The Atlantic

When Terrorists and Criminals Govern Better Than Governments

If people can’t get the leadership they crave from the state, they’ll find somebody else to do the job.
Source: Hussein Malla / AP

The Taliban claims to adhere to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, but that didn’t stop them from learning to love the poppy. The Islamic State developed an unforgiving set of laws to govern its caliphate, even as it engaged in widespread smuggling of antiquities and the synthetic drug Captagon. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) were once puritanically anti-drugs but turned wholeheartedly to supporting the cocaine economy following their Eighth Party Congress in 1982. This isn’t necessarily surprising. Despite initial protestations, militant groups often engage in criminal operations—drugs, trafficking, and smuggling—to fund their activities.

But crime is not their primary calling—they also seek to govern. These groups may be evil but they can also be rational, calculating, and sometimes surprisingly effective, outperforming existing governments. Yet this fundamental point is often lost on policymakers.

The Trump administration has made a lot of noise about defeating groups like the Islamic State, but it has said little about how to prevent them from reemerging in the future. In fairness, President Trump is only building on the “counterterrorism first” policy of his predecessor, President Obama. And the Trump administration’s hard line on illegal drugs coming from Mexico—setting aside the issue of the border wall—has echoes in that of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. But what if the

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