STUTTGART, Germany — They help track drug and weapons smugglers, eyeing trade routes in Europe and Africa with the aim of anticipating and preventing any collaboration with terrorist networks.
At U.S. European Command’s Joint Interagency Counter-Trafficking Center on Patch Barracks, 40 troops, working with colleagues from the U.S. Treasury Department and other agencies, lend support to allies attempting to curb the flow of drugs, weapons and terrorists in and out of Europe.
Among the efforts EUCOM is coordinating: increased border patrol training, intelligence analysis support, training of drug sniffing dogs and instruction in investigative techniques. The command also hosts meetings and conferences that focus regional attention on trafficking.
“Today, you have the convergence of trafficking organizations,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Scraba, director of EUCOM counter-trafficking efforts. “That can be individuals or networks that are attempting to move drugs, weapons, people — whether that be migrant workers or prostitutes — or transport terrorists.
“Of course most notably of concern to the international community is weapons of mass destruction,” Scraba said.
Adm. James Stavridis, EUCOM commander, said the center focuses on terrorists moving in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have provided biometrics training and equipment to select partner nations in Europe which now allows them to share and exchange information with the U.S. officials on known, or suspected illicit trafficking figures,” Stavridis said in a statement. “This includes known or suspected terrorists who have transited to and through Iraq and Afghanistan and who remain intent in spreading their harm, destruction or warped ideology.”
Military officials say they’ve witnessed a shift in trafficking trends in recent years as networks under pressure in South America look to exploit soft spots in Africa and Europe. More effective enforcement in South America and the U.S. also has forced traffickers to come up with new technology to evade detection, such as semisubmersible ships and submarines, military officials say.
“If you can put drugs in a submarine, you can just as well put a weapon of mass destruction or half a dozen terrorists,” Scraba said. .
It has been one year since EUCOM stood up its counter-trafficking center, which is part of a broader effort by Stavridis to transform how the command he has headed since 2009 does business with other arms of the U.S. government.
This “whole-of-government approach” resulted in Stavridis standing up a new interagency directorate within the command structure. He followed that up with the counter-trafficking center in 2011.
“To have decisive effect on the national security challenges that face our country and the international community, you have to have strong partnerships,” Stavridis said in his statement. “These are partnerships that combine the public sector, the private sector and security forces, whether with traditional military organizations or police organizations all working together simultaneously.”
For EUCOM, the need for better collaboration with other arms of the government is linked, in part, to concerns about the rise of trafficking networks operating across Europe and their potential to join forces with ideologically driven terror organizations.
“I’m very concerned and there are clear examples and indications of this occurring on a more frequent basis,” Stavridis said in the statement. “These trafficking networks are typically very adaptable, they utilize impressive business models to execute their criminal activities and they are not constrained by societal norms, governance or geography.”
The EUCOM counter-trafficking center in Stuttgart serves as a forward-based hub for personnel from a range of U.S. agencies, including the FBI and Department of the Treasury, Scraba said.
“These strong partnerships result in far better synchronization of an international effort, and become the centerpiece for building a network, to defeat a network,” Stavridis said.
In the past year, EUCOM’s countertrafficking center has provided translators to other divisions of the U.S. government, which have been trying to penetrate a “major criminal drug organization that is spreading its illicit activities at an accelerated pace with clear intent of establishing solid footing in the United States,” Stavridis said.
EUCOM now also assists the U.S. Treasury in its efforts to “follow the money and build cases against the kingpins who operate organized crime, drug and terrorist networks,” Stavridis said.
For military officials, a chief concern is that a network intent on transporting a weapon of mass destruction from poorly secured sites in Eastern Europe could partner with drug networks, whose expertise is in black market logistics.
Still, some experts are skeptical about such scenarios.
“Particularly since 9/11, national security officials have worried that occasional partnerships between transnational terrorists and criminals might become a fullblown ‘nexus.’ This remains unlikely,” wrote Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent paper on illicit trafficking that argued divergent motives would prevent such collaboration.
However, Scraba said, Europe’s emergence as the “new illicit trafficking intersection of the world,” is cause for concern.
The things that make Europe attractive range from high profit margins and major transportation ports to porous borders and relatively loose travel restrictions, which often don’t require the presentation of passports when crossing borders.
“All of this has the effect, not only to jeopardize stability of nation states and regions, but is a direct threat to the United States homeland,” Scraba said.