Interview: John C. Thompson, Mackenzie Institute, Toronto 10/5/01

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John C. Thompson is director of the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian think-tank concerned with organized violence and political instability. While normally working on such Canada-centric issues as the ties between Tamil refugees in Canada and the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Thompson came to the attention of the drug reform movement in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, when Ottawa Citizen reporter Dan Gardner quoted him on the links between illicit drug profits and terrorism. DRCNet spoke with Thompson this week to explore those links.

Week Online: Your institute has come under attack from some corners as being "right-wing" or anti-immigrant. How do you respond to those criticisms?

John C. Thompson: We are a group that provides research and comment on anything to do with political violence and instability. In doing so, we make enemies. We have reported on the Tamil Tigers, who are busy here raising money to finance their civil war in Sri Lanka. Their supporters do not like us. Similarly, we have criticized the Mohawk Warrior Society, which is much liked by some of the radical left. So, yes, I've been called a right-winger. I've also been called a Jew-loving race traitor, so go figure.

WOL: The term "terrorism" is getting thrown around quite a bit these days. Who is a "terrorist"? Do all guerrilla armies or national liberation movements that use violence qualify as "terrorists"? What about national governments?

Thompson: Trying to use exact definitions in this area is dangerous, the boundaries are wide and mushy. The term is normally reserved for small groups that use violence for political purposes, but you also have to recognize that terror is used as an instrument of statecraft. I prefer to use the term "insurgent" instead. In the 1980s, I was sympathetic to the Contras in Nicaragua, and I would spend countless hours arguing about whether they were "freedom fighters" or "terrorists." In my book, if you commit acts of terror, you're a terrorist.

WOL: How do these armed political groups finance themselves?

Thompson: Take the Tamil Tigers -- there is nothing they don't do. They use legitimate means, such as charitable organizations to which you can donate money, voluntary donations when the bucket is passed, they sell their atrocity photos, their t-shirts, their posters. Then there's the "war tax" on merchants. And such groups can even solicit government funds for cultural groups in places like Canada, some of which money may be being diverted. Then there is the illegal side -- drugs, guns, fraud, extortion, counterfeiting. You name it, there's an insurgent group somewhere using these criminal means to finance their activities. Remember, the Chinese triads and the Italian-American Mafias started off as political groups, insurgent groups, and have devolved into merely criminal organizations.

WOL: What is the role of funds from the illicit drug trade in funding political violence?

Thompson: In the case of Osama bin Laden, although we don't know precisely his involvement in the opium and heroin trade, we do know that Afghanistan is one of the main heroin production areas in the world. I estimated that Islamic radical groups may get 25-30% of their funding from the drug trade, but that is really a finger-in-the-wind guess. In other areas, the connection is both more clear and more direct. In the Golden Triangle, another huge opium production area, both the Burmese government and opposition groups such as the United Wa Army are involved. The PKK [Kurdish liberation group] was heavily involved in hashish, from production to distribution. And Hezbollah in Lebanon was also into hash. The Kosovo Liberation Army made a bundle facilitating smuggling in and through the Balkans. Guns and drugs out, stolen cars in. In the African wars of the last decade, contraband diamonds have been the big money-maker. And in Colombia, cocaine fuels that conflict.

And that raises an interesting point. In Colombia, the FARC has for the past three years had the opportunity to try and arrange peace, but they don't seem to be interested in anything but the status quo. Eventually you compromise your ideology to stay with the money from drugs. I will mention once again the Triads and the Mafia, both of which were once flawlessly ideological revolutionary movements.

WOL: Could ending drug prohibition help decrease political violence and instability?

Thompson: I'm afraid of the social pathologies that could result from legalization, but I think so. Look at what happened with cigarettes in Canada. When the government raised taxes on them so high, they became a contraband commodity. In 1993 in Canada, taxed cigarette prices were three times those in US. Canadians went into cigarette smuggling wholesale, helped by the Mohawk Warriors [on reservations straddling the US-Canada border]. By the next year, when the government announced a cigarette tax cut, 40% of all cigarettes in Canada were illegal cigarettes. That generated something like $2.5 billion in free money, a lot of which went to the Warriors, whose hold on the reservation became almost absolute. The Warriors talked about all the good things they were doing, but their kids were smuggling across the river instead of getting real jobs. When the Canadian government revoked the cigarette taxes, that changed almost overnight.

That's what got me thinking narcotics. I don't like narcotics and I don't like the people who use them. But drying up the flow of money by regulating the trade could only help. We've watched how narcotics distribution networks work up here, and it's really free money for a lot of unsavory people. It has opened up conduits that could be used for other purposes, including terrorism. There is also a historical argument: If you look at the American Mafia, it suffered through lean times in the 1930s and 1940s, after the end of Prohibition. They never regained the influence they had during Prohibition. Under Prohibition, Al Capone ran Chicago. With all the money derived from illicit drug profits, you can finance all kinds of trouble.

WOL: Marijuana cultivation in British Columbia is creating billions of dollars in profits. What impact would ending prohibition have on the British Columbia marijuana industry?

Thompson: It would damage the British Columbia economy in general, but in would also damage the organized crime elements -- the bikers, the Asian gangs -- that have gotten involved because of all the profits. Those growers out there don't want to see pot legalized. And when it comes to legalization, I'm sure the average cartel guy is more conservative than the Republicans.

WOL: In the wake of the September 11 attacks, there has been much talk of tightening US borders with Canada and Mexico or, alternatively, of a continental security zone, the so-called "North American shield." What is your take on these proposals?

Thompson: Trying to beef up the US-Canada border would be counterproductive because so much legitimate commerce crosses that border. With the current crackdown at points of entry, auto plants in Detroit are idled because they can't get their parts from Ontario. Meanwhile, on the quiet back roads, the smuggling continues. What would be more useful would be for the US and Canada to harmonize their admission requirements, who gets visas and work permits and the like. We're lucky the whole crop of September 11 hijackers didn't come through Canada. As for the North American shield, if you include Mexico, you have a Fortress America where the roof is sound, but the basement is leaky. Maybe we should be helping the Mexicans get things under control -- there is evidence that some terror groups, such as the Basque ETA, operate there. Perhaps that is the sort of assistance the US should be providing Mexico. And as Mexico's economy picks up, you'll have to help in other ways.

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Issue #205, 10/5/01 Editorial: What Is It About Opium? | Politicians Exploiting Drug-Terror Link | Interview: John C. Thompson, Mackenzie Institute, Toronto | Drug War Budgets Unaffected by September Attacks | Wisconsin Lawmakers Seek Tougher Ecstasy Penalties, Would Make Possession a Felony | Supersnitch Scandal: Mistakes Were Made, Says DEA Chief Hutchinson -- But No One Made Them | Violence in the Chapare, Bolivia -- Two Sustain Bullet Wounds | Alert: Senate Judiciary Committee Voting on John Walters Nomination Wednesday | Other Alerts: HEA, Ecstasy Bill, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | Salvia Divinorum Defense Fund Established | Errata: Who's a Drug-Runnin' Terrorist? | The Reformer's Calendar

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