By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – The convergence of crime, terrorism and insurgency and its threat to U.S. national security is a growing concern for the Defense Department, whose role in the fight began in the 1980s and continues to evolve, a senior defense official said today.
William F. Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, spoke during an irregular warfare summit sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
“The Department of Defense’s role in this effort goes back … to the 1980s,” Wechsler said, when America was flooded with vast amounts of cocaine coming from Colombia and across the Caribbean into Florida.
“This was a direct invasion of our sovereignty, of … our borders. And before the Department of Defense was asked to [intervene], this issue was only getting worse,” he added.
At the time, 75 percent of all the cocaine that came into the country came directly into Florida in small boats and planes and law enforcement could do little to prevent it, Wechsler said.
Today less than 1 percent of the nation’s illegal drugs are arriving through Florida, he said.
Part of the solution involved establishing the Interagency Task Force South, part of U.S. Southern Command, based at Naval Air Station Key West in Florida to conduct counter-drug trafficking operations and to link intelligence and operations.
“As part of that process we learned a great deal that has helped us in the current war in Afghanistan, for instance,” Wechsler said.
Since that time, he added, the problems of transnational organized crime have changed radically, driven by globalization. They operate on a worldwide scale with diversified commodities for trafficking and have changed from top-down hierarchies to network-based organizations.
“There are also a lot of new methods for doing business,” Wechsler said. “Information technology, penetration of illicit markets, infiltrating companies and capturing governments have really put [transnational crime] in a different zone than it was 15 years ago.”
In 2011, President Barack Obama issued his strategy to combat transnational organized crime. “Most importantly for the Department of Defense it declares that transnational organized crime is a national security threat,” Wechsler added.
The strategy, he said, also noted the complex and in some places opaque relationships developed among criminal organizations, terrorist groups and insurgent movements.
This means that more terrorist organizations are using criminal mechanisms to support themselves, Wechsler said, and more criminal organizations are using the tactics of terrorist organizations.
“The guys in Mexico didn’t come up by themselves with the idea of beheading someone, videotaping it and posting it on the Internet,” Wechsler said. “They watched terrorist organizations do this and thought, ‘What a great idea. We can apply this for our own purposes.’”
In the globalized world, he said, such ideas move rapidly from one group to another, even if there’s no contact between them.
Connections can now be seen between previously unrelated criminal and terrorist organizations. An example of this, Wechsler said, is last year’s alleged attempt by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to use members of Los Zetas, Mexico’s violent criminal syndicate, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Wechsler said James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, recently testified that “terrorists and insurgents will increasingly turn to crime and criminal networks for funding and logistics, in part because of U.S. and western success in attacking other sources of their funding. Criminal connections and activities of Hezbollah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb illustrate this trend.”
With the exception of Afghanistan, Wechsler said, DOD’s role in fighting this escalating threat is nearly always in support of law enforcement or partner countries.
In Afghanistan, he added, where there is a blending of crime, terrorism and insurgency on the battlefield, “we’ve really come a great long way on this.”
Wechsler said such work has required military operations, special operations, and integration with law enforcement, along with host country initiatives, and with the State and Justice departments.
“If one assumes we’re going to confront these kinds of adversaries, or other countries that we’re going to support are going to confront these adversaries, it’s a model for our military planning in the years to come,” he said.
Another Defense Department success, he said, is its support of Colombia’s decade-long fight against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, called the FARC.
“Colombia was in really dire straits [in the 1990s],” Wechsler said. “The war isn’t over but the bottom line is that the FARC is a shadow of what it was and Colombia has taken back tremendous amounts of territory.”
That country, he added, “has gone from being an exporter of insecurity throughout the region to being an exporter of security and a great partner for many of its neighbors on the lessons it’s learned and in capacity building around the world.”
Today the Defense Department is learning from these successes, “whether we support law enforcement, whether we support a host nation or whether we are directly involved in the fight ourselves,” Wechsler said.
The next steps, he added, are to build lessons learned into planning and training processes, and to “make sure we have the right mechanisms to work collaboratively with everyone in the interagency because in many if not most of these efforts, the Department of Defense isn’t in the lead, we’re in support.”