The term narcoterrorism has been around since the early 1980s, when it was used to refer to violence used by Latin American cocaine cartels to extract political concessions from their governments (although cocaine, pharmacologically speaking, is not a narcotic).
More recently, the term has been used to refer to groups who use terrorism on behalf of a political agenda (and are known as terrorist groups), who use drug trade to finance their political activities.
War on Drugs Joins War on Terrorism
The Bush administration further amplified the idea of link between terrorism and the drug trade, by melding the Global War on Terrorism with the war on drugs. Indeed, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, FBI, CIA and other intelligence professionals doing "war on drugs" related work were pulled from those positions to work in newly created "war on terror" seats.
Colombia, an important recipient of U.S. drug war aid in the Clinton administration, was the recipient of war on terror funding during the Bush administration. Military assistance, often in the form of training, was expanded, following "an August 2002 change in U.S. law has broadened the purpose of lethal assistance – for years limited to counter-narcotics – to include "counter-terrorism," according to the Center for International Policy.
A spotlight was also turned on State Department designated terrorist groups, including the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizballah, in addition to the Colombian FARC. The evidence of Al Qaeda's participation in drug trafficking is disputed, however. The 9/11 Commmission did not report drug trade as part of Al Qaeda's financing, and in the 1990s, it appears that private fundraising financed its operations. Many reports suggest that Al Qaeda has benefited from the rising poppy trade in Afghanistan in the last several years, however.
The confluence of issues is likely to continue into the Obama administration in relation to Mexico where drug related deaths and violence near the U.S. border are accelerating. Gangs of drug dealers have turned to beheading their opposition in the last two years, horrifying Mexicans. The threat of a spillover onto U.S. soil yokes the problem to homeland security issues.
The nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking is creating what Michael Braun, speaking as the DEA Chief of Operations in 2008, called "hybrids" that are "one part terrorist organization and are becoming one part global drug trafficking cartel." Braun included FARC, the Taliban, Hamas and Hizballah in his categorization.
Braun's assessment implies the need to reassess the approach to such groups, starting with a reassessment of the categories into which they fall. The completely muddled term "narcoterrorism" does not seem to be a useful category, not least because both terrorism and illegal drugs are both emotionally and ideologically overwrought topics in the United States. Both bring with them a host of ideological preconceptions that can make it difficult to assess what is happening.
Groups are placed in the "terrorist" or "drug trafficking" bin because of their primary activity, of course, but these categories are also shorthand ways of saying something about their motives. Terrorist groups, especially in the current U.S. context, are generally conflated with an ideological motive related to Islamist intentions; drug traffickers are generally understood to be motivated by profit, essentially.
Policymakers and law enforcement agencies seeking to understand the motives of violent groups engaged in drug trafficking tend to assume that motives are clear cut.
But terrorist groups may not be so coherent as is commonly assumed. Many contain members who are more like thugs than committed ideologues, and driven by a variety of motives which may themselves be inchoate. Although there is a trend in examining terrorist groups through the lens of organizational psychology and network theory, continuing to seek to understand how and why individuals participate in such groups could provide valuable information about groups that combine terrorism and drug trafficking. However, the current closed end search to understand individuals' "radicalization" would have to be opened up to a more open ended query.