visit donate
FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
March / April 2002
Volume 55, Number 2
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat
Making Sense of Information Restrictions After September 11
The "War on Terror" and the "War on Drugs": A Comparison
Results of the FAS Member Survey
FAS Staff News

The "War on Terror" and the "War on Drugs": A Comparison

By Mark A. R. Kleiman, Peter Reuter, and Jonathan P. Caulkins

The problem of large-scale terrorism aimed at targets within the United States is new. It is much too early to judge how permanent the problem is: whether the September 11 attacks will be seen in retrospect as making a phase change in the level of domestic risk from such acts, or instead stand out like the Chicago fire or the Galveston flood, not as a precedent but as a one-time event. (To some extent, that may be determined by the adequacy of the policy response.)

The effort to prevent repetitions of the September 11th incidents has begun to be called "the war on terror." This suggests analogies to the "war on drugs," and there have been attempts to use these comparisons to draw conclusions about the appropriate shape and likely success of the anti-terrorism campaigns.

The counter-drug experience holds at least three useful lessons for policy makers:

  1. Enforcement strategies are very different: Drug dealers have customers; terrorists have supporters and victims. Drug organizations are mostly anonymous and interchangeable, thus making the removal of any one, or even any small number, of limited usefulness. Terrorist organizations appear to be highly individual and may take a long time to replace, so that the removal of even one, such as Al-Quaeda, might make a large difference to the threat faced in the United States. The largely successful campaign against the American Mafia - a campaign against a specific group of organizations, rather than against a class of activities - may provide much more insight into successful anti-terrorist policy than does the more diffuse and less successful drug enforcement effort;
  2. Border control is both necessary and limited, but is unlikely to be the key to preventing terrorism. Sealing the borders against tons of cocaine and heroin has proven impossible. Border interdiction is likely to be even less successful against explosive devices, nuclear materials, or biological weapons where the threats are measured in kilograms, or even grams. Detecting tens or hundreds of terrorists among millions of border-crossers is likely to prove no easier.
  3. Coordination problems are immense, not to be solved by merely naming a "czar." The drug czar has been able to affect federal drug policy only marginally, partly because of budgetary obstacles and Congressional fragmentation. Inducing agencies with very different missions and cultures, reporting to different levels of government, to work together will never be easy, and Cabinet rank is a poor substitute for money and authority.

Crime Control and Enforcement

Terror has victims, and sponsors, rather than consumers. Thus there is no clear analogy in the counter-terror efforts to "demand reduction" efforts as in drug control policy. Instead of reducing demand, counter-terror policy has the possibility of hardening targets, such as reinforcing cockpit doors. However, terrorist organizations, like drug dealers, are capable of adapting to control efforts mounted against them.

Drug enforcement attacks ongoing activity. Investigative targets have sold drugs many times before, they hope to continue doing so on a regular (in some cases daily) basis, and the next drug transaction typically looks a lot like the last one. Counter-terror operations seek to arrest activity before it occurs, and are constrained by the need to stop any known future action that might risk personal injury. By contrast, undercover drug investigations routinely continue while the organizations under surveillance deliver drugs to customers.

An essential contribution of undercover drug investigations is making drug market participants suspicious of strangers who claim interest in transacting drugs. The existence of undercover operations hampers all drug operations, not just those directly targeted. Even if enforcement agencies have trouble penetrating terrorist cells, aggressive efforts to do so may hamper cooperation among cells by making them suspicious of strangers.

Drug distribution networks are robust to enforcement because they are networks rather than monoliths or hierarchies. The "new" terrorist organizations are reported to have more of a network structure, so they may be more resilient than the "classical" terrorist organizations of the 70's and 80's, but they are still more vertically and horizontally integrated, and to that extent more vulnerable, than are drug distribution networks.

Dismantling one drug trafficking organization benefits others by eliminating competition for markets. Enforcement can take advantage of this, either by getting one group to inform against the other or by making intergroup (or intragroup) violence the target of investigative efforts. There is in general no comparable incentive for different terrorist organizations or cells to interfere with each other.

Among enforcement activities, counter-terror may resemble traditional organized crime enforcement more closely than it does drug enforcement. Organized crime enforcement prosecutes people for labor racketeering, gambling, prostitution, etc. It is not aimed at those illicit industries, but at a small list of organizations, each with a finite, though changing, list of members. By contrast with the standoff in the "war on drugs," organized crime enforcement campaigns in the past have been substantially successful.

Incapacitation and Replacement

There is little prospect of affecting the supply of drugs through incapacitation. There may be much more promise in the removal of a relatively small number of terrorists.

In the instance of drugs, low- and mid-level operatives have proven to be almost infinitely replaceable. By contrast with "predatory" crimes such as burglary, the incapacitation effect of imprisoning a drug dealer is close to zero. Even high-level drug dealers and entire dealing organizations have proven to be replaceable, with at most a brief supply interruption.

Whether these statements are true of terror operatives attacking targets in the United States is an open question, but it is easy to believe that they are not, especially when it comes to suicide operations. Despite its ample funding, al-Qaeda mounted no more than one successful operation every year or so. Nor is there a "demand" for terrorist acts in the sense that there is a demand for heroin, so there is no mechanism that automatically replaces terrorists as the market more or less automatically replaces drug retailers.

The requisites for a successful terrorist operation would seem to be (1) knowledge of how to create damage or ingenuity in developing new methods of doing so; (2) access to the requisite material means; (3) a supply of operatives willing to kill (and perhaps die); (4) money, or the ability to raise money and move it around internationally; (5) organization capable of putting these requisites together to actually carry out operations across borders; and (6) motivation, either intrinsic or extrinsic. The combination of these might prove hard to reproduce; if so, a terrorist group dismantled by enforcement might not be replaced.

In deterring drug dealing, the scarce resource is the ability to incarcerate, not the ability to arrest. The opposite is true of terrorism. More than a million Americans sold cocaine in the last 12 months. Locking up all of them would be extraordinarily expensive. Locking up all of the individuals in the US who are working to commit lethal terrorist attacks would, by contrast, put no strain on the prison system. The problem is catching them, not holding them.

Source Country Control and Interdiction

Offshore production locations are an important resource for cocaine and heroin production, but they are hard to shut down and easy to replace. There may be greater promise in "source-country" operations against terrorist groups.

Drug crops can potentially be grown almost anywhere, and even sincere efforts by source-country governments may be unable to prevent successful cultivation for export. The number of viable source countries for terrorism may be smaller than for drugs. Though recruiting and training terrorists does not depend on large areas or specific climates, it may need the acquiescence, perhaps even complicity, of the host government, rather than merely weakness. Fewer countries may wish to offer such protection - especially in light of recent events in Afghanistan - than are prepared to passively tolerate drug production. U.S. actions in Afghanistan also demonstrate that the respect for foreign sovereignties that constrains counter-drug actions does not limit counter-terrorist actions to anything like the same extent.

The counter-drug experience shows that border control can play a supporting role in the effort to protect the United States from terrorist threats. On the order of 300 metric tons of cocaine, and some multiple of that amount of marijuana, enter the US each year. Those quantities are a minuscule fraction of the corresponding numbers for legitimate commerce; the difficulty of interdiction rises with the size of the legitimate flows of persons and goods, because the needle of contraband shipments are hard to find in the haystack of licit commerce. The problem for terrorism control at the border is even greater, because the difficulty of detection rises as the materials get more compact. That makes toxins and infectious agents especially threatening, and intelligence-based (as opposed to random) search especially valuable.

Acceptable leakage rates are much lower for terrorism than for drugs. Stopping 90% of the drugs entering the US would be a spectacular success, but letting 10% of attempted major terrorist acts succeed would be a disaster. The ratio of potential social damage to weight or bulk is much higher for explosives and toxins, and incalculably higher for infectious agents, than it is for drugs. Tracing a shipment of drugs to the recipient often involves letting the delivery be consummated, increasing the chances that an attempted shipment will result in an arrest, rather than merely the loss of materials. The fault-intolerant climate of anti-terror efforts makes "controlled deliveries" much more troublesome for terrorist materials than they are for drug shipments. That reduces the value of border controls in identifying and arresting terrorists.

The existence of "dual-use" materials, whether fertilizer in the Oklahoma City blast or box-cutters and airliners on September 11, raises the same problem; the threat does not stand out from the background.

Money Matters

International terrorism, like drug dealing, involves moving money around, but the sums are of different orders of magnitude. The September 11 actions are estimated to have cost about half a million dollars, which is roughly nine minutes' revenues in the US cocaine market. The direction of flow is also different. Money in the drug business all moves up from the customers first to low-level dealers, then up the domestic supply chain, and eventually (in much smaller amounts) to overseas suppliers. Money flows in the terror business are more complicated, and the foot soldiers are likely to receive payment from above rather than sending dollars up the chain.

Moving drug money is like moving drugs. It is costly and, more importantly, creates enforcement vulnerability. But money laundering investigations cannot cut drug traffickers off from their source of money, which is their customer base. Since terrorism per se expends money, rather than making it, it is conceivable that controls on money movements could constrain terrorist operations.

The Coordination Problem

Both the drug problem and the terror problem involve foreign residents and foreign nationals damaging US interests by actions taken both here and abroad. This means that the US government can benefit from actions taken by foreign governments. How to balance unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral efforts is a problem in both areas; the optimal mix is not the same in the two cases.

The cross-jurisdictional challenges, substantial for drug control, are even greater for terrorism control. Terrorist organizations transcend jurisdictional boundaries more than do individual drug organizations. No one international drug organization operates in more than a handful of countries, and no domestic drug organization operates in more than a handful of cities. If al-Qaeda is viewed as one organization, not as a movement composed of separate organizations, then its geographic reach is extensive.

With some difficulty, joint federal-local task forces have been created to pool information about investigations of drug operations that span local jurisdictional boundaries. Efforts that have been made with foreign enforcement agencies have been more tentative and always involve some operational risk. Something parallel, but grander, may be needed to effectively pool counter-terror investigation information.

The coordination problem extends beyond coordinating investigative agencies. Consider the failures revealed by the September 11 operations. More than a dozen intelligence agencies failed to detect a plot to circumvent FAA security procedures that were implemented by private contractors at municipally operated airports in order to seize commercial airliners to crash into national icons, creating disasters responded to by multiple city, county, state, federal, and non-profit emergency response teams.

Even if it were true that we have failed in the "war on drugs," that would not imply the inevitable failure of the attempt to suppress terrorist actions.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is charged with coordinating the nation's counter-drug efforts, but it largely lacks the power and authority to alter the budgets or actions of the various federal agencies, let alone the state and local agencies. The drug czar is in fact not a czar. Nor is that the result of poor statutory drafting; the agencies whose activity the "drug czar" is supposed to coordinate, and the appropriations subcommittees who handle their budgets, prize their autonomy. Giving a homeland defense czar powers adequate to his mission will necessarily bring him into conflict with his cabinet peers, their key subordinates, and their Congressional supporters, and the public interest will not lie entirely on either side of those conflicts.

Proposals to combine various elements and responsibilities of the Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other agencies into a single Border Control Agency have apparently already fallen victim to the interagency political process. It is hard to judge from outside whether that result is better or worse than its alternatives.


One way to make new problems seem familiar is to seek out analogies. That is both a natural psychological response and a rational analytical strategy. The similarities between the problems of illicit drug distribution and foreign-based terrorist activity go deeper than the "war" metaphor. In each case, the problem is both important and somewhat inchoate. In each case, the problem has both domestic and transnational aspects. In each case, law enforcement is indispensable but not itself a complete solution. In each case, there is great difficulty in either accepting an ongoing high level of damage or in formulating a strategy to bring that damage down to a level that seems acceptable. In each case, the tendency to think that tougher is better may not be justified by results. In each case, there is both great need and great difficulty in coordinating efforts across governments, across levels of government, across agencies, among disciplines, and across the public, private, and civic sectors.

However, terrorism is also unlike drug distribution in vital ways: the scale of the activity to be suppressed; the structure of the organizations whose schemes we must try to foil; the motivations of their participants; the scale, structure, and direction of the related financial transactions; and the tolerance for failure. Even if it were true that we have failed in the "war on drugs" (a proposition that cannot be properly evaluated without more careful specification of standards and alternatives than is usually employed), that would not imply the inevitable failure of the attempt to suppress terrorist actions. By the same token, we cannot simply "port" successful strategies and tactics, or evaluative techniques, from drug policy to terrorism control. "As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew."

The Authors:

Peter Reuter is Professor of Public Affairs and Criminology at the University of Maryland and editor of the "Journal of Policy Analysis and Management." He was the founding co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center and is the co-author with Rob MacCoun of Drug War Heresies.

Mark Kleiman is Professor of Policy Studies at UCLA and editor of the "Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin." He and Peter Reuter are co-chairs of the FAS drug policy program.

Jonathan Caulkins is Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He won the 1999 Kershaw Award, given every two years by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management to recognize distinguished contributions to the field of public policy analysis by researchers under the age of 40.