By Mohamed Ould Khattat and Mohamed Wedoud in Nouakchott, Siham Ali in Rabat, and Walid Ramzi and Nazim Fethi in Algiers and Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis
The turn of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to new sources of financing, including kidnapping foreigners, extorting smugglers, and dealing in drugs is raising alarm among security agencies of the greater Maghreb.
Experts and officials from a variety of countries are concerned AQIM’s operations provide a vital source of revenue for al-Qaeda’s attacks worldwide.
“The kidnappings that targeted Western nationals in the African Sahel have brought the terrorists more than 150 million euros in the last five years,” said Algerian presidential advisor Kamel Rezzag Bara. He noted that security surveillance showed that after identifying the targeted victim, the terrorists would carry out the kidnapping in most cases through highwaymen and local smugglers in return for cash.
Rezzag Bara said that the measures that have been taken so far to combat global terrorism funding “have forced the terrorist groups, foremost among which is al-Qaeda, to resort to alternative ways, especially smuggling, dealing in drugs and arms, and kidnapping for ransom”.
“This is what is actually taking place in the African Sahel region, where this line of work has become a profitable pattern of financing for the terrorist groups that are operative under al-Qaeda,” he added.
Algerian Minister for Maghreb and Arab Affairs Abdelkader Messahel revealed that 95% of the terrorist financing comes from the payment of ransoms to these groups. He also estimated that the quantity of drugs that cross the region every year at 50 tons.
Experts in Algeria also raise the question of partnerships between AQIM and drug traffickers, where the terrorists offer protection to the gangs that smuggle drugs across the desert.
Abdelmalek Sayeh, head of the Algerian National Office for Combating Drugs and Addiction, said that 240 tons of cocaine crossed through Algeria in 2008.
According to Sayeh, the phenomenon in dealing in cocaine that comes from Brazil, Peru and Colombia supports the nucleus of al-Qaeda organisation in the region. He also noted that “communication between drug dealers and terrorists has reached the Sahel region”, adding that 52 tons out of a total of 75 tons captured in the country in 2009 were in Sahel region.
Algeria kidnappings provide revenue for AQIM
The spate of terrorist-linked abductions began in 2003 when Algerian terrorist leader Abderrezak “El Para”, kidnapped more than thirty European tourists in the Algerian desert. Germany eventually agreed to pay a 5 million euro ransom.
Since then kidnapping has become a business.
Abductions of Western tourists have become a major revenue-raiser for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the north of the country, particularly in Kabylie, billionaires and business chiefs are the prime target of terrorists, who rake in hefty ransoms.
A large proportion of the “income” is used to buy weapons, which are easy to come by in West Africa.
The acting director-general of the African Centre for Terrorism Studies and Research (CAERT), Lies Boukraa, said that criminals have earned 100 million euros through ransoms and drug trafficking, giving terrorists a budget in excess of some countries in the region. However, he contends that “AQIM is militarily very beatable”.
Boukraa played down the threat posed by AQIM, but did not deny it outright. On the contrary, he called for this terrorist organisation to be annihilated.
“The AQIM threat is being exaggerated and overemphasised. Whether we’re talking about AQIM or anyone else, we must be cautious and try to distinguish between brainwashing and reality,” Boukraa claimed.
The CAERT chief believes it essential for the countries of the Sahel to combat the factors making the Sahel vulnerable, such as absent or poor governance, corruption, and poverty.
“Each country from the Sahel, this African region that stretches East to West, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and North to South from northern Nigeria and Senegal to southern Algeria and whose inhabitants do not seem to care about state borders, must commit to the fight against terrorism and realise that any attempt to go it alone would render foreign interference inevitable,” Boukraa said.
Although the Algerian government shares the view that al-Qaeda’s activity in the Sahel must be suppressed, it insists that Western countries refuse to pay terror ransoms. Algeria has succeeded in persuading the UN Security Council to pass a resolution banning the practice. Algeria also holds that since Sahel counter-terrorism is first and foremost a matter for the countries of the region, there should be no foreign intervention.
Algeria is renowned for fiercely opposing to foreign interference. Security expert Ahmed Adimi alleged that the West was only interested in the Sahel for its natural resources and other economic concerns.
Adimi believes that the biggest problems experienced by the countries in the region, and Algeria in particular, are the sheer size of the Sahel, which has an area of around 5 million square kilometres, and the poverty in these countries.
Al-Qaeda threat requires regional co-operation
The countries of the region have officially committed themselves to co-ordinating their efforts to tackle the al-Qaeda threat in the region. Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali have already set up a joint military headquarters in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria and a joint intelligence centre in Algiers.
Speaking to Magharebia, former Malian Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga said that “it is important not to confuse AQIM with al-Qaeda.” The minister also said “AQIM does exactly as they please, even though they are effectively affiliated to al-Qaeda, and since 2006 they must have raised more than 50 million dollars through various activities such as abductions and all kinds of trafficking operations.”
Ahmed Baba Deida, a journalist and former advisor to the UNESCO director-general, said the question of whether AQIM’s activities can make up for global al-Qaeda’s financial shortfall remains unanswered.
Baba Deida added that unless significant military action is taken, “the danger of instability remains the same for the sub-region”.
“Even if the Sahel countries, through some limited military action, manage to reduce the number of abductions and hence AQIM’s receipts, they will only delay the conflagration in the sub-region. The threat will remain and, like the sword of Damocles, will always hang over the peoples of the sub-region,” he added.
Mohammed Benhammou, an expert on security and terrorism, explained to Magharebia that AQIM is contributing to the larger al-Qaeda network. He noted that AQIM represents a new opportunity for al-Qaeda, since the regional network has several funding sources including drug trafficking, arms trafficking, illegal immigration and kidnappings.
“I think we must be realistic by not being excessively optimistic but at the same time not falling in the apocalyptic vision. We must say that today, al-Qaeda represents a real threat to security in the region.”
Benhammou called for developing a close cooperation on all fronts related to the war against terrorism, starting with the fight against extremist ideas and the social and economic development.
Regarding the sustainability of financing terrorist cells, the expert emphasised that the region faces an invisible enemy that has a great capacity for adapting to a changing situation.
“We are entering a new phase. We went from terrorist groups that have a significant number of activists in cells composed of fewer numbers to a form of individual terrorism,” Benhammou said.
“So far, we do not have a clear and strong strategy in this area. We must accept that regarding the support of the international community, there is a need to develop a strategy to achieve the desired objectives or at least minimise the risk of the phenomenon,” Benhammou said.
Political scientist Mohamed Darif said that since AQIM existed previously with its own structures, it does not receive its instructions directly from al-Qaeda. Rather, he said it is a relationship of general loyalty and an adoption of a Salafist ideology. He said that the link covers the recruitment and training of fighters and sending them to areas of tension, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb facilitates the mission of the mother al-Qaeda since the first obtains financial resources of all types of traffic including the abduction of Algerian nationals; an issue that is not publicised. Part of the funding comes from immigrants in Europe (Zakat) who do not consider al-Qaeda as a terrorist cell,” Darif said.
The Moroccan government called for an international mobilisation to deal with terrorists in the region who are seeking money to finance their operations. The terrorists use their knowledge of the Saharan smuggling routes and their weapons to protect the drug dealers in their movements through the Sahel-Saharan region.
A former al-Qaeda member who goes by the alias Noureddine confirmed to Magharebia in Nouakchott that the Maghreb is fertile ground for the global terrorist organisation.
“It seems that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb depend on economic resources that are not affected by the global financial crises that are shaking the world for a while now,” he said.
“Those resources al-Qaeda depends on are mainly from ransoms and taxes provided by drug traffickers – in exchange for protection – in addition to the booty, which is the capturing of enemy armies in the region.”
“Al-Qaeda relies primarily on the Maghreb region to recruit young healthy elements that are enthusiastic to rush to all kinds of adventure. And what facilitates the task is widespread unemployment, poverty and frustration among young people in the region, making them easy prey in the claws of al-Qaeda,” the former terrorist added.