfare is conducted “by, with or through surrogates” and that their preferred assets are irregular forces:

Irregulars, or irregular forces, are individuals or groups of individuals who are not members of a regular armed force, police, or other internal security force. They are usually nonstate-sponsored and unconstrained by sovereign nation legalities and boundaries. These forces may include, but are not limited to, specific paramilitary forces, contractors, individuals, businesses, foreign political organizations, resistance or insurgent organizations, expatriates, transnational terrorism adversaries, disillusioned transnational terrorism members, black marketers, and other social or political “undesirables.” (Unconventional Warfare, p. 1-3)

It is hardly a stretch that a drug kingpin like Haji Bashir Noorzai, with documented links to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the CIA and U.S. Special Forces would be viewed as one such “surrogate.”

Spooks, Drugs and Thugs

When the Taliban was routed by the U.S. during the initial phase of its 2001 invasion, Noorzai was entrusted with some $20 million of the Taliban’s cash for “safekeeping,” according to the History Commons.

But Noorzai turned himself in to U.S. military forces where he spent several days in custody at Kandahar airport. Though questioned by U.S. officials, Noorzai was released and quietly disappeared into Pakistan after an associate was killed by U.S. forces. In a 2002 CBS News account, Noorzai reportedly said, “I spent my days and nights comfortably. There was special room for me. I was like a guest, not a prisoner.”

Eventually, Noorzai resurfaced in Peshawar. Armed with a Pakistani passport allegedly furnished by the ISI, the kingpin operated drug-processing laboratories that turned raw opium into finished “product,” heroin bound for European and U.S. markets.

In 2004, USA Today reported that “according to House International Relations Committee testimony this year, Noorzai smuggles 4,400 lbs. of heroin out of the Kandahar region to al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan every eight weeks.”

No surprise here. After all as journalist James Risen wrote in State of War, “Once the Taliban had been routed, top CIA officials had little interest in the drug problem.” Or if one took a more nuanced approach one would argue Noorzai’s operation amounted to a protected drug racket. The question is: whose racket was being protected? As Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid documented,

The Pentagon had a list of twenty-five or more drug labs and warehouses in Afghanistan but refused to bomb them because some belonged to the CIA’s new NA [Northern Alliance] allies. The United States told its British allies that the war on terrorism had nothing to do with counter-narcotics. Instead, drug lords were fêted by the CIA and asked if they had any information about Osama bin Laden. Thus, the United States sent the first and clearest message to the drug lords: that they would not be targeted. (Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, New York: Viking, 2008, pp. 320-321)

This was serious business. With the rapid expansion of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan after the American invasion, the price of heroin plummeted on world markets leading the syndicates that control the illicit trade to stockpile opium in an effort to bolster sagging prices.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) 2008 World Drug Report, the global increase in opium production “was almost entirely due to the 17% expansion of cultivation in Afghanistan.” In 2007, Afghanistan produced some 8,700 metric tons of opium that accounted for a staggering 92% of global opium production.

But in a twist that readers of Antifascist Calling are well aware, convicted narco Noorzai apparently enjoyed a cosy and productive relationship with both al-Qaeda and the CIA. According to the Post,

In an affidavit in his criminal case, he traced a history of cooperating with U.S. officials, including the CIA, dating to 1990. In early 2002, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Noorzai said he turned over to the U.S. military 15 truckloads of Taliban weapons, including “four hundred anti-aircraft missiles of Russian, American and British manufacture.”

From the perspective of the CIA and Defense Department, Noorzai could be a useful intelligence asset. But law enforcement officials continued to consider him a notorious criminal whose drug proceeds supported militants battling U.S. forces. Rosetta’s interest seemed purely commercial: to pump him for information that could be reported back to its clients, the Rosetta documents indicate. (Richard Leiby, “Tangled U.S. Objectives Bring Down U.S. Spy Firm,” The Washington Post, December 27, 2008, A01)

But lest we fall into an obvious trap and think that the Afghan drugs trade is solely a creature of the ISI, al-Qaeda or the Taliban, similar charges of corruption have been leveled against Hamid Karzai’s government. Indeed, in 2006 Guardian reported that senior political figures in Kabul, including the president’s brother, Walid, and deputy interior minister for counternarcotics General Muhammad Daud, are heavily involved in the illicit trade.

One official told the Guardian, “He [Daud] moves competent officials from their jobs, locks cases up and generally ensures that nobody he is associated with will get arrested for drugs crime.” The Interior Ministry according to published sources didn’t just fail to take down the warlords, “it became a major protector of drug traffickers.”

Additional reports identified the governor of Helmand province, Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, a close friend and ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as personally profiting from the illicit trade. Indeed, British counternarcotics officials told Rashid that Akhunzada “was accused of favoring his cronies with prime real estate parcels and commanded hundreds of well-paid gunmen, while the police force was undermanned and unpaid and mullahs, aid workers, teachers, and women activists who opposed poppy cultivation were being gunned down.”

Helmand province, under the nominal control of the Karzai government and American and NATO allies was the conduit for opium sales flowing towards the drug labs in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan from other provinces, particularly those from the far northern provinces of Mazar and Badakhshan, run by U.S.-backed warlords favored by Special Forces’ “unconventional warfare” theorists.

It wouldn’t be the first time nor the last, that the United States cultivated narcotraffickers as intelligence assets, including those connected to America’s reputed arch-enemy, Osama bin Laden. As Peter Dale Scott wrote on the convergence of international organized crime structures and the capitalist deep state,

Mafias and empires have certain elements in common. Both can be seen as the systematic violent imposition of governance in areas of undergovernance. Both use atrocities to achieve their ends; but both tend to be tolerated to the extent that the result of their controlled violence is a diminution of uncontrolled violence. (I would tentatively suggest an important difference between mafias and empires: that, with the passage of time, mafias tend to become more and more part of the civil society whose rules they once broke, while empires tend to become more and more irreconcilably at odds with the societies they once controlled.) (“Deep Events and the CIA’s Global Drug Connection,” Global Research, September 6, 2008)

Why then, given the decades-long collaboration amongst intelligence agencies and drug trafficking syndicates, do U.S. corporate media still find it “ironic” that current American efforts to stamp out Taliban-controlled drug networks in fact, simply hand control of the traffic over to narcos more amenable to American geopolitical goals?

One Big Happy Family

While the United States insists that international drug flows are financing terrorism, which indeed they are, U.S. agencies including the CIA and Army Special Forces continue to rely on trafficking networks as a reliable source for irregular fighters and as intelligence assets.

According to the Guardian, the relationships amongst Afghan government forces, opium smugglers and their Taliban “adversaries” are quite complex, but when it gets down to brass tacks, amazingly simple: money talks. Hameedullah, an opium smuggler and government employee told the Guardian,

He went on to explain how the economy of the poppy trade took in the Taliban and the government. “The Taliban benefit from the poppy because the farmers pay them taxes. And when the government destroys the fields, the people support the Taliban,” he said. “The government also benefits from the poppy–we pay officials so they won’t destroy our land. Two years ago we paid them so they only destroyed two jeribs (1 acre) of my land.” …

“The Taliban say we are doing the jihad and you are making money so you should support us. Smugglers give a lot: three Land Cruisers in Sangin a few weeks ago.”

The relationship between the Taliban, police and poppy trade is quite simple, he added: “If we don’t plant opium then smugglers don’t make money. If we [the smugglers] don’t make money the Taliban and police don’t make money. The Taliban and the officials have a very strong relationship–if they don’t then how can we do so much trade and travel to so many districts?” (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Life in Helmand, where rich rewards are reaped by poppy farmers, police and the Taliban,” Guardian, 22 December 2008)

Its a relationship that has a proven track record: drug lords make money, intelligence agencies cultivate assets and perhaps, siphon illicit funds for off-budget operations, international banking cartels earn billions from laundered drug proceeds and corrupt comprador elites secure a comfortable existence.

Such richly-rewarded “arrangements” continued long after the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Indeed, international narcotrafficking and related terrorist networks with links to the the CIA, the ISI, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States launched subsequent “jihads” against their geopolitical rivals in the Balkans and the ex-Soviet Union, where thousands of former Afghan veterans filled the ranks of the Bosnian, Kosovan and Chechen “mujahideen.”

According to economist Loretta Napoleoni, by the 1990s Pakistan hoped to create “a trans-Asian axis, under Pakistani hegemony, stretching from the eastern border with China, inclusive of Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, to the oil-producing regions of the Caspian Sea.”

That the government of Benazir Bhutto did so with U.S. blessings as a means to destabilize Russia is evident with the subsequent assault in Chechnya by CIA-trained Afghan-Arab veterans aided and abetted by ISI and Saudi Arabia. The plan, according to Napoleoni, was “to divert Russian attention” by encouraging an “Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, forcing the Russians to fight in the Caucasus.”

Thusly, Shamil Basayev, a Chechen field commander, received extensive ISI training “at the Amir Muawia camp in the Khost province in Afghanistan,” under the operational control of ISI and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Afghan-Arab veterans were sent to Chechnya to train future fighters. “Among them was the Jordanian-born Khattab, whom Basayev had met and befriended in Pakistan. Khattab was a hero of the anti-Soviet Jihad; he was also close to Osama bin Laden and his funding network. In 1995, Khattab was invited to Grozny to head the training of Mujahedin fighters.”

Indeed, Osama bin Laden is reported to have contributed some $25 million to the Chechen “jihad.” But as Napoleoni documents, the operation relied heavily on already-existent drugs and arms trafficking networks.

In 1995, Khattab’s move to Grozny was arranged by the International Islamic Relief Organisation, a Saudi-based charity funded by mosques and wealthy donors in the Gulf. The same year, Basayev, and later Khattab, linked up with criminal organisations in Russia as well as with Albanian organised crime and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). These alliance proved fruitful in generating profits from the drug trade and contraband, especially that of arms. Chechnya soon became an important hub for various rackets, including kidnapping and the trade in counterfeit dollars. Basayev also benefited financially from money laundering activities in Chechnya. (Loretta Napoleoni, Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, London: Pluto Press, 2003, pp. 92-93)

Similar destabilization campaigns utilizing the same Pakistani-Saudi terrorist networks and international drug trafficking syndicates broke out in Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia. The United States and their NATO partners encouraged what Napoleoni terms “the expansionism of Muslim countries such as Pakistan and religious colonisation by Saudi Arabia” across the region.

These networks, with a wink and a nod from Washington, are fully operational today.

Mumbai Attack: Same Drugs, Same Thugs

Indeed, international drug trafficking syndicates connected to Pakistan’s ISI and the CIA are reported to have been operational assets during the November Laskhar-e-Toiba (LET) assaults in Mumbai. As I reported in mid-December, Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company enjoys protected status afforded by the ISI and his extensive smuggling networks along the Indian coast were used to infiltrate LET thugs into Mumbai.

Despite these linkages, investigative journalist Jeffrey R. Hammond reported December 19, that Ibrahim associate “Mohammed Ali continues smuggling operations out of Mumbai for Ibrahim’s crime syndicate, D-Company, completely unmolested by Indian investigators and law enforcement.”

As the crisis deepens and Pakistan shifts troops towards the Indian border, a December 4 piece in The Times of India wonders why the Maharashtra government “has not taken any action against the D-Company here.”

One senior official asked, “What’s the point of asking Islamabad to hand over Dawood when we’re not doing anything to destroy his empire in Mumbai and other places in India?”

Similar questions must also be put to senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorist officials as to why Afghan drugs kingpin Haji Bashir Noorzai was viewed as “a useful intelligence asset” up to the time of his arrest and conviction in New York federal court?

An unmentionable fact in Noorzai’s indictment, one that was raised however by defense attorney Ivan Fisher during the drug lord’s trial, was Noorzai’s work as a U.S. intelligence asset even as he grew rich off of Afghanistan’s heroin trade, through “efforts to reach working agreements with the Americans in Afghanistan since the 1990s,” Fisher told the International Herald Tribune. James Risen reports,

Noorzai was in Quetta when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks occurred, and he returned soon after to Afghanistan, according to his lawyer. In November 2001, he met with men he described as American military officials at Spinboldak, near the Afghan-Pakistani border, Fisher, his lawyer, said. Small teams of U.S. Special Forces and intelligence officers were then operating in Afghanistan, seeking the support of local tribal leaders against the Taliban.

Noorzai was taken to Kandahar, where he was detained and questioned for six days by the Americans about Taliban officials and operations, according to his lawyer. He agreed to work with them and was released. In January 2002, he handed over 15 truckloads of weapons, including about 400 anti-aircraft missiles, that had been hidden by the Taliban inside his tribe’s territory, Fisher said. (“Afghan’s arrest shines light on dark side of U.S. terror fight,” International Herald Tribune, February 2, 2007)

But when State Department official Robert Charles suggested placing Noorzai on President Bush’s list of foreign narcotics kingpins, at the time no Afghan heroin traffickers were on the list which Charles thought was “a glaring omission.”

He suggested three names, including Noorzai’s, but said his recommendation was met with an awkward silence during an interagency meeting. He said there was resistance to placing any Afghans on the list because countering the drug trade there was not an administration priority. Charles persisted, and in June 2004, Noorzai became the first Afghan on the list. (Risen, op. cit.)

“Awkward silence” indeed! Even as tensions today continue to rise between India and Pakistan, the virtual disappearance of Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company from the Mumbai frame is all the more astonishing given the narcoterrorists’ documented record of violence in furtherance of the geopolitical goals of his ISI masters.

But even though civilian rule has returned in Islamabad, retired Pakistani Army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg, a veteran of the Afghan campaign and a key figure responsible for toppling Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1990 cautioned the Wall Street Journal, “The ISI can make or break any regime in Pakistan. Don’t fight the ISI.”

9/11′s Drug Connection

These links are not new and were revealed long before the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Julie Sirrs, traveled undercover to Afghanistan in 1998 after al-Qaeda’s East African embassy attacks and learned that the Taliban regime, then a darling of the Clinton administration and the multinational oil giant Unocal, was being courted by Washington as a force for “regional stability.” Sirrs reveals that the regime “was being kept in power significantly by bin Laden’s money and the narcotics trade.”

In 2004, Gail Sheehy reported in the New York Observer that for her trouble, Sirrs had her security clearances revoked and was subsequently hounded out of the DIA.

Unocal, a California-based company, had been courting the Taliban to build a massive pipeline system across Afghanistan that would connect the vast oil and natural-gas reserves of Turkmenistan to ports in Pakistan. The American energy giant partnered with a Saudi company, Delta Oil Co. Ltd., and promised the Taliban that it could expect up to $100 million in transit fees from the proposed $4.5 billion project. …

Ms. Sirrs said she believed that her information was discounted because it was damaging to the Taliban.

“The State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with Afghan resistance, or even, politically, to reveal that there was any viable option to the Taliban,” she said. (Gail Sheehy, “Ex-Spook Sirrs: Early Osama Call Got Her Ejected,” The New York Observer, March 14, 2004)

And what of the 9/11 attacks themselves, the presumed “trigger” for the Global War on Terror?

In the introduction to Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié’s book Forbidden Truth, investigative journalist Wayne Madsen wrote: “Yet the links [to 9/11] do not merely end with the greater bin Laden family–they involved the House of Saud, the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence agency, other wealthy Saudi bankers and merchants, Islamic charities and madrassas, U.S. oil tycoons, and U.S. defense contractors like The Carlyle Group.”

An unholy alliance that has persisted since the end of World War II. Added to the mix are the invisible yet omnipresent tentacles of the international narcotics trade that cuts across global money flows and paves the way for U.S. “special operations.”

As investigative journalist Daniel Hopsicker revealed in Welcome to Terrorland and subsequent reporting,

Just three weeks after Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi arrived on July 3, 2000 to attend the flight school at Huffman Aviation in Venice, FL., the owner of the flight school, Wallace J. Hilliard, had his Learjet surrounded by DEA agents with submachine guns on the runway of Orlando Executive Airport.

Agents found 43 pounds of heroin, arrested everyone onboard, and confiscated the plane. …

Moreover, the drug connection was uncovered independently in two different places: by our investigation in Venice, FL., and by FBI translator Sibel Edmonds in Washington D.C.

“The 9/11 terror plot intersected with the activities of a drug trafficking network of international scope, in ways that form a ‘crystal clear’ picture of what was going on,” said Edmonds. (“The 9/11 Heroin Connection,” MadCowMorningNews, September 7, 2006)

Indeed, according to German investigative reporter Jürgen Roth’s account in Netzwerke des Terrors, in 1995 the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) investigated Atta for drug crimes and falsifying phone cards while a student at the Hamburg Technical University. While 9/11′s lead hijacker wasn’t charged, a record of the investigation will prevent him from obtaining a security job with Lufthansa Airlines in early 2001 according to Newsday, the History Commons revealed.

As FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds wrote on the connections amongst drug traffickers, terrorists and key U.S. allies such as Turkey, a major transportation hub for the flow of heroin into Europe, Edmonds wondered, “who are the real lords of Afghanistan’s poppy fields?”

For Al Qaeda’s network Turkey is a haven for its sources of funding. Turkish networks, along with Russians’, are the main players in these fields; they purchase the opium from Afghanistan and transport it through several Turkic speaking Central Asian states into Turkey, where the raw opium is processed into popular byproducts; then the network transports the final product into Western European and American markets via their partner networks in Albania. The networks’ banking arrangements in Turkey, Cyprus and Dubai are used to launder and recycle the proceeds, and various Turkish companies in Turkey and Central Asia are used to make this possible and seem legitimate. The Al Qaeda network also uses Turkey to obtain and transfer arms to its Central Asian bases, including Chechnya. (“The Hijacking of a Nation,” National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, November 29, 2006)

This too, follows a demonstrable pattern. Since the 1960s, the Turkish state has utilized far-right and Islamist surrogates to wage a dirty war against the left. Openly fascist political formations such as the National Action Party (MHP), the organization’s terrorist wing, the Grey Wolves and various Islamist “green gangs” such as the Army-controlled Turkish Hizbullah, have all been implicated in state terrorism and the international narcotics trade.

But the connections amongst narcotraffickers and terrorist financiers, though extensive, have all but been ignored by U.S. corporate media as it hyped the “failure of imagination” fairy tale spun by Washington insiders.

While the 9/11 Commission cited “intelligence failures” to “connect the dots” prior to the attacks, it is the contention of this writer that ongoing intelligence operations utilizing Afghan-Arab veterans and international narcotics syndicates, including al-Qaeda–in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and South Asia–lie at the heart of 9/11′s cover-up.

In other words these cosy and highly profitable relationships built-up over decades, rather than unproven claims of an “inside job,” allegations which all-too-frequently disappear Western intelligence agencies and their Islamist partners, were central to the 9/11 plot and subsequent U.S.-led “war on terror,” a war of terror waged globally for resource extraction and geopolitical advantage over capitalist rivals.

One shudders to consider what the incoming Obama administration is contemplating when it recommends a “surge” of U.S. troops into Afghanistan. But if history is any judge, we can be certain that the illicit relationships amongst drug cartels and intelligence agencies will continue far into the future.

While drug lord Haji Bashir Noorzai awaits sentencing in Manhattan, someone else has already taken his place. After all, some things never change…

Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles are published in many venues. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military "Civil Disturbance" Planning, distributed by AK Press. Read other articles by Tom, or visit Tom's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Ron Horn said on January 2nd, 2009 at 1:10pm #

    This adds further support to Peter Dale Scott’s profound observation above, or to put it another way, all capitalist societies today are laced at the highest levels with connections to criminal activities in order to further their addiction to wealth accumulation. This practice and all the others that combine to ravage the earth’s resources and impoverish its human inhabitants will end up destroying both if we, the people, fail to stop them. If we succeed, it will be in no small part to the wonderful efforts of Tom Burghardt, Peter Dale Scott, and many others like them.

  2. John Hatch said on January 3rd, 2009 at 6:46pm #

    Fantastic work. I have read other suggestions that 9-11 was linked to the narcotics trade (as was Iran-Contra before it). That would help explain why those famous put (American and United Airlines) and call (Raytheon and others) options were never investigated, nor their connection with CIA Executive Director Buzzy Krongard, the involvement of Deutsche Bank, and his former high level association with it.

  3. Tom Burghardt said on January 3rd, 2009 at 8:33pm #

    Ron & John,

    Thanks for your comments and feedback.

    I tend to think that with all “deep events” as described by Peter Dale Scott and other commentators, there’s always more than meets the eye. While some in the so-called 9/11 “truth movement” obsess on what they believe to be “forensic evidence” of “controlled demolition” of the Towers, Building 7, etc., what falls by the wayside with these “inside job” explanations are 1) al-Qaeda as ongoing Western intelligence assets and 2) what the intelligence agencies were actually covering-up: the use of these assets for destabilization operations in resource-rich or strategic zones that imperialism seeks to control, the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, etc.

    While someone obviously made money with the put options on the airlines prior to 9/11, I think that too, only scratches the surface of a larger problem: corporate globalization and the sociopathic nature of a ruling class that quite literally bought the rope with which various strands of neofascist fundamentalism–Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim–seek to hang them with.

    Unfortunately, the incoming Obama administration won’t change this.