Small Wars Journal

The Most Sorrowful Traffic: Defeating the Human Trafficking that Feeds Modern Conflict

The Most Sorrowful Traffic: Defeating the Human Trafficking that Feeds Modern Conflict

Kevin Duffy

That the practice of human trafficking—with its concomitants of forced labor and sexual exploitation—is alive and well in the contemporary world is a shocking fact, one that strikes at the conscience and stretches credulity (can this really still be happening in the twenty-first century?).  That said, cases involving the practice are regularly laid bare for all to see[i], making it clear that, across the globe today, it is indeed a sad reality. In fact, it is estimated that human trafficking generates over $150 billion a year globally[ii].

For the United States military to date, the primary efforts to deal with this reality have been centered around dictating and controlling the conduct of its members—that is, preventing service members from supporting illicit businesses that depend on trafficked labor (e.g. prostitution). The code of military justice forbids the patronage of prostitutes and local commands produce lists of banned businesses that are known sites of such activity. To this end, the Department of Defense has set up entities like the Combating Trafficking in Persons Program Office and has instituted required awareness training for recognizing the signs of human trafficking and responding to scenarios in which those signs are present[iii].

These are necessary and commendable measures. There is, however, another way in which U.S. security forces must address human trafficking:  as a weapon of war. With the blurring of lines between criminal and terror groups, trafficking in persons has taken on dimensions with direct implications for armed conflict and counterterror operations. Indeed, groups engaged in conflict have and continue to use this particular type of victimization as a way to fund their illicit activity, intimidate and undermine targeted groups that would otherwise resist, and crush the resolve of the communities in which they operate.  In many circumstances, groups use human trafficking to fill their ranks with new combatants, provide labor for logistical support, or enslave individuals to be “rewards” for their fighters[iv]. In other words, it is both an operational and a logistical element of the behavior of armed adversaries. The American military ignores it at its peril.

To understand why this is so, it is important to first of all accurately understand the term “human trafficking”.  The United Nations (UN) uses three elements in its definition:

The Act (What is done): Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons;

The Means (How it is done): Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim;

The Purpose (Why it is done): For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.[v]

Employing this definition, one sees that human trafficking is a highly specific term, one that does not necessarily apply to all forms of coercion or, alternately, all forms of migration or human smuggling.  These are critical distinctions to make when fashioning a military approach to dealing with the issue, as a successful strategy for stopping the practice (and thereby denying its sought benefits to those who engage in it) will involve close cooperation with international bodies, law enforcement agencies, and criminal justice regimes.

Beyond just defining the term, the UN has also elaborated on just how urgent it deems the human trafficking problem to be. The organization has taken special note of trafficking in persons within zones of armed conflict, highlighting that “trafficking in persons undermines the rule of law and contributes to other forms of transnational organized crime, which can exacerbate conflict and foster insecurity”; that it is done for the “purpose of sexual slavery, sexual exploitation, and forced labor which may contribute to the funding and sustainment of [violent, armed, extremist] groups”; that “terrorists benefit from transnational organized crime in some regions, including from the trafficking of persons”; and that “acts of sexual and gender-based violence are known to be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of certain terrorist groups”[vi].  Specific groups cited by the UN as engaging in such trafficking have in recent years included the Islamic State (ISIL—Iraq and Syria), the Lord’s Resistance Army (Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Boko Haram (Nigeria), and Al-Shabaab (Somalia).  In 2017, the organization additionally specifically cited the fact that conflict in “Libya is exacerbated by…human trafficking into, through and from the Libyan territory, which could provide support to other organized crime and terrorist networks in Libya”[vii].  

One of the most obvious and shocking examples of human trafficking is the kidnapping and coercion of children to be armed combatants.  As of 2014, for instance, the estimated level of child soldier participation in conflicts in South Sudan was over 10,000[viii].  While it is hard to know just how many children were kidnapped and forced into labor or combat by the most notorious practitioner of this horrific tactic—the Lord’s Resistance Army—some estimates have put the number at up to 100,000 as of 2016[ix].

In a case more closely involving US forces, ISIL’s operations in Iraq and Syria over the past few years were highly dependent upon kidnapping and forced labor in various forms.  The group consistently used abduction and enslavement as a tactic to both decimate non-supporters and provide perverse rewards for its members; this was most notably true in ISIL’s treatment of the Yazidi community of Sinjar in northern Iraq, whose population was subjected to widespread abduction and sexual enslavement by the terrorist group [x].  “Sabaya” was ISIL’s term for a sex slave, and individuals given that label were treated as either commodities for sale or rewards for certain members.  Never shy about its horrific tactics, the group went so far as to write about this practice in their magazine[xi]

 Elsewhere, nearly 25 million people are believed to be victims of human trafficking in East Asia and the Pacific, where recent conflicts and disasters have made populations prone to targeting[xii].  Notable recent cases in the region include the thousands of members of the Rohingya community smuggled from Myanmar into Bangladesh for various forms of servitude; the prevalence of forced labor among the fishing industries of Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand; reports of the forcible recruitment of child soldiers by Moro and communist militias in the Philippines; and the conviction of a Thai general and police officers after an investigation stemming from the discovery of mass graves for trafficking victims along the Thailand-Malaysia border[xiii].  The breadth of the cases throughout the Asia-Pacific shows just how versatile a tool human trafficking can be for groups willing to engage in it both during and after conflicts.

Closer to the U.S. border, powerful drug cartels in Mexico have likewise sought to employ human trafficking for the purposes of filling the ranks of their laborers and operatives, and for earning profits to support their violent enterprises[xiv]. Over the last ten years, there has been a notable consolidation of human trafficking operations in the country, with just a few powerful cartels—including the Sinaloa, Gulf, and Los Zetas cartels—now exercising control, where previously dozens of independent groups had been involved. One estimate is that, for sex trafficking cases alone, seventy percent of instances in the region involved drug gangs. This is an important shift in dynamics, as control of human trafficking (which, in Mexico alone, victimizes thousands annually and is estimated to generate tens of millions of dollars) gives these large and influential cartels expanded ability to facilitate their already massive drug trade operations, most notably by undermining communities, eroding state authority, and enhancing the power and fierce reputations of criminal networks[xv] [xvi].

As these examples make obvious, successfully defeating human trafficking will involve a range of interventions at the diplomatic, law enforcement, and nongovernmental/nonprofit levels.  Accountability for governments as enforced through anti-corruption programs, sanctions, and targeted development campaigns, as well as criminal justice investigations and proceedings, will be critical, as will charitable programs to protect the vulnerable and care for victims. That said, there are a host of ways in which the military can and should be involved in addressing human trafficking.  In fact, given the notable ways in which the practice overlaps with and facilitates illicit and adversarial actors in the sphere of armed conflict and terrorism (operational and logistical support, provision of combatants, funding, undermining of communities and governments, etc), military plans and programs for ending trafficking in persons are an operational imperative. 

Knowing this, the U.S. armed forces can take several definitive steps to weaken adversaries and stabilize the broader international system by preventing terrorist groups and other actors from capitalizing upon human trafficking:

Ensure military participation and representation in U.S. government task forces and working groups convened to address human trafficking; this will allow military concerns to be incorporated into the broader government approach to the problem, as well as provide the armed forces with a nuanced understanding of the issue and how to deal with interagency partners when addressing it. This participation should take on an operational focus, rather than the personnel management (teaching individuals to recognize the signs of trafficking) and contracting (taking steps to prevent giving government contracts to entities employing trafficked persons) focus that it currently has[xvii].

Establish processes and pipelines for handling categories of trafficked individuals encountered in conflict zones (e.g. child soldiers, laborers); have procedures to deliver individuals to human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations in order to be resettled and assisted (and reformed if necessary).

Create procedures for gathering information from victims regarding the operations of trafficking organizations and incorporate this into the broader intelligence picture. If a given group (for instance, ISIS) depends on trafficking for its operations, direct intelligence and operations toward predicting the when/where/how it will attempt to target individuals for abduction and enslavement and divert assets accordingly. Because of the way in which the trafficking enterprise supports the violent operations of the armed group, such targeted interdictions by U.S. forces would not be merely humanitarian in nature but would directly and negatively impact the capabilities of the adversary.

Review and update anti-human trafficking requirements for partner nations receiving various forms of U.S. military support (building partner capacity, exercise participation, foreign military sales, etc). Ensure both internal standards (that the forces do not participate in the trafficking of persons) and operational commitment (that efforts are being made to make forces capable of interdicting and interrupting trafficking networks). A required block of human trafficking instruction and/or evaluation could also be incorporated into schoolhouse programs and in-country engagement events for partner nations.

Embed law enforcement and human rights experts into units or command structures in order to assess and handle both victims and perpetrators.  These experts would perform such tasks as evidence collection for future prosecution of perpetrators and immediate care of victims and documentation of their experiences.

Across the globe over recent years, entities that have entered into armed conflict against the United States and its allies have repeatedly engaged in human trafficking to support their operations in various ways.  This fact is incontrovertible and highly consequential: trafficking in persons directly benefits America’s adversaries and harms America’s security forces. By taking measured and targeted steps, the U.S. military can deny terrorists and other hostile armed factions of a significant source of revenue, labor, and combatants, and moreover undermine those groups’ ability to erode state power, weaken communities, and develop the type of fear-based environment in which they can operate freely.  Ultimately, by defeating human trafficking operations, the U.S. and its partners can provide a level of stability and security in conflict zones that can hasten peace, and ease the reconstruction and restoration processes in war-torn areas.  Military strategies and programs for addressing human trafficking, in cooperation with interagency and international partners, then, should become a priority now and in the future, until trafficking in persons becomes a practice that adversaries simply cannot afford to undertake.

End Notes


[i] Wongsamuth, Nanchanock. “Rescued Human Trafficking Victims in Thailand Nears Record High,” Yahoo News, July 22, 2019.

[ii] Caballero-Anthony, Mely. “A Hidden Scourge,” Finance & Development, Vol. 55, No. 3, September, 2018.

[iii]Combatting Trafficking in Persons,” U.S. Department of Defense.

[iv] Binetti, Ashley. “Human Trafficking and ISIS,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, 2015.

[v]Human Trafficking,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2019.

[vi]United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement 205/25,” United Nations Security Council, December 16, 2015.

[vii] Ibid; and “United Nations Security Council Resolution,” United Nations Security Council, November 21, 2017.

[viii] Burridge, Tom. “Child Soldiers Still Being Recruited in South Sudan,” BBC, October 27, 2014.

[ix] Laing, Aislinn. “Joseph Kony’s LRA Abducts Scores of Child Soldiers in New Wave of Attacks,” The Telegraph, March 3, 2016.

[x] Binetti, Ashley. “Human Trafficking and ISIS,” Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, 2015.

[xi] Murad, Nadia. “I Was an ISIS Sex Slave. I Tell My Story Because it is the Best Weapon I Have,” The Guardian, October 6, 2018.

[xii]The Global Slavery Index 2018,” Walk Free Foundation, 2018, pp 86-87.

[xiii] Caballero-Anthony, Mely. “A Hidden Scourge,” Finance & Development, Vol. 55, No. 3, September, 2018.

[xiv] Murray, Christine. “They’re Linked: Mexican Prosecutor Sets Sights on Trafficking Gangs,” Reuters, June 5, 2019.

[xv] Davila, Ana. “Drug Cartels: Where Human Trafficking and Human Smuggling Meet Today,” Huffington Post, June 16, 2015.

[xvi] Gurney, Kyra. “Mexico Human Trafficking Web Exposes Changing Role of Cartels,” Insight Crime, July 31, 2014.

[xvii]Combatting Trafficking in Persons,” U.S. Department of Defense.

Categories: human trafficking

About the Author(s)

Commander Kevin Duffy is the United States Coast Guard Liaison to the Republic of Panama.