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Turkey’s cocaine booming is a magnet for former ISIS fighters

Updated: May 21, 2022

Maria Zuppello, Intelligence Analyst

While Spanish police detained a fishing boat carrying more than three tons of cocaine south of the Canary Islands and arrested four Turkish crew members in April, Malta Customs discovered 800 kg of cocaine inside a container en route from Colombia's Turbo port to Mersin, Turkey. These recent seizures confirmed Turkey's growing role as a cocaine distribution hub from Colombia to Europe and the Middle East. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of drugs seized in Turkey nearly quintupled between 2014 and 2020.

Turkey’s entry into the cocaine market was facilitated by a history as a major heroin route from Afghanistan to Europe, its logistical infrastructure, and trained drug trafficking operatives. Smuggling expertise will likely increase the size and profit of cocaine trafficking in Europe, likely posing a threat to the security of the Mediterranean region. As the market for cocaine will expand, the public health emergency will likely worsen, with a potential severe effect on European public health costs. Turkish traffickers will likely clash with other criminal organizations that currently dominate the Mediterranean cocaine market, including the Calabrian mafia, the Ndrangheta, and Albanian gangs. A war between drug traffickers in Europe is likely to erupt as a result, which will likely have an impact on civilians' safety through mafia-style street attacks.

A recent report from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres estimates ISIS still has between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, many hiding in Turkey. The growing Turkish cocaine market will likely attract Turkey-based former ISIS fighters as smugglers and investors. Since cocaine trafficking is more lucrative than the three drugs in which ISIS previously engaged (Captagon, Tramadol, and hashish), increased revenues will likely enable former ISIS terrorists to finance their territorial reorganization as an Islamic State. Drug proceeds will likely fund new attacks in the Middle East and Europe. Drug trafficking will likely significantly impact neighboring countries Syria and Iraq, likely increasing dangers along borders since drugs will be likely trafficked alongside guns and people. Cocaine proceeds will likely fuel Turkish police corruption, allowing many fleeing jihadists to enter Turkey undetected.

A 2021 US Treasury assessment revealed that ISIS still has as much as $100 million available in cash reserves dispersed across the region, including Turkey. The US government sanctioned several Turkish money services firms, including Al-Fay Company, for enabling the global distribution of currency on ISIS's behalf and acting as an intermediary between foreign donors and ISIS fighters. By engaging in cocaine trafficking, former ISIS members will likely increase money laundering operations inside Turkey. In Syria, Iraq, and Europe. A complex web of money services companies (MSB) and informal funds transfer systems like Hawala will likely expand to fund terrorist operations and purchase weapons. Former ISIS fighters will likely use the cocaine trade to set up front firms to launder Islamic State money gained via extortion, oil smuggling, and abduction. The group will likely grow into a financial powerhouse capable of financing a new wave of global jihadism.

The Colombian-Turkey route's notoriety stems from claims by a convicted Turkish crime boss living in exile in Dubai, who accused former Turkish ministers, such as Süleyman Soylu, of being implicated in the traffic of drugs. The mixing of politicians, criminals, and jihadists is likely to boost the cocaine trade by providing the necessary protections for the routes and the criminal and terrorist organizations. Turkey will very likely become a permissive jurisdiction with hundreds of ISIS logistical hubs for international cocaine transfer revenues, but it will also potentially harm Erdogan's leadership globally and create political turmoil in the country. Turkey's behavior toward NATO allies will likely deteriorate, while its backing of terrorist and criminal groups will likely increase.

Since Turkish drug traffickers also smuggle cocaine through the West African route, there is a considerable risk of funding Islamic extremism in Africa. These nations will likely become like sub-Saharan African countries, such as Mali, ravaged by Islamic terrorism, with severe economic consequences. Where Islamic extremism strengthens, multinational corporations are likely to leave, resulting in job losses for residents and financial harm to the community, while primary security conditions are lowered to the bare minimum.

Turkish drug traffickers exploit many ports in Latin America, including Ecuador, which does not manufacture cocaine. The 1.3 tons seized in June 2021 in Turkey's southern province of Mersin came from there. This shipment would have been the biggest ever confiscated on Turkish territory if Colombian police had not seized 4.9 tons of cocaine bound for Turkey at the national port of Buenaventura in 2020. The expanding presence of Turkish traffickers' and former ISIS fighters in South America has the potential to exacerbate Islamist radicalism in this region. The proceeds from drug trafficking will likely fund mosques, madras, and travels to extremist camps in the Middle East that poor South Americans could not afford. Drug money is likely to strengthen the relationship between South America and jihadism, with severe implications for global security. If South American cocaine becomes a regular source of jihadist funding, global terrorism will likely grow. Yet, the South American cocaine economy that impoverishes the population only to benefit criminal gangs is unlikely to be eradicated.

Turkish illicit drug trade is a complex and multifaceted issue that threatens international security and public health. To mitigate the risk of ISIS involvement in Turkish drug trafficking, European institutions should implement projects like CRIMJUST, which brought together senior investigators and prosecutors from 21 countries across the Atlantic and assisted in developing joint investigative actions that resulted in significant drug seizures. Additionally, the European and US governments should press Ankara to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude against terrorist financing and halt through targeted sanctions its permissive policies and lenient treatment of jihadist networks operating inside Turkey.


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