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From Pablo to Osama

Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation

Michael Kenney

Publication Year: 2008

From Pablo to Osama is a comparative study of Colombian drug-smuggling enterprises, terrorist networks (including al Qaeda), and the law enforcement agencies that seek to dismantle them. Drawing on a wealth of research materials, including interviews with former drug traffickers and other hard-to-reach informants, Michael Kenney explores how drug traffickers, terrorists, and government officials gather, analyze, and apply knowledge and experience. The analysis reveals that the resilience of the Colombian drug trade and Islamist extremism in wars on drugs and terrorism stems partly from the ability of illicit enterprises to change their activities in response to practical experience and technical information, store this knowledge in practices and procedures, and select and retain routines that produce satisfactory results. Traffickers and terrorists “learn,” building skills, improving practices, and becoming increasingly difficult for state authorities to eliminate. The book concludes by exploring theoretical and policy implications, suggesting that success in wars on drugs and terrorism depends less on fighting illicit networks with government intelligence and more on conquering competency traps—traps that compel policymakers to exploit militarized enforcement strategies repeatedly without questioning whether these programs are capable of producing the intended results.

Published by: Penn State University Press


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pp. vii-xi

Ten years ago, while researching this book in Colombia, I met Joaquin Buitrago, a young officer with the Colombian National Police. While it had been years since the U.S. government transformed Colombia into a central front in the war on drugs, cocaine production was increasingly dramatically. Contrary to popular misperception, the failure of Colombian and American authorities to substantially reduce, let alone...

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pp. xiii-xv

I have acquired many intellectual and personal debts while working on this book, far too many to list here (for which I beg the indulgence of friends and colleagues who find their names omitted). Numerous institutions supported my research. The National Science Foundation provided substantial support, which allowed me to carry out extensive...

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Introduction: Clandestine Actors and Competitive Adaptation

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pp. 1-24

as he fled barefoot across the Spanish-tiled rooftop. Nine years later, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials tracked their prey to a nondescript two-story house on the outskirts of Faisalabad. Again a team of commandos stormed the building, this time shooting Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda’s notorious operations director, several times as he fled across the rooftop.1...

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1. The Architecture of Drug Trafficking

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pp. 25-47

To understand how Colombian trafficking enterprises learn, we must first understand how they, and the illegal industry they coordinate, are organized. This requires dispelling a long-standing illusion about the country’s drug trade. For much of the past twenty-five years, the U.S. led war on drugs has been premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of Colombia’s...

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2. How Narcos Learn

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pp. 49-77

During the 1981 Christmas drug-smuggling season, U.S. law enforcers intercepted a suspicious airplane flying over Florida carrying more than nine hundred pounds of cocaine.1 A smuggling ring led by Max Mermelstein, one of several that provided transportation and distribution services for the Ochoa wheel network, had flown the cocaine from...

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3. How "Narcs" Learn

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pp. 79-101

It was an offer few of the computer distributors could refuse: three days of fun and sun on the beaches of Miami with all expenses paid, including travel, five-star hotel accommodations, and tickets to Comdex, a leading computer trade fair, where they would sample the latest trinkets and gadgets in information technology. There was only...

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4. Competitive Adaptation: Trafficking Networks Versus Law Enforcement Agencies

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pp. 103-133

Drug trafficking and counter drug law enforcement resemble an endless game of narcs and narcos, in which law enforcers seek to identify, apprehend, and dismantle smuggling enterprises, while traffickers aim to elude or co-opt their sovereignty-bound competitors. These spirited dynamics feature adversarial yet interdependent players. Narcos rely on...

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5. How Terrorists Learn

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pp. 135-166

Terrorism is a violent form of political action that requires knowledge of demolitions, weaponry, and clandestine operations, among other things. ‘‘No one is born with the knowledge of how to build bombs, use a pistol, conduct surveillance, or hijack airplanes,’’ explains Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of...

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6. Competitive Adaptation Counterterrorist Style

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pp. 167-202

Like narcs and narcos, terrorist networks and counterterrorism agencies engage in repeated interactions through which law enforcers attempt to identify, apprehend, and dismantle terrorist networks, while terrorists aim to elude, co-opt, and assault their state adversaries. These contests pit flat, decentralized extremist networks that operate outside...

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Conclusion: Beyond the Wars on Drugs and Terrorism

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pp. 203-227

In the summer of 1997, the DEA’S special agent-in-charge (SAC) of Colombia told me that his goal was to drive the drug trade out of Colombia into neighboring countries, where he believed trafficking networks were less sophisticated and would be easier for law enforcers to identify and dismantle.1 Ten years and several SACS later...


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pp. 229-262

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 263-280


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pp. 281-293

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271053028
E-ISBN-10: 027105302X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271029320
Print-ISBN-10: 0271029323

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 6 charts/graphs, 1 table
Publication Year: 2008