HomeNewsAnalysisOf Cartels and Jihadists: Misconceptions and Provocative Suggestions

Of Cartels and Jihadists: Misconceptions and Provocative Suggestions


In this analysis of the similarities between Islamic terrorist groups and Mexican cartels, David Martínez-Amador explores how the strategy to confront the former has influenced that of the latter.

During the six-year presidency of Felipe Calderón, Mexican intelligence agencies underwent a leverage process unprecedented in Mexico-United States bilateral relations. The hope (and hope it was) was to finally build an atmosphere allowing for the sharing of data without the usual distrust. Ultimately it happened, but under the guidelines proposed by the United States. Although it was frustrating, it brought about a homogenization in the strategy against drug trafficking. And this was serious.

What do I mean?

In concrete terms, I mean the United States applied in Mexico the same methods, procedures, and tactics it uses to address the Middle East: the strategy known as “Suppression of High Value Targets.” The US military seeks to nullify the heads of terrorist organizations, similar to the strategy in Mexico of decapitating cartel leadership. By the end of Calderon’s six-year administration, this strategy resulted in 25 out of 37 criminals being “taken out of circulation” (nine killed and 16 detained). It is this strategy, originally designed for the volatile situation in the Middle East, which we should thank for the mutation of large cartels into highly volatile micro-organizations.

This article was originally published by Plaza Pública. It was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but it does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

In the design of the “suppression of high value target” strategy, the US attempted to frame the Mexican insecurity phenomenon into pre-existing parameters in which it did not fit. One of these references was the dynamic used for the al-Qaeda organization. As expected, using these references in a rigid and literal way led to the overlooking of differences that resulted in devastating effects.

The Original Model

The US military operation in Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom,” was supposed to eliminate the “visible heads” of jihadist organizations, hopefully generating such a level of systemic stress in the groups that it would be practically impossible for them to continue operating both inside and outside of Afghanistan.

Some of this was also transferred and written into the Mérida Initiative without noting — as we have pointed out — that the environment in which al-Qaeda operated was substantially different from that of the criminal environment in Mexico. Until that time, 2005, the Mexican criminal mosaic was stable and multipolar: it had clear leadership, respected routes, and territorial autonomy. On the other hand, the jihadist mosaic had always maintained a structurally hyper-competitive environment.1 The Mexican criminal organizations had never lived in a context of hyper-competitive violence. But thanks to fragmentation, the forms of drug violence entered a spiral not only of competition but also of “constant renewal.” Websites like the famous Blog del Narco were a reflection of how even the discussion of drug trafficking in Mexico came to discuss the genre “narco-snuff.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Mérida Initiative

In essence, all of this was a direct product of the intellectual frameworks used to understand new generation conflicts — characterized by the asymmetry between sides — which called for the application of military force. Anyone who has attended training seminars conducted by the US Southern Command or the US Northern Command — in which Mexico participates as an equal member — will notice this. More than a decade after the September 11 attacks, it is clear that jihadist terrorism and drug trafficking did not have similar traits.

The Scenario Changes

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino forced the word “terrorism” to appear yet again in the public discourse. What is not new this time are the solutions that are being suggested. The Obama administration has been careful not to use the term “radical Islam,” and to avoid a US invasion of Syria. There are multiple reasons for this, but it is perhaps Jeffrey Sachs who said it best when he explained the concept of BlowBack Terrorism: “The terrorism boomerang effect is a terrible, unintended result of repeated military action, covert or overt, by Europe and the United States, throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia, aimed at overthrowing governments and installing regimes amenable to Western interests.”

If the FBI and other law enforcement and national security agencies believe they will never face an enemy that is impossible to infiltrate and manipulate, I think that day has come.

Therefore, while military operations — on the ground, covert, or by the use of drones — continue, the West should be prepared to face the results of the boomerang effect.

New Models

This is where the current counter-terrorism model can learn some lessons from the experience of combating cartels, because we must recognize that what happened in San Bernardino is a brutal failure of US intelligence agencies. Although the popular conservative outcry in the United States is to close the borders with Mexico and Canada, the reality is that the terrorist attack was the result of individuals who should have easily appeared on the radar.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

If the FBI and other law enforcement and national security agencies believe they will never face an enemy that is impossible to infiltrate and manipulate, I think that day has come.

A simple example: After 2001, the intelligence unit of the New York City Police Department published a document entitled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. It aimed to lay out characteristics of the process of radicalization in the Muslim population in the United States, assuming that these are homogeneous processes and require a center of worship. This is where an error — one of many — occurred in the strategy. A more orthodox religious practice does not necessarily mean radicalization (e.g., practices such as growing a beard or changing the style of dress). On the contrary, in using the Islamic principle of “taqiyya,” entire cells of jihadists have gone unnoticed in the West because they drink alcohol, eat pork, dress in western style, and associate with non-Muslim women. Some of this applied to the September 11 Saudi hijackers.2

But unlike the cartels, in these radical Islamic groups there is a political ideology and religious conviction. And it is not easy to penetrate.

Suffice it to say that the same religious practices can also be modified. One of the perpetrators of the slaughter in San Bernardino, Syed Farook, although radicalized in his religious practice, appears to have stopped going to a mosque for nearly two years.

The previous does not make sense if one does not know that the preaching and worship of radical forms of Islam — like “tarfirismo” and “wahabismo” — can be performed in private homes, and not necessarily only in a mosque. The radicalism of young Muslims living in the Parisian “banlieue,” the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the big cities of France, has taught us this.

The behavior of these new radical jihadist groups is beginning to resemble the dynamics of the new cells of organized crime: there is no hierarchy, no clear leadership, and we talk about small cells without direct membership to the large, known organizations. More than 32 mini-cartels operate in Mexico without being directly linked to the remnants of the big cartels, although that does not mean that they do not interact. Syed Farook and his wife (the two responsible for the San Bernardino attack) were recruited directly by ISIS, did not travel to Syria to join the effort of the Islamic State, but they sympathized with their actions. ISIS, in fact, did not dismiss the advertising of or the product of terror. In both cases, the key is the outsourcing of the actors.

Mapping these cells can be incredibly difficult for any intelligence agency. At least, with regard to the case of gangs and mini-cartels, individual monitoring is not necessary because some organizational leadership remains. But this new profile of jihadist (in cases like the French with a list of 11,000 people) is not only unmanageable but constantly forces the creation of profiles based on racial prejudice.3 There will be those who think that these structures can be infiltrated in the same way that security agencies have infiltrated gangs and cartels. But unlike the cartels, in these radical Islamic groups there is a political ideology and religious conviction. And it is not easy to penetrate. If we add the fact that the new profile of a terrorist is called lone wolf, there is little you can actually do.

Celerino Castillo was a DEA agent who infiltrated various criminal groups in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico. He concluded: “Drug trafficking can never be stopped.” I think that the same must be said about Islamic terrorism.

A Way Out?

We are facing a complex spiral of violence. If at one point the possibility that states negotiate with the cartels is raised, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that at some point, during this exhausting and foolish war against terrorism, it will be necessary to negotiate with the Islamic State. The proposal may seem farfetched, but Jonathan Powell — former chief of staff during Tony Blair’s administration and former member of the negotiating team in the peace process with the Irish Republican Army, and the current special envoy of the British government in Libya — articulates it in a very interesting manner in the text, “Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating Is the Only Way to Peace.”

More than a decade after the September 11 attacks, it is clear that jihadist terrorism and drug trafficking did not have similar traits.

The current strategy is useless if we really suppose it is possible to win militarily without opening communication channels. A prolonged war again produces an occupation scenario. If it were possible to militarily humiliate ISIS, the possibility of dialogue would be opened after. Or not?

The United States has done that with the Colombian cartels, Mexicans, with the Italian mafia, and with the Mexican Mafia in California prisons. It has negotiated with Sunni tribes who initially supported the Abu Musab Zarqawi insurgency (achieving the expulsion of this insurgency from Iraqi territory). We need to remember that the Israelis themselves have negotiated with the PLO, Fatah, and Hamas. It’s not about winning but containing.

Absurd? Maybe. But as the strange Plan Yinón states,4 ISIS is an artificial creation by the United States to maintain a Middle East that is burned, fragmented, and divided. Perhaps the United States can decide that it is time to negotiate with its own creation.


[1] Some academic scholars that study Islam, like John Esposito (“Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam”), believe that the hyper-competitive nature of the jihadist organizations is actually a product of constant and recurring intervention of Western foreign policy, which serves to override ideological differences between different factions and provide a common goal. In this goal, the greater amount of terror that can be generated is welcome, even if it comes come from doctrinally different groups.

[2] In the interest of intellectual honesty, it is important to note that the principle of “taqiyya” is originally a doctrinal element that is not directed toward the act of terrorism. Historically, Shiite Muslims live between the majority Sunni (almost 90 percent of the Muslim world) and, to avoid persecution, they learned to hide some of their specific religious practices. That is why taqiyya is understood as a “deception” to save ones life. The use that members of jihadist groups use it for is illegitimate, similar to how the original principal of jihad has been distorted. For a better understanding of Islamic principles in their original sense it is worth reading John Esposito’s “Islam: The Straight Path.” Esposito is an Islamic scholar, and professor of International Relations and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

[3] In response to the text prepared by the intelligence section of the NYPD for tracking and mapping of Muslim communities, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC) created a document to make clear the mistakes committed by the authorities.

[4] There is a lot of controversy surrounding the so-called Yinon Plan. However, serious internationalists like Alfredo Jalife-Rahme have brought it to the discussion table. It is a long and complex document. You can view it here.

*This article was originally published by Plaza Pública. It was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission, but it does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

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