March 1, 2012  

A new kind of warfare

The U.S. must prepare to combat a fusion of terror and crime

On Jan. 16, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, a 30-year-old Iranian medical student, was shot and killed while sitting in her car outside her parents’ home in Houston. Neighbors heard three quick shots in the night. Her purse and cellphone were found in the car, the engine still running.

No suspects have been apprehended and no motive for the murder has been established at this writing. But Bagherzadeh was politically active in the Iranian green movement and women’s causes, and the execution-style killing of a young Iranian dissident in the U.S. should ring some alarm bells.

Covert assassinations of politically awkward expatriates, if that is what this was, are not unknown in world politics. But what makes this killing significant is the strategic context: At the same time as the Bagherzadeh murder, a campaign of assassination has been underway in Iran, where nuclear scientists are being killed as tensions between Iran and the West reach an all-time high.

Perhaps the killing was a tit-for-tat operation. There are increasing indications, though, that foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) sponsored by Iran and its ally Venezuela, aided by transnational organized crime groups (TOCs), not only have the capability to open a state-sponsored campaign of terror attacks inside the U.S., but are planning to do so. Evidence is accumulating that Iranian agents of the Quds Force, a covert arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), are making common cause with Mexican drug cartels to attack targets here.

This indicates that the long-predicted merger of crime and terrorism has moved to a new phase. In strategic terms, it offers Iran the capability for an asymmetric response to Western actions against Iran’s nuclear program. It also presages the explicit use of global terrorism as a military strategy of “criminal states,” such as Iran and Venezuela, which operate outside the norms of international law. Bagherzadeh may have been an early casualty of the campaign, and her death a warning.

Growing Power

The idea that crime and terrorism would blend into a new form of warfare is not new. In his 1991 book, “The Transformation of War,” Martin Van Creveld predicted that “low intensity” wars would be more commonplace as states lose their monopoly on armed violence. Moisés Naím’s pathbreaking 2005 book, “Illicit,” predicted that the stunning amounts of money in the “black” economy, estimated by some authorities to be nearly one-fifth of the world’s gross domestic product, would help fulfill Van Creveld’s prediction that empower transnational criminal organizations would eventually challenge state governments. This is now happening; the Mexican drug cartels are one example, the Taliban in Afghanistan another.

Moreover, the political power of such groups has grown along with their wealth and armed might. This allows them to sideline or neuter weak state governments or, as in the case of Iran, Venezuela, Ecuador and other countries, to facilitate the rise of “criminal states” that have the trappings and privileges of legitimacy but which pursue merged criminal and political goals through terrorism, insurgency and other means.

In a forthcoming paper, Doug Farah, a leading authority on the rise of the TOCs, writes: “This emerging combination of threats comprises a hybrid of criminal-terrorist, and state- and non-state franchises, combining multiple nations acting in concert, and traditional TOCs and terrorist groups acting as proxies for the nation-states that sponsor them. … No longer is the state/non-state dichotomy viable in tackling these problems, just as the TOC/terrorism divide is increasingly disappearing.”

In this hemisphere, the collusion of Iran and Venezuela has led to a “thickening” of relationships between Iranian organizations such as the IRGC and the Quds Force; Hezbollah, which has long conducted terrorist and fundraising activities in South America (and which is said to maintain training camps in Venezuela); and transnational criminal networks like the cocaine-producing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Mexican cartels. Until recently, Iran and Venezuela maintained direct flights between the two nations; these are reported to have been a conduit for Iranians who, upon arriving, were issued Venezuelan passports and disappeared into Latin America.

All these organizations and individuals — Venezuelans, members of the IRGC, Hezbollah, drug producers and Mexican cartel members — operate within overlapping transnational illicit drug networks in South, Central and North America, in addition to overseas networks and groups. Operations are intertwined; Quds is said to assert increasing leadership over Hezbollah, which works closely with the FARC and Mexican TOCs. Senior members of the Venezuelan government are deeply involved in the drug trade in addition to sponsoring political upheaval in Latin America. The Mexican cartels and their allies operate networks for the distribution of illegal drugs through Latino and home-grown American gangs that act as retail distributors in more than 200 American cities, providing networks, “safe houses” and contacts that can be used for other purposes.

Crossing A Line

Although more than 40,000 men and women have died in Mexico’s cartel war in the past four years, the cartels have mostly refrained from deliberate violence on the U.S. side of the border. That may be changing. Around the time of Bagherzadeh’s death, Arizona police discovered a headless and handless corpse beside a rural dirt road. The murder’s brutal style is the signature of killings by Mexican cartels.

Even before Bagherzadeh’s murder, the Iranian government evidently crossed a “red line” regarding attacks in the U.S. In October, a Quds Force agent, Ali Gohlam Shakuri, attempted to involve the Zetas drug cartel in an assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Though bungled, it was a serious initiative, approved at high levels in the Iranian hierarchy. Had it succeeded, the attack in Washington, D.C., would probably have killed numerous American citizens. In his Feb. 2 testimony to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “I expect we’ll see more of these.”

Just days later, a former assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michael Braun, also testified about the increasingly close relationships in this hemisphere between the Quds Force, Hezbollah and the Mexican drug cartels.

“The real threat posed by [the integration of terrorist organizations and drug traffickers] are the countless opportunities groups like the Quds Force and Hezbollah are presented with to develop and nurture relationships with organized crime and terrorist groups right here in the Western Hemisphere, in Africa, Europe and many other countries,” Braun said. “And these relationships most likely provide the Quds Force and Hezbollah with opportunities to leverage the transportation, money laundering, arms trafficking, corruption, human trafficking and smuggling infrastructures of the Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking cartels, as well as other organized crime and terrorist groups around the world.”

Historical context is important to put these events in perspective. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration reacted violently to the incursion of then-Warsaw Pact troops into Central America, at the time considered an American sphere of influence. Even if “sphere of influence” is an outmoded term, the presence of regular Iranian security forces in Venezuela (and elsewhere in Latin America), and their attempt to engage in attacks inside the U.S. should powerfully elevate our concern. The threat of the Reagan years was Soviet penetration into this hemisphere and the presence of an unfriendly power in Latin America — but neither side seriously contemplated actual penetration of the U.S. and attacks on American citizens. Today, though, in the era of car bombs and mass murder, the evidence is that unfriendly powers — in fact, an alliance of criminal networks, including states — not only contemplates such actions, but also is acting on those plans. The plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, though bungled, was a serious attempt. If the Bagherzadeh killing was in fact an Iranian-directed assassination, it violated U.S. sovereignty and was carried out by in-place networks located virtually next door, potentially in Houston itself.

This is a new kind of warfare, and one that is as radical a change for U.S. defense experts as was the airplane and mechanization. The mix of terrorism and crime plays to a particular weakness in U.S. defenses — the seam between “war” as practiced by the Defense Department and “crime” as prosecuted by the FBI, the DEA and other agencies. A coordinated campaign of terror attacks inside the U.S., carried out by a relatively small number of operatives, criminals and suicide bombers imported for the cause, could render irrelevant discussions about the size of the defense budget. Further, the U.S. urgently needs a strategy that rolls back our opponents’ campaign — that takes the fight to enemy, as well as defending our borders and assisting our allies. Wars are not won by good defenses. And to do that, we must reallocate scarce funds to reinforce interdepartmental agencies within the U.S. government that are already engaged, both inside and outside our borders.

the beginnings of Strategy

Strategically, the U.S. turned an important corner with last year’s publication of the Obama administration’s “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime.” The document marked the first such recognition that TOCs have become a strategic threat to the security of the U.S.

The strategy as written, though, has three shortcomings. First, though it thoroughly discusses criminal networks, it does not address directly the rise of the criminal state and the hybrid nature of the merger of TOCs, FTOs and corrupt state powers. The greatest weakness of the U.S. in this new “warfare” is not raw capability, but bureaucratic organization. The capstone strategy should attack organizational seams that inhibit responsibility and accountability.

Second, the strategy as written does not discuss options to pre-empt aggression by state-sponsored or state-allied criminal or terrorist networks. While “pre-emption” has negative connotations, the U.S. acts “pre-emptively” when it trains the law enforcement agencies of allied states, provides intelligence assistance to foreign police forces and indicts foreign officials who involve themselves in illegal activities that harm the U.S. Rather than playing only defense, the U.S. should work vigorously with its allies to sanction not only criminals, but also criminal states and their leadership, organizations and finances.

Third, strategy without resources is just paper. Additional funding, even at the expense of conventional military capability, if necessary, should be shifted to agencies that can operate both afield and inside the U.S. to counter a transnational crime and terrorist threat that knows no boundaries.


Within the Defense Department, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is one of the few “growth” agencies. SOCOM should be supported, both fiscally and with appropriate rules of engagement and other authorities, to engage TOCs and FTOs through host countries and elsewhere when necessary. SOCOM forces in the field can and should be augmented by conventional forces when such arrangements make sense, especially in the areas of advisory and assistance missions to allies. Supporting organizations, particularly those that provide intelligence, aviation and logistics, should be added — especially when military assistance to allies is the issue. The process of supplying foreign military assistance, including everything from training teams to modern end-item equipment for allies, should be streamlined as a matter of top priority. Recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates that U.S. interagency processes for supplying our friends can be unnecessarily frustrating for all concerned.

Other agencies of government that are currently engaged may also require plus-ups when doing so makes it more practical to carry the fight to the enemy. The federal judicial system plays a key role in preparing and serving indictments against criminals and criminal political figures, and Congressional support — in the form of increased budgets — will be necessary if U.S. and allied measures against transnational crime and terrorism are increased. In this new “warfare,” the law is an important weapon — probably the most important. Federal capabilities to identify and interdict illicit funding streams must be increased. “Black” funds are the Achilles’ heel of criminal organizations. Without money, criminal and terrorist capabilities are measurably diminished, and criminal kingpins deprived of their money and foreign contacts often take chances that increase the odds they will be brought to justice.

Federal and state law enforcement capabilities should be more closely integrated. The picture has improved in the past decade. Across the U.S., dozens of federally supported “fusion centers” at the state and city levels are becoming more adept at exchanging and analyzing information, providing critical law enforcement intelligence. There are still kinks in the system, but if funding and the right leadership continue to be provided, the fusion centers should become key links in effective counterterrorism and counter-criminal measures inside the U.S. and (in some cases) in coordination with Mexican and Canadian law enforcement agencies.

The FBI and DEA are “front-line” combat forces in the new warfare; both need larger budgets and more “troops.” The DEA, especially, operates an intelligence capability with foreign police forces, within and outside the U.S., and is the only law enforcement agency to do so. The DEA “vetted-officer” program trains foreign police forces in modern investigative techniques and has been key in helping friendly nations rebuild noncorrupt police forces.

The U.S. must take more advantage of our friends, especially those in Latin America, who have recent experience dealing with the fusion of criminals and terrorist organizations. Colombia, though still laboring to rebuild its society after standing on the brink of disaster just a decade ago, is becoming a prototype of how states can defeat TOCs and rebuild themselves as modern countries. The U.S. should do more to leverage its ties to that nation and encourage a true partnership with Colombia, Brazil and others in the region. A succession of struggling governments in Central America either need U.S. assistance or will in the near future. U.S. funding and know-how can materially assist those countries and in the process help ourselves as well. Where appropriate, an arrangement of small, mutually agreed joint bases might be useful for multinational law enforcement or training missions. Building strong regional partnerships will be useful not only in the present Venezuela-Iran contretemps, but in the broader regional view for the post-Chavez era.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Criminal states and their unsavory allies can be eventually defeated by the rule of law. Unlike utopian communism or religious extremism, criminals, whether cloaked in the powers of the state or the murderous struggles among the TOCs, are not loved by ordinary citizens who just want to raise their children and live in security. Defeating criminal and terrorist networks ultimately means bringing the leveling influence of law, fairly and universally applied, to regions now dominated by the strong and the ruthless. Where that approach has been tried, as in Colombia, slow but steady progress toward civil order has been possible. This is key to the U.S. long-term strategy with its friends.

For the U.S., the publication of the “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” realignment of some special operations forces to support training and equipping of allied security forces, and increased cooperation within government law enforcement agencies (including state and local police) is a start. It must be followed — and soon — by actions that put muscle on regional strategies to intercept and defeat the alliance of criminal cartels and criminal governments that has become a threat to the U.S. and a danger to American citizens. AFJ

ROBERT KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman and an AFJ contributing editor.