Politics & Policy

Iran and the Cartels

Drug routes are opportunities for terror.

Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, official Washington and its quasi-official media resonators were shocked, shocked, that Iran tried to hire the Mexican drug cartels for a hit on the Saudi ambassador to the United States, reportedly offering $1.5 million and even wiring a down-payment of $100,000.

Attorney General Eric Holder, facing subpoenas and nasty questions from Congress over his department’s dubious program of selling firearms to those same cartels, quickly credited the FBI with detecting the Iranian plot. But unnamed law enforcement officials told the Los Angeles Times that the news took them by surprise:

“Initially, our reaction was, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Prove to me this is really possible’” . . . [The Iranian military’s own] Quds Force, he added, was viewed as “the A Team,” and “the tradecraft here seemed inconsistent with the high standards that we have seen previously.”

In a series of statements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced herself equally baffled while vowing — as usual — to hold Iran fully accountable.

But the truly shocking thing is that anyone was surprised, much less shocked. These are dots that could have been connected by anyone not blinded by inattention, agency agendas, or a worldview reflecting preferences rather than facts. The basics:

1. Whether Iran’s intentions resulted from central planners or rogue elements is irrelevant. Assassinating diplomats in any country is an act of war against the host country as well as the diplomats’ home country.

2. Iran’s actions here are consistent not only with its sorry record of contravening human rights and international law, but also with its well-documented use of covert forces. The regime has constantly used such methods to extend its influence and to strike directly at lesser rivals as well as the greater Satans.

3. The Mexican drug cartels are the only group that may be more professional and lethal than the Quds Force. The cartels preside over a logistical empire extending from just south of my San Antonio home to nationwide outlets as close as your neighborhood 7-11. If you seek to do serious harm to the United States, they’re an excellent choice thanks to the scope and reach of their networks, just as Hertz and Avis make a good choice for car rentals.

In the media’s sensational coverage of this story, you may have noticed a strange connection with Texas. The expatriate Iranian national at the center of plot has ties from Corpus Christi to the Austin suburbs, where large Iranian-immigrant populations now enjoy lifestyles unimaginable under the ayatollahs. But demographic changes affect lots of other things and, several years ago, I noticed some interesting connections.

In Afghanistan, we see the closest but oddest of couplings — Taliban religious extremists providing security and protection for opium producers. Could something similar be occurring here? Despite the studied indifference of the media establishment, the Rio Grande is the front line in a deadly shooting war, with Texas Rangers and local law-enforcement authorities daily engaging the cartels. Known cartel capabilities include drug tunnels, ultra-light aircraft and, recently, even a medieval trebuchet. Automatic weapons, high-tech radios, and GPS systems are just some of the others.

That system’s main purpose is to provide security for the $14–30 billion in drugs that, according to a National Drug Intelligence Center estimate, the cartels move north to over 200 U.S. cities each year. But the growing military sophistication of cartels such as Los Zetas — they recruit from elite Mexican military units — has already attracted admiration elsewhere. In June 2009, U.S. counterterrorism officials authenticated an al-Qaeda recruiting video boasting that the drug tunnels were the best way to smuggle biological weapons: “Four pounds of anthrax in a suitcase . . . carried by a fighter through tunnels from Mexico into the U.S. are guaranteed to kill 330,000 Americans within a single hour . . . if properly spread in population centers.”

Recruiting videos are notorious for exaggerated claims. But as I documented using open-source intelligence in the January 2010 issue of the national-security journal Orbis, well-established drug routes could in fact easily transport weapons of terror. As I further noted, “the growing presence of the cartels . . . provides the [terror] networks with manpower, financial and intelligence resources dwarfing the capabilities of most local law enforcement agencies.”

There was no official response from the U.S. intelligence community, which tends to disdain open-source intelligence. But the preferred worldview of that community fully reflects administration priorities. President Obama downplayed border concerns during a May speech in El Paso. The traveling White House media kluge never mentioned the irony that his speech was delivered within earshot of the building where law-enforcement raiders uncovered an arsenal of cartel weaponry, including machine guns, grenades, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

So what does open-source intelligence have to say about those shifting demographics, in and around our borders? Quite a lot, actually. There is a growing population of Middle Eastern immigrants in key regions throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Panama, and Peru, as well as Iranian proxies in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. In April 2009, Adm. James Stavridis, then commander of our southern forces, warned that the terrorist group Hezbollah was involved in regional drug trafficking. In 2010, another DOD report warned that the Quds group was active in Latin America, possibly reflecting earlier Iranian statements that “our presence in Latin America was a very wise move.”

But what may concern you most of all was the discovery in January 2011of one of those subtle indicators (possibly even a definitive signature) that real intelligence officers live for: an Iranian suicide manual discarded in the Arizona desert near a regular route used for drug smuggling. Now if you like connecting the dots, why would you be shocked by Iranian assassination plots involving Mexican cartels? Why would you even be surprised?

— Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard is a former dean of the National War College and NBC News military analyst. A well-known author, he now writes frequently on national-security issues.


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