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Impeding Terrorism by Impeding Funding of Terrorism Through Fentanyl Sales on the Dark / Deep Web

  • Published
  • By Lieutenant Colonel Angie Cox, USAF


As a USAF Cyber Officer, I acted as the J6 (Cyber/IT lead) for the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force, CJIATF-Nexus, deployed in Afghanistan during the 2012-2013 timeframe. In this role, I was supposed to ensure the combined unit had its systems and network requirements met, but instead, I was asked to take another role as it sometimes occurs in the wild, wild west of deployments. Upon arrival, I was told my primary job would be counternarcotics targeting, which involved analyzing intelligence streams to find locations of drug processing, storage facilities, and the major players involved in these activities. CJIATF-Nexus looked for corruption, narcotics, and terrorism in the theater. Our cell worked on both narcotics and corruption, particularly focused on government officials, police, and tribal elders. A key piece to this nexus was the money; hence, we worked closely with the threat finance cell to aid in identifying our targets. I learned during this job that the dark/deep web has facilitated illegal operations and activities. Agencies may be able to impair their operations through monitoring and restricting activities. By maiming the ease and anonymity of funding transactions, it is possible to disrupt the connective tissues for funded transactions, such as logistics, sales, operations, and command and control for these operations. These steps can also help the U.S. combat the deadly epidemic of opioids, particularly, fentanyl.

A fueled nexus is a system where crimes of the politically corrupt network, narcotics trade (focusing on fentanyl), and terrorism are fueled by money, which is primarily obtained through the dark/deep web. Funding from the illegal drug trade fuels terrorism and feeds corruption in the political realm, which in turn protects the narcotics trade, which then continually feeds the fire. In Afghanistan, we mainly looked at the growing, processing, and selling of opium, morphine, and/or its final product, black tar heroin. As the processing of morphine and black tar heroin uses much of the same supplies, equipment, and methods as bombmaking, many times, our efforts would lead directly to terrorist operations. Other times, it led indirectly to terrorist operations because the drug money funded the insurgent Taliban or the terrorist group al Qaeda. Further, this money was used to bribe and corrupt political officials, which would, in effect, allow the machine to keep churning.

Based on my experiences in Afghanistan, I would like to focus on a popular drug of more severe consequence, fentanyl. Compared to our primary targets in Afghanistan, which were opium products, such as morphine and heroin, and popular drugs, such as marijuana, fentanyl is considerably more dangerous. Said to be 50-100 times more potent than morphine, the use of Fentanyl has led to a higher number of deaths.[1] Fentanyl has come to be seen as a weapon of mass destruction in the United States population due to the vast number of deaths it has caused.[2]

Dark / Deep Web

As the activities of a fueled nexus work best in environments where they can operate without fear of attribution and reprisal, the dark/deep web is most often the venue of choice. The dark web is a collection of websites on darknets, consisting of open-source network frameworks written in C and CUDA. This framework was based on the government-funded networking, ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor. The darknet, however, does not share network lists for users to find or answer queries for finding addresses, making them hidden. While these nonindexed sites may be connected to the public Internet, they may require special configurations, access, software, or equipment to access them. The dark web uses anonymous protocols, so there is no attribution for its users. Given their use for illicit activities, these sites typically employ encryption and route connections through multiple web servers. The private sites can, therefore, provide a certain level of cyber security defense to enable illegal financial transactions.

Numerous terrorist groups have used the Internet to message, recruit, and harken support, including funding worldwide, thanks to the benefits of reach, timely efficiency, anonymity, and security for donors and recipients. Even more so, the dark/deep web offers the anonymity and protection these groups desire for their illicit activities. One of the most notable terrorists performing at a high level on the internet was Tsouli, a Moroccan-born terrorist who committed cybercrimes in the early 2000s by hiding his Internet Protocol (IP) address through anonymizing software and proxy servers.[3] Terrorists have broadened their use of the Internet, which now ranges from psychological warfare and propaganda to fund-raising, recruitment, data mining, and coordination of actions. The anonymous, hidden networks of the dark web facilitate these activities, putting them out of sight of counterterrorism agencies. In particular, they provide a secretive means of communication, enabling the sharing of knowledge and instructions, posting training manuals, online recruitment, planning, and coordination of actions.[4]

Fentanyl and its derivative, Carfentanyl, present a serious threat to the United States. Although Fentanyl has been used in surgery for its quick response time and its potency since the 1960s, its illegal street use started to become a concern in the 1980s and has since expanded into a massive epidemic.[5] Having inflicted an immense amount of death and desolation on many families in the United States, some people have seen it as an intentional act of warfare against the United States. It is important to investigate who is profiting from this drug money and what that money is being used for. Carfentanyl might present the next serious threat as it is a powerful and deadly derivative of fentanyl. Given the connections between illicit drugs and armed conflict, Carfentanyl is particularly troubling as it is classified under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as a potential risk of being used as a deadly chemical weapon by terrorist organizations.[6]

This is particularly troubling given how the interaction between insurgent groups and the narcotics trade can often create motivation to continue the conflict. This can make it extremely difficult to resolve armed conflicts tied to the illicit drug trade.[7]

There are misguided views about terrorism that hinder governments from acting and gaining progress in combating terrorist activities and confuse things to a greater extent when it comes to terrorists funded by drug money and protected through corruption. Tupman finds myths about terrorism to include the myth in believing terrorism is standardized, the only thing terrorists do is fight, and that terrorist money laundering and other money laundering are the same.[8] Terrorists are not standardized. They are creative and dynamic. Beyond fighting, terrorist groups exploit, manipulate, and campaign as well. Terrorist money laundering funds go towards enhancing their operations and being their enterprise. Terrorist groups have been online for some time now, posing a huge security concern in the West. ISIS currently uses the dark web to spread news and propaganda to protect the identities of the group’s supporters and safeguard its content from hacktivists.[9]

Running a terrorist network requires funds which can come in part from narcotics sales. Al Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) profited from heroin sales that flowed through Africa. In April 2014, an Australian warship seized over a ton of heroin off the coast of Tanzania valued at $240 million, equivalent to the total seized between the years 1990 and 2009. Authorities intercepted almost 1,400 kilograms of narcotics near the east coast of Africa in the first two months of 2018, which were likely in transit to smugglers who would traffic the drugs north to Europe.[10] In addition to direct participation in the drug trade, international terrorist groups can indirectly profit from it by levying taxes on drug producers and traffickers in their areas of control. Furthermore, they can also benefit from drug trafficking’s detrimental effect on a region’s socio-economic environment, which can create conditions conducive to terrorist recruitment. There is evidence that countries with high addiction rates, economic marginalization, and turbulent relationships between residents and law enforcement agencies can contribute to the populace’s disaffection with their government, which facilitates radicalization and terrorism recruitment.[11] The territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq shows that While military operations can curtail their operations, such as the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, there has to be a long-term approach where a concerted effort targets the core sources of financing violent extremism across the globe.[12]

Given their clandestine nature, it is difficult to know exactly how much money is spent on terrorism and generated by narcotrafficking. It is estimated that Iran has spent more than $16 billion on funding various terrorist organizations in recent years[13] The global market in drug trafficking generates $426 billion and $652 billion (USD) in profit each year.[14] Americans spent between $120-$145 billion on cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine each year from 2006 to 2016, which rivals the annual amount spent on alcohol.[15] Comparatively, Americans spent nearly $800 million in 2 years on internet purchases of fentanyl from China.[16] Afghanistan's 2006 opium harvest value reached about $3.1 billion. Estimates vary, but even a tiny percentage would be more than enough to carry out terrorist acts.[17]

Not only is it difficult to track fiscal transactions thanks to the use of dark/deep websites, but many of these participants in the trifecta are protected by political leadership means. Rampant corruption in a country presents an opportunity for terrorist organizations to operate. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International, you will notice many of the countries already mentioned are rated as being more corrupt.[18] To minimize corruption, it is important for officials to be held accountable, as the risk of illegal activities needs to be higher than the benefit.

Impedances to Fentanyl Nexus

While impeding drug activity over the dark/deep net seems difficult, the U.S. Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (JCODE), a team tasked with looking for illegal drug activity on the darknet, has been making headway. In coordination with Europol, JCODE launched Operation DisrupTor, a coordinated international effort across the United States and Europe to disrupt opioid trafficking on the Darknet. During operations, the FBI Washington Field Office's Hi-Tech Opioid Task Force and U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia prevented a firebomb attack plot involving explosives, firearms, the darknet, prescription opioid trafficking, cryptocurrency, and sophisticated money laundering. In total, Operation DisrupTor led to the arrest of 179 darknet drug traffickers and criminals engaged in tens of thousands of sales of illicit goods and services and the seizure of over $6.5 million generated by narcotrafficking over sites, such as AlphaBay, Dream, WallStreet, Nightmare, Empire, White House, DeepSea, and Dark Market.[19] The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) stated that the MEMEX software could be used to better catalog deep websites.[20] MEMEX uses “memory” and “index” to uncover online patterns and relationships to help law enforcement, etc. track illegal activity.[21] In addition to mapping hidden services into an accessible large directory, agencies should work together to develop better ways of tracking down the dark web by monitoring customer data for connections to non-standard domains or social sites to find message exchanges containing new dark web domains. Once detected, agencies can use hidden service monitoring of new sites to collect data for analysis, which can potentially help predict future illegal activities and malicious actors, as well as examine marketplace activity to better profile sellers and users.[22] Deanonymizing online experience for dark deep web users will require agencies to exploit the technical limitations of these systems and their users’ mistakes.[23]

When a nexus uses the dark web, it can be difficult to attack. The implications of this new technology are not completely known, nor are the measures needed to combat the evil facilitated by it. With Fentanyl’s ability to be used as a weapon and facilitator of terrorism, the U.S. and its partners must actively look to combat their proliferation.

Lieutenant Colonel Angie Cox, USAF
Lieutenant Colonel Cox is the Commander of the 39th Communications Squadron in Incirlik, Turkey, and has a PhD in Business Administration. With over 23 years of military service, Dr. Cox has a background in computers, information systems, cybersecurity, and technology fields in both tactical and leadership roles. Her research interests include Virtual Reality, organizational studies, information systems, information technology, research methods, cyber, and communication methods.


[1.]  Marisa Crane, “Fentanyl vs. Heroin: An Opioid Comparison,” American Addition Centers, Last Modified September 9, 2022,

[2.]  Andrew R. Thomas and Robert M. Schwartz, “At-risk populations to unintentional and intentional fentanyl and fentanyl+ exposure,” Journal of Transportation Security 12, no. 3-4 (2019): 79. 

[3.]  Michael Jacobson, "Terrorist Financing and the Internet," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33, no. 4 (2010), 357-58.

[4.]  Gabriel Weimann, “Going Dark: Terrorism on the Dark Web,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 39, no. 3 (2016): 197-98.

[6] Derrick Tin, Zachary Kallenborn, Alexander Hart, Attila Hertelendy, Gregory R. Ciottone, “Opioid Attack and the Implications for Counter-Terrorism Medicine,” Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 36, no. 6 (2021): 661.

[7.]  Svante E. Cornell, "Narcotics and Armed Conflict: Interactions and Implications," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 3 (2007): 207. 

[8.]  W. A. Tupman, "Ten Myths about Terrorist Financing," Journal of Money Laundering Control 12, no. 2 (2009): 189-190.

[9.]  Tupman, “Ten Myths,” 198.

[10.]  Chris Cole, “Narcotics and Terrorist Financing: How Al Shabaab Profit from The Global Heroin Trade,” The Organization for World Peace, April 11, 2018,

[11.]  Mariya Y. Omelicheva and Lawrence Markowitz, “Does the Drug Trafficking Impact Terrorism? Afghan Opioids and Terrorist Violence in Central Asia,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42, no. 12 (2019): 1024.

[12.]  Cole, “Narcotics and Terrorist Financing.”

[13.]  Adam Kredo, “Iran Has Spent More Than $16 Billion on Terrorism in Recent Years,” The Washington Free Beacon, September 24, 2019,

[14.]  Avinash Tharoor, “Report: Global Drug Traffick Market Worth Half a Trillion Dollars,” Talking Drugs, April 21, 2017,

[15.]  “Americans’ Spending on Illicit Drugs Nears $150 Billion Annually; Appears to Rival What is Spent on Alcohol,” RAND, August 20, 2019,

[16.]  Brian Zimmerman, “Americans spent nearly $800M in 2 years on illegal fentanyl from China: 5 things to know,” Beckers Hospital Review, January 25, 2018,

[17.]  “Drug Trafficking and the Financing of Terrorism,” United Nations, Office on Drugs and Crime, November 21, 2007,

[18.] Archana Kabra, “Most Corrupt Countries in The World: 2022 Report is Out,” The Teal Mango, January 20, 2022,

[19.]  “NDTX charges alleged DarkWeb drug trafficker arrested in DOJ operation DisrupTor,” U.S. Department of Justice, September 22, 2020,

[20.]  Michael Aschmann, Louise Leenen, and J.C. Jansen van Vuuren, “The utilisation of the deep web for military counter terrorist operations,” International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security, March 2-3, 2017,

[21.] Dwane Richman, “Memex, A New Search Engine Developed By DARPA,” Medium, February 12, 2015, 

[22.]  Aschmann, Leenen, Jansen van Vurren, “Utilisation of Deep Web.”

[23.]  Chandrika Nath and Thomas Kriechbaumer, “The Darknet and Online Anonymity” Houses of Parliament (UK), Parliament Office of Science and Technology, no 488 (March 2015): 3-4,

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