Accessibility links

Breaking News

Corruption Watch: February 13, 2003

13 February 2003, Volume 3, Number 5
A number of press reports based on interviews with officials from different national-intelligence services have recently pointed to efforts by the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization to regroup. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan managed to inflict severe damage on the group, but, despite those setbacks, the reports suggest that Al-Qaeda is recruiting new fighters -- many of them from the northern rim of Africa -- and that groups inside Pakistan are helping them infiltrate Afghanistan to take up where earlier adherents left off. The fact that key members of the leadership, including Osama bin Laden, are still alive and active point to a potentially dangerous situation in the making.

One of the factors that has recently surfaced is the persistent mention of toxic warfare and the use of such agents as ricin in a possible attack. The recent discovery of traces of ricin in England in the hands of Algerians linked to Al-Qaeda and reports from Italy and Spain of the confiscation of manuals on the use of poison during police raids on the hiding places of suspected terrorists might suggest that plans exist to use toxins for another coordinated, multi-pronged attack on high-visibility targets, possibly in Europe, causing a maximum number of casualties.

The possible choice of toxins as the weapon in a new wave of destruction is a logical one. With worldwide airport security at a high level and technology that can detect a nuclear device now in place, toxins in the hands of a small conspiratorial cell can provide them with a handyman's weapon of mass destruction.

If the new Al-Qaeda has in fact managed to bring trained Algerian fighters into its loose federation of terrorists, then the West will be faced with a new and dangerous challenge. These are trained cadres, some of whom have years of experience in the art of terror so that the only training they might need is in the preparation and dissemination of the killing agent.

Just as troubling are reports that Pakistan has been unable to prevent its own extremists from providing aid and comfort to the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For years it was an open secret that the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supplied arms and needed support to the Taliban and, through them, to Al-Qaeda. If press reports are true that Pakistan has again become a launching pad for a renewed Taliban and Al-Qaeda, then the West might be back to square one in the war against terrorism.

As for the financial requirements of this potential new offensive, many would argue that very little money is needed to release enough deadly toxin into a highly populated area to take a severe toll in human lives. The dramatic increase in the opium-poppy crop in Afghanistan last year and the harvest expected this year could bring in more than enough cash to keep the farmers, their warlord protectors, and Al-Qaeda happy.

As these signs of renewed Al-Qaeda activity became more ominous, Senator Pat Roberts (Republican-Kansas), the new chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, saw positive signs of preparedness in the West, "Our collection assets and our cooperation from foreign intelligence services and the collaboration and cooperation of our own intelligence services proved to me that we've really made progress since [11 September 2001],'' Roberts said in an interview reported by AP on 11 February. RK

Fears that Iraqi terrorist squads, armed with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons, might target the United States or U.S. facilities abroad in the event of a war with Iraq have activated surveillance of President Saddam Hussein's agents by the CIA and intelligence agencies from other countries, "The Washington Post" reported on 4 February. "We and our allies are bracing for a terrorist offensive, and we are keeping track of Iraqi intelligence officers around the world," an unidentified senior U.S. intelligence official told the newspaper.

The operation is not linked to any specific threat, the paper reported, but is based on CIA assessments of possible Iraqi responses to a war with the United States and on past behavior during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. At that time, Saddam Hussein reportedly sent teams of agents to attack U.S. embassies in Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta. Their unsuccessful plans included picking up weapons that had been left at their disposal.

According to the story in "The Washington Post": "Richard Butler, the former UN weapons inspector, was Australia's ambassador to Thailand at the time of the Persian Gulf War. 'Saddam sent a terrorist hit group to Bangkok,' he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last July. 'The existence of that group was identified by intelligence authorities, and their plan was to make an attack upon the embassies of the United States, Australia and Israel in Bangkok.' He said the Australian Embassy was targeted because Australia was part of the coalition that fought to force Iraq out of Kuwait."

As evidence of Iraqi intentions, the paper pointed out that Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told the German weekly "Der Spiegel" in late January that Iraq would send "thousands of suicide attackers" against U.S. targets outside Iraq in the event of hostilities. "We have no long-range missiles or bomber squadrons, but we will deploy thousands of suicide attackers.... These are our new weapons, and they will be used not only in Iraq."

According to "RFE/RL Iraq Report" of 27 January, Uday Hussein, the eldest son of Saddam Hussein, told members of the Iraq Journalists Association, which he heads, that the 11 September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York were nothing but a picnic for Americans in comparison with their expected losses if they commit "a major folly of committing an aggression against Iraq," according to Al-Jazeera television on 23 January.

On 4 October, the "RFE/RL Iraq Report" wrote that Shaykh Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, an Iraqi religious personage, has issued a fatwa (religious decree) urging Muslims to collectively confront U.S. tyranny and the campaign against Iraq. He issued the fatwa from al-Najaf, a Shiite holy city in Iraq.

Part of the fatwa reads: "U.S. tyranny these days is embodied by the unjust campaign against dear Iraq, the land of holy places and the cradle of heavenly messages. The United States and its supporters want to renew the crusader wars, revive their rancorous aims, and impose their control over the land of Islam and Muslims, loot their resources, and violate their dignity, holy places and sanctities. Denouncing this unjust and unjustified aggression, we call on all Muslims to unite their positions, close their ranks, and to collectively confront this malicious enemy, so that the Almighty God will support them and make the plots of the aggressors backfire against them, leaving them accursed and defeated." The fatwa is dated 10 September and was carried over Iraqi Satellite television on 30 September. On other occasions, the Iraqi leadership has distanced itself from terrorism, and some analysts believe Saddam Hussein will not resort to this type of attack on the United States or its interests abroad. As for alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, the Iraqi president denied that Iraq has any links with the terrorist network but said he would not be ashamed to admit such a tie, if it existed. "If we had a relationship with Al-Qaeda and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it," he said in a rare television interview with former British cabinet minister Tony Benn that was quoted by the "Financial Times" on 5 February. RK

The United Nations is predicting a flood of Afghan heroin in the next year after analyzing information suggesting that opium is once again being extensively sown following the failure of a cash-for-crop eradication program that was promulgated by Hamid Karzai's Transitional Administration last year. According to the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in a report released on 3 February, six Afghan provinces are defying a ban on opium planting issued by the government. The majority of heroin from Afghanistan is marketed in Europe, much of it in Great Britain. According to the "Financial Times" of 4 February, a U.K. official said, "The Afghan drugs trade is once again getting out of control, and no one can agree what needs to be done about it."

In Afghanistan from 1994-2000, opium sales brought in about $150 million per year -� or $750 per family involved in its production. By 2002, gross income had risen to $1.2 billion �- or $6,500 per family, the report said.

The drug trade in the Central Asian republics has meanwhile netted traffickers about $2.2 billion. More than three-fourths of the opium sold in Europe, and nearly all of that sold in Russia, now originates in Afghanistan, the report stated.

Data from the region show that opiate abuse is more widespread among countries neighboring Afghanistan than in Europe. There are close to 1 million chronic opiate abusers in Iran, 700,000 in Pakistan, and more than 300,000 in Central Asia. As a percentage of the population over age 15, this amounts to nearly 1 percent of the population in Pakistan and Central Asia, and 2.8 percent of the population in Iran.

Pointing to possible solutions, the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, stated at a press conference in New York on 4 February that Afghan President Karzai last year launched a poppy-eradication program together with the governors of the five main drug-producing provinces.

According to an RFE/RL report from the UN on 4 February (, Costa said his agency's latest figures show that almost 10 percent of the areas under opium cultivation have been eradicated as a result of the most recent efforts. Even with these successes, Afghanistan will still remain the largest opium-producing country in the world.

"Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organized crime?" Costa asked in the preface to the report. "Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce the ban on opium cultivation as effectively the Taliban regime did in 2000-01?" RK

With the passing of Boris Yeltsin's presidency and the election of his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, in March 2000, many in the West and some in Russia believed that the Rubicon had been crossed in the battle against organized crime in Russia. Putin was viewed as a man who is hard on crime, a former KGB agent, and a chekist, which for many meant a man dedicated to a platform of law and order. Putin's image-makers in Russia contributed to this glorified version of the new president by leaking fables of his heroic exploits while serving with the KGB in the German Democratic Republic. Putin's own statements about the need to rid Russia of crime were a welcome change from the discredited past. Coming to power on the heels of the Yeltsin administration, an administration mired in scandal and suspected of flouting the criminal code on more than one occasion, became a useful frame of reference for evaluating the new master of the Kremlin.

Coupled with the election of a new president in the United States, a president unblemished by scandal who had publicly denounced the former administration for being "soft" on crime in Russia, law-enforcement officials in the West (and in the former Soviet Union) were hopeful that significant headway would be made in rolling back the gangs of Russian criminals that had infiltrated almost every facet of transnational crime.

From contractual murder to fraud, arms smuggling to human trafficking, and financial crimes to drug running, the "Red Mafia," as American author Robert Friedman labeled it, appeared out of control. The amount of money at these groups' disposal was vast and they were not shy about using this money to purchase political protection at the highest levels. Putin, the new "tough cop" on the block, would put an end to this. Or so hoped the people responsible for law and order in the West and in Russia.

Sadly, their hopes have not materialized. After a slight lull in activity and some strategic rethinking, the gangsters came back with a vengeance. Today, in the third year of the Putin presidency, Russian organized crime arguably has an even stronger grip on the Russian economy, and its intermingling with the political structures of Russia has created a situation whereby a great many politicians are reliant upon such money for their political careers. As the Europol Report "Russian Organized Crime -- Threat Assessment" of 6 September 2001 noted: "Faced with a system of negative and even deteriorating political loyalty in Russia, Russian [organized crime] groups are presented with many opportunities both to enrich themselves and to create a platform from their criminal pursuits, for instance by recruiting politicians and therefore achieve a degree of impunity.... In the end this is a threat to Russia's transition to a stable democracy and functioning market economy."

The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan have proven to be a major factor in the current criminal situation in Russia. That conflict created a chain reaction of events, some of which were directly related to the activities of organized crime in Russia. Foremost among them was a dramatic increase in Afghan heroin smuggled through Central Asia and Russia. Some of this heroin was for Russian domestic consumption, while most of it went to users among EU countries. The military operations in Afghanistan did not have opium-poppy eradication at the top of their priority list �- their job was to destroy Al-Qaeda. The poppy growers, who had been dispossessed by the Taliban, took advantage of the situation and produced a bumper crop in 2002 of 3,500-4,000 tons of heroin, which in turn translated into huge profits for the Eurasian and Russian criminal syndicates which transported the heroin into the EU. The new Afghan government, which did not have full control in the countryside and was dependant on the West for funding to control opium production, was unable to do the same. Local warlords returned to provide protection for the growers and gather profits from the trade. Despite a heroic public-relations effort to show its commitment to ending the narcotics trade, the government of post-Taliban Afghanistan has been losing the heroin battle.

The main smuggling routes for Afghan heroin into Russia are across the border into Kazakhstan (the main avenue) and into Kyrgyzstan, where the border is patrolled by Russian troops. While the border troops' press service churns out press releases detailing the Herculean efforts of troops in catching smugglers and confiscating heroin, the truth is that only a miniscule portion of the contraband is caught. Reasons for this include the nature of the terrain and the nature of the border troops. Poorly paid, and often not paid for months on end, these troops are a target for corruption -- even a minor bribe of a few hundred dollars can insure the safe conduct of tons of heroin into Russia.

On 5 February, Interfax news agency, quoting a high-ranking Interior Ministry official, reported that the number of drug addicts in Russia has reached 3 million and is continuing to rise rapidly.

The amounts of money made by Russian organized crime in the heroin trade to the European Union and from domestic Russian sales has become staggering, and has had to be spent somewhere. New anti-money-laundering requirements put into effect after 9/11 made this more difficult, but not impossible. The trade has filled coffers for potential payments to politicians and judges and for buying up of companies operating inside Russia that can then be stripped of their assets and left to die. With so much dirty money floating around in an impoverished Russia, the end results have perhaps been highly predictable. If the central government cannot pay its police or judges, the invisible government run by organized crime groups can and often does.

The forecasts for 2003 are grim. According to a report issued by the UN on 3 February, six of the main poppy-growing provinces of Afghanistan have been sown with poppy seed, and another large crop is expected later this year if the Karzai government does not move quickly to dispose of local warlords who are protecting the farmers.

A second result of the war in Afghanistan has been the destabilization of Georgia and the rise of Chechen resistance to Moscow, as well as the unhindered rise of corruption in those Central Asian countries deemed essential to the war effort by the West. The second Chechen war has highlighted the weakness and incompetence of Russian security units, not only in Chechnya but in Moscow itself. The fact that a group of Chechen fighters could infiltrate Moscow, dressed in combat fatigues and armed with automatic weapons, and seize a theater filled with over 900 people does not speak well for Russian security forces. That they could drive a car bomb into the administrative center in Grozny, the Chechen capital, soon afterward and blow up the complex, taking the lives of 80 people, only confirmed the worst fears of most security analysts: Russian security units have proven hopelessly incompetent.

This level of incompetence cannot have gone unnoticed by criminal clans in Russia. RK


By Taras Kuzio

Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, it has become commonplace for states to denounce "terrorism" and adopt measures to deal with this new threat by "nonstate actors." Unfortunately, for many states outside the West, the 11 September terrorist attacks have become a convenient tool for stamping out separatist revolts and domestic opposition.

The struggle against "terrorism" is a convenient tool for authoritarian regimes to target their domestic opposition. These states define "terrorism" in a broad manner. In China, the definition of "terrorists" includes "underground gangs," "unstable social elements," and separatists, as well as the Falun Gong spiritual movement, for instance. Uzbekistan has also defined its all of its domestic opposition as Islamic "terrorists" in order to provide justification to arrest and imprison its members.

At the same time, Islamic extremists are not always a liability for authoritarian regimes. In Indonesia, the Islamic extremist Laskar Jihad group -- which was trained by the army's special forces (Kopassus) -- has been unleashed by authorities against Christians. Charities openly raise funds for Islamic terrorist groups in Saudi Arabia, while it has long been suspected that Al-Qaeda does not launch terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in return for financial and other support by rich Saudis.

State-organized "assassination" attempts are used to crush dissent and blacken the opposition as "radicals" or "extremists." Much new legislation in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is directed against both "terrorism" and "extremism." CIS states routinely define "extremism" as the domestic opposition. In Turkmenistan, a highly suspect assassination attempt on the country's leader, "Turkmenbashi" Saparmurat Niyazov, was used as an excuse for a clampdown against the opposition. A highly suspect "assassination" attempt also took place in Belarus against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

In Ukraine's 1999 presidential elections, Socialist leader and candidate Oleksandr Moroz was accused of organizing an assassination attempt on Progressive Socialist Party leader Nataliya Vitrenko. Incumbent Leonid Kuchma no doubt feared entering a second electoral round with Moroz; Vitrenko's Progressive Socialists have meanwhile long held close ties to the executive and arguably were used as a patsy against Moroz. Kuchma has routinely defined the opposition as "extremists" and has attempted to blacken them as "radicals" bent on the country's destabilization. Kuchma described the March 2001 anti-Kuchma riots as akin to "terrorism."

States do not want to be seen to be rewarding "terrorism." Beginning in the 1980s, Western governments, encouraged by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's hard-line stance against the Irish Republican Army, refused to negotiate any deals with "terrorists." This has remained Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance in Chechnya, despite calls by the United States for negotiations to end the conflict. Negotiations have been turned down in Nepal with Maoist guerrillas and in Tibet and Xinjiang, where China has arrested 3,000 "separatist terrorists."

In other regions of the world, separatist groups have launched campaigns of violence that have been rewarded. In Corsica, the decade-long campaign of violent separatism was ended only after the island was granted autonomy. This tactic might prove contagious. In Brittany, young radicals have also begun a violent campaign. One Breton activist admitted: "Look at the Corsicans. They are incredibly violent and they are being rewarded with the offer of autonomy."

In Kosova, the campaign of violence by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) is likely to lead to an independent Kosova. In Macedonia, the Albanian National Liberation Army, which launched a separatist struggle in early 2001, has also been rewarded with government positions and autonomy. As its leader, Ali Ahmeti, boasted, "The peace deal is good for us." In the cases of both Kosova and Macedonia, the Albanian separatist strategy was to get NATO and the United States involved in order to exert pressure on the Macedonians and Serbs.

Some states refuse to accept that they have minorities and thereby defuse separatist violence. Until recently, Turkey denied it had a Kurdish population, calling them instead "Mountain Turks." To some Israelis, the Palestinians are simply "Jordanians" and should go to Jordan if they wish to exercise Palestinian self-determination. To many Moroccans, it is unclear what the Polisario are fighting for in the Western Sahara, as Morocco itself has a large Berber population.

Separatists are now routinely defined as "terrorists." Although separatists might engage in violence, a state's response can be worse or as bad. In Indonesia, pro-Jakarta paramilitary groups were trained by the armed forces and used against East Timorese separatists, where they committed crimes against humanity. Indonesia has only labeled as "terrorists" separatist groups, such as the Free Aceh Movement and the East Timorese, not its own pro-Indonesian paramilitaries. In December, 17 members of the radical Ukrainian National Assembly were sentenced for instigating riots in March 2001 in Kyiv. However, many observers allege that a rival right-wing group -- the S. Bandera Sports-Patriotic Association Tryzub, which they claim is controlled by the Ukrainian Security Service and used to stage provocations to embarrass the opposition -- organized the riots.

11 September has allowed Russia to justify its hard-line approach in Chechnya, where human rights groups estimate there have been 80,000 deaths (compared to 70,000 in Kashmir). The scale of the atrocities committed in Chechnya range from summary executions to "disappearances," mass graves, looting, rape, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.

Not all separatists are defined as "terrorists." Depending on geopolitics, they might be perceived as "freedom fighters." The United States has backed China's effort to define its Muslim separatists in China's Xinjiang province as "terrorists." On the other hand, the United States and NATO have been reluctant to label Albanian groups in Kosova or Macedonia in such a manner. Albanian groups are called "armed combatants."

Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf has a long record of arming, training, and supporting pro-Pakistani separatist groups in India-controlled Kashmir. A year ago, Musharraf urged before the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Nepal that "a distinction be maintained between acts of legitimate resistance and freedom struggles, on the one hand, and acts of terrorism on the other." This was a clear reference to Kashmir, where most Pakistanis believe "freedom fighters" struggle against Indian rule. To the Indians though, they are simply "terrorists."

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.