Powerful cartels have made a fortune in the drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, rogue dictators and Islamic terrorist groups are following their example.
Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez differ in many ways, but they share a common enemy -- the United States. And according to U.S. officials, drugs help connect and fund the dangerous networks.
Trans-Atlantic Drug Trade
West Africa is the center of their interests in the multi-billion dollar business. The region has become a transit point for cocaine bound for Europe.
Al Qaeda and Hezbollah often provide security for the drugs after they arrive in Africa. But the illegal cargo originates in the Western Hemisphere.
Former State Department official Roger Noriega told CBN News that Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is well aware that drug shipments are flowing from his territory. Noriega was the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States under former President George W. Bush.
"Virtually every flight that goes to West Africa today that is bearing cocaine or other drugs, is coming from Venezuela," he said.
"We have explicit evidence, and our government has sanctioned Venezuelan officials who have been involved in drug trafficking," Noriega continued. "So we know that the regime is complicit for years, and that Chavez has to have knowledge and approve of this kind of trafficking."
"This is a guy who claims to know every time a U.S. Coast Guard cutter comes close to his country or flies close to his territory," he added. "How can he claim to not be aware of 737s full of cocaine loading up in western Venezuela? He has to know about this kind of trafficking because it is so substantial."
Noriega also told CBN News that Chavez has longstanding ties to Colombian drug traffickers.
"It's well established that even before he was president he had ties to the guerillas and these narco-traffickers," he said. "And he has basically made Venezuelan territory readily available to them to transit cocaine and other drugs."
Recent reports from both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department revealed Venezuela has become a major trafficker to Europe and elsewhere.
"And it is not only going to West Africa," Noriega said. "It is going up through the Caribbean and through the central American peninsula on its way to the United States. Chavez's complicity in drug trafficking is a cheap way for him to wage asymmetrical warfare against his toughest opponents, including the United States."
An African government official with knowledge of the trans-Atlantic drug trade told CBN News thousands of drug shipments depart each year from northeastern Venezuela en route to West Africa. Some arrive through clandestine flights and others by fishing vessels.
Once they arrive in West Africa, the drugs are transported northward to their final destination of Europe -- where demand for cocaine is skyrocketing.
"West Africa is the logical place in which they can bring their drugs to, break them up and then bring them into Europe," said Rudy Atallah, a former Africa counter-terrorism director for the U.S. Department of Defense and currently the CEO of White Mountain Research.
Atallah told CBN News that once the drugs arrive in Africa, Islamic terrorist groups are often waiting in the wings.
"Al Qaeda basically charges for the passage of the drugs through their territory," he explained.
Learning from Hezbollah
That territory is commonly known as the Islamic Maghreb, strectching from Morocco to Libya, down to Mali. The area is also home to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.
"There's a synergy between the drug dealers and AQIM," Atallah said. "Now, AQIM does not use the drugs. AQIM does not believe in the use of the drugs. But, it's a way to make money."
Due to a global crackdown on its funding sources, al Qaeda has increasingly turned to drugs to finance its operations.
Three al Qaeda agents from North Africa recently pleaded guilty to drug smuggling and terrorism charges in a U.S. federal court. They admitted to working with Colombian drug traffickers.
"That access to money gives al Qaeda capabilities in the future to attack soft targets in Africa," Atallah said. "And the soft targets could be U.S. embassies, Israeli embassies, French, U.K. embassies -- all open targets in Africa. Also, targets in Europe."
Al Qaeda is following the example of its fellow Islamic terror group Hezbollah, which has used drug money to fund operations for years.
"Hezbollah spread all across west Africa, starting from Senegal," Atallah said. "They have a vast array of connections with the drug dealers. And so, it's a natural flow where you have facilitations by Hezbollah in Africa to move drugs coming from Latin America to west Africa and up into Europe."
The drug trade is just one of many revenue streams for Hezbollah in Africa.
"Hezbollah is involved in the diamond trade, they're involved in gold, they're involved in every smuggling business you can get your hands on," Atallah added. "All the money that Hezbollah makes always goes to Lebanon, to southern Lebanon, to support war against Israel, to support their agenda."
U.S. Turning a Blind Eye?
Noriega said ultimately, the nexus between drugs and terrorism originates in the West, and U.S. officials must be more proactive in fighting it.
"First and foremost, this administration and frankly towards the end of the Bush administration, their policy toward Venezuela was to ignore it," Noriega explained. "And quite frankly, inaction, inattention, has been provocative."
CBN News contacted the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment on this story, and was directed to a summary paper on the embassy's Web site.
"The United States is politicizing the fight against drugs... [and] disqualifying the notable efforts and results produced by Venezuela on the issue," the document stated.
It added that drug seizures in Venezuela have "increased by 40 percent" since the country stopped working with the American Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005.
Venezuela deported two drug trafficking suspects to the U.S. last month, but American officials feel more cooperation is needed.
Sanctions against Venezuela over its drug smuggling complicity were considered under President George W. Bush, but the Obama administration seems reluctant to go in that direction.
*Originally broadcast Oct. 26, 2010.