To Fight Terror, We Must Fight Illicit Trade – And Enlist the Private Sector


The United States’ national security will be greatly enhanced by fighting illicit trade and transnational crime.


By John Negroponte, November 23, 2021


Over the past two decades, we have learned valuable lessons about the nature of our adversaries – often at great cost. While the ways that we fight terrorism and transnational criminal organizations have changed, our commitment to defeating them has not. It is imperative that we remain relentless in our pursuit to preserve our national security, and one of the best ways to do that is to hit our enemies where it hurts most – their wallets.


Consider that many of the most notorious groups in the world depend on cash flows, as would any legitimate enterprise. This includes the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and any of the other roughly 70 State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The difference, of course, is that these organizations use violence and coercion to exploit vulnerable communities to further their own interests. And they do so by way of the global illicit economy, valued at roughly $2.2 trillion per year.


Consider that many of the most notorious groups in the world depend on cash flows, as would any legitimate enterprise. This includes the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and any of the other roughly 70 State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The difference, of course, is that these organizations use violence and coercion to exploit vulnerable communities to further their own interests. And they do so by way of the global illicit economy, valued at roughly $2.2 trillion per year.


In addition to foreign terrorist organizations, the threat of domestic terror is real and must be addressed. These domestic actors are no different than their international counterparts in their intent to cause harm to the very fabric of our societies. Outside experts, executive branch agencies, and Congress are increasingly focused on the threat these organizations pose – and we are learning more every day about the financial networks that sustain them.


While every criminal enterprise and terrorist organization operates differently, none can operate without adequate funding – and all organizations are willing to use every tool available to them to exploit weaknesses in our systems and make a profit.


Half of the transnational criminal industry comes from counterfeiting, valued at roughly $1.13 trillion. Drug trafficking accounts for the next largest criminal sector, valued at $652 billion, and human trafficking is a sizable portion of this economy, too, valued at $150 billion. Not content with exploiting our communities, terrorists and criminals have demonstrated a ruthless ability and willingness to exploit the natural world for their profit as well – illegal logging ($157 billion), mining ($48 billion), fishing ($36 billion), and wildlife trade ($23 billion) account for a significant share of the economy of the underworld.


In the wake of 9/11, we took meaningful steps to act on terrorist financing. When I represented the United States at the United Nations, we took swift action to galvanize the global community around the fight against terrorism by passing a resolution that obligated all 189 member states to act quickly and resolutely to deny financing and support and safe haven to terrorists.


Still, in the ensuing 20 years, we learned that galvanizing the international community around the cause of defeating terrorism, and the act of actually doing it, were two different tasks. Just as the Taliban watched, learned, and adapted from the hills of Kandahar, Helmand, and Kunduz, we too must continue using the best tools we have available to us to fight terrorism and transnational crime.


Thankfully, we have more resources at our disposal than ever before. Our military, intelligence community and law enforcement agencies will always remain key to our fight against adversaries who would do us harm. But the source of America's innovation – the private sector – has a crucial role to play in our national security. In fact, public-private partnerships, which marry the specific expertise and know-how of the private sector with the law enforcement capabilities and resources of government, might be one of the best tools we have to undermine our adversaries' bottom line.


Indeed, our agencies already recognize the value of partnering with U.S. companies and the crucial role they can play in day-to-day operations. Just last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seized $88 million of illicit cigarettes in a single warehouse in McAllen, Texas. This year, DHS seized more than $13 million in counterfeit designer goods in Nevada. An INTERPOL operation from 2017 involving 197 police, customs, and health regulatory authorities from 123 countries seized over $51 million of illicit medicines and medical devices. By working with the private sector, from apparel to pharmaceuticals and tobacco to countless other industries, DHS and other agencies are provided the assistance and support needed to execute illicit trade-related law enforcement operations.


I recently joined law enforcement and foreign policy experts to participate at a roundtable hosted by Concordia, aimed at addressing the issue of illicit trade as a source of funding for terrorism. Each of the speakers agreed: the value of these types of partnerships cannot be overstated. They enhance our ability to use evidence-based information, actionable intelligence, and information sharing mechanisms across both the private and public sectors as strategic tools to disrupt and dismantle bad actors and threat networks in conflict zones, vulnerable markets, and even right here at home. We must continue to find innovative solutions to help public-private partnerships elevate the fight against security threats, including criminals, terrorists, and their complicit enablers.


While public-private partnerships will not end terrorism or transnational crime by themselves, they have proven their efficacy, present win-win solutions, and most of all, are sustainable in the long run. If the past two decades are any lesson, humility in our assessments of what we can and cannot achieve internationally is critical. We also learned that remediating root causes, rather than applying bandages, will save us precious resources and blood. Most of all, we know that we cannot do anything alone – our partners and allies are our most important assets. Respect for these lessons, coupled with American ingenuity right here on our soil, will provide the necessary tools to defeat our adversaries.


John D. Negroponte served as the first director of national intelligence (2005-2007) and as deputy secretary of state (2007-2009).





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