Counterfeit drugs and terrorism

How Can Counterfeit Drugs Be Useful to Terrorists?

It’s popular to imagine that counterfeit drugs are a democratizing strike against high drug prices, offering effective treatment for the needy. But counterfeiters are solely profit oriented and counterfeit drugs are dangerous. Last year, researchers at the NIH found that a third of malaria drugs around the world are fake. A large percentage of the 655,000 to 1.2 million people who die of malaria every year die while receiving ineffective treatment.[1] The International Policy Network estimates that 700,000 malaria and tuberculosis deaths each year are attributable to counterfeit medicines.[2]

And counterfeiters are organized. Organized crime so dominates the counterfeit drug trade that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is organizing transnational, cross disciplinary initiatives to overcome the “gaps in legal and regulatory frameworks” and the shortage of resources which make the fake drug trade so possible.[3]

As Dr Miri Halperin Wernli, Dr Boaz Ganor and Mollie Shields-Uehling pointed out in a March 2012 article for World Pharmaceutical Frontiers, a drug supply that can be exploited by organized crime can also be exploited by terrorists.[4]  Experts have warned that the pharmaceutical industry is vulnerable to domestic and international terrorists since the late 1990s, particularly since September 11th, and have also linked the broader counterfeit trade to funding terrorist activities.[5] A large scale threat in the United States has not yet materialized, but there are several sobering examples of terrorists using counterfeit drugs in this country.

In 1982, seven Illinois residents were killed when someone added cyanide to over the counter Tylenol. The murderer was never caught, but 30 years later the case is often characterised as domestic terrorism. [6]

In the early 1990s, several members of the Irish Republican Army established a laboratory in Florida to manufacture counterfeit Ivomec, an anti-parasite veterinary medicine manufactured by Merck. Over 700,000 livestock were treated with the ineffective drug, while profits were sent to bank accounts in Ireland. The operation was shut down when Merck discovered the counterfeit Ivomec and sued the companies that were distributing it. [7]

In 2006, the Joint Terrorist Task Force indicted a 19 person multinational criminal syndicate that was selling fake drugs to raise money for Hezbollah. The indictment charged that between 1996 and 2004, a group of individuals operating in Lebanon, Canada, China, Brazil, Paraguay and the US trafficked contraband cigarettes, counterfeit rolling papers and counterfeit Viagra, and that a portion of proceeds from the multi-million dollar operation were funneled to the Lebanese terrorist organization. [8]

Keeping the American drug supply chain intact not only protects Americans from the dangers of counterfeit drugs; it also offers extra protection from terrorist attacks and prevents terrorist organizations from using counterfeit drug sales to fund their operations.



[1] BBC News, May 21, 2012, “Third of malaria drugs ‘are fake,’”

[2] International Policy Network, “Fake drugs kill over 700,000 people every year – new report,”

[3] United National Office of Drugs and Crime, 2013, “Trafficking in Fraudulent Medicine,”

[4] World Phamaceutical Frontiers, March 2012, “Dangerous Liaisons,”

[5] Global Options, Inc, 2003, “An Analysis of Terrorist Threats to the Drug Supply,”; NBC News, August 12, 2004, “FDA: Al-Qaida Could Poison Medicines; Concern Raised as Agency Opposes Canadian Imports,”;#.UUuKrFt365M; and Interpol, July 16, 2003, “INTERPOL warns of link between counterfeiting and terrorism. Cites evidence that terrorists fund operations from proceeds,”

[6] Chicago Magazine, September 25, 2012, “Could the Long Strange Story of the Tylenol Murders Be Drawing to a Close?,”

[7] Denver Post, July 26, 1992, “Cattle-drug scam funded IRA,” via ProQuest

[8] Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare, November/December 2008, “Pigs, Drugs, and Terrorists,”/2008/11/pigs-drugs-and-terrorists-from-patient-safety-and-quality-healthcare.html and PR Newswire, March 29, 2006, “Nineteen Charged With Racketeering to Support Terrorist Organization,”