By Raby Ould Idoumou
In the wake of the Libya crisis, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has “begun to form alliances with drug traffickers and other criminal syndicates”, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council on Tuesday (February 21st).
His words were nothing new for African security officials and heads of state. Long before the revolution that toppled Moamer Kadhafi, they were seeing the fallout from the drug-terror connection.
“Such alliances have the potential to further destabilise the region and reverse hard-won democratic and peace-building achievements,” Ban told the 15-nation panel at a session dedicated to West Africa and the Sahel’s fight against transnational crime, drug-trafficking, piracy and terror.
“We have seen this toxic brew in other regions in Africa,” he said. “As West Africa remains a transit point for drug traffickers between South America and Europe, the potential for instability will continue to grow.”
Ban continued: “The warnings are there; the trends are clear.”
The most recent evidence was seen on February 2nd, when ten defendants were arraigned amid tight security measures in Mauritania’s economic capital of Nouadhibou for possession of two tonnes of drugs.
Security sources told Magharebia that the drugs were to be used for financing AQIM operations.
It is not just Mauritania.
A large Moroccan drug-trafficking network dismantled last year was linked to Colombian drug cartels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. According to the Moroccan government, al-Qaeda provided logistical support and transportation to the dozens of cocaine traffickers in the ring.
“Jihadists in North Africa consider drug dealing to be prohibited, yet nothing is preventing AQIM from benefiting from the new African routes for cocaine to diversify its financing sources,” Thierry Oberlé recently wrote in France’s Le Figaro.
The secret connection between al-Qaeda and drugs first came to light in November 2009 with the discovery of a burned-out Boeing 727 plane in a remote area in north-eastern Mali. The aircraft carried cocaine and other contraband from Venezuela.
Speaking shortly after the plane was found in the Sahara, former United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told the Security Council that the two streams of illicit drugs – heroin into Eastern Africa and cocaine into West Africa – were meeting in the Sahara, creating new trafficking routes across Chad, Niger and Mali.
“Drugs not only enrich organised crime… terrorists and anti-government forces in the Sahel extract resources from the drug trade to fund their operations, purchase equipment and pay foot soldiers,” the former UN official added. “The consequences on the neighbouring countries are inevitable.”
Up to 60 tonnes of Euro-bound cocaine is trafficked through West Africa every year, the UN drug office says.
According to African Centre for Terrorism Studies and Research (CAERT) chief Lies Boukraa, “the Sahel forms part of the routes most favoured by traffickers”.
Government officials make the same point. “One of the preferred corridors for the passage of cocaine is along a corridor located on the tip of our border with Mali and Niger, which extends for more than 1,000km in the Sahel region,” Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said last May at a Paris summit on the transatlantic drug trafficking crisis.
Money generated from illegal trafficking has allowed terrorist groups to enhance their presence in the region, improve their military capabilities and expand their activities, Ould Kablia told G-8 ministers at the Paris conference.
Other events in the Maghreb have demonstrated the nexus between AQIM and drug trafficking. In 2010, the Mauritanian army intercepted a drug shipment guarded by Salafist militants. The Mauritanian, Malian and Algerian traffickers were reportedly carting 9.5 tonnes of Indian-made hashish, weapons and ammunition when they were caught in Lemzarrab, near the Malian border. Several traffickers were killed in the clash.
Abdelmalek Sayeh, head of the Algerian National Office for Combating Drugs and Addiction, confirmed that terrorist groups are securing weapons through the drug trade. Smugglers of cannabis and cocaine have also been recruited by terrorist groups to help transport weapons.
“AQIM has close links with Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking gangs,” Sayeh said. “The money collected from drug trafficking gangs is invested in purchasing weapons to strengthen AQIM.”
“Drug traffickers are transporting cocaine with the protection of armed groups. Of the total value of the merchandise, which is estimated at 1.6 billion euros, armed groups are estimated to have earned more than 310 million euros,” the Algerian anti-drug official said.
The dependence of AQIM on drug trafficking is not a new thing.
Years ago, AQIM started to walk in the footsteps of the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq in terms of internet propaganda and enhancing relations with drug traffickers as a new source of financing.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq now depends on drug money.
“Drugs have become a source for financing for the most dangerous organisation in Iraq – al-Qaeda – which uses drugs to finance its operations and buy weapons,” Muhammad Abu Hussein wrote February 2nd in Baghdad-based website Mi62.net.
“Their religious motives, which apparently don’t exist in the case of this source [drug profits], didn’t prevent them from using it,” the Iraqi writer said.
The parent al-Qaeda organisation is also engaged in a partnership with drug traffickers. In September of 2009, two Kuwaiti terrorists from al-Qaeda confessed that their leaders were active in dealing Afghan drugs.
The two terrorists revealed how al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan were not just cultivating and selling opium, many were also abusing drugs. The former al-Qaeda members said they had been deceived: what they saw as “religious jihad” was actually just a criminal operation.
Given the precedent set by other al-Qaeda groups, it was only natural that a small organisation defecting from AQIM would choose a leader known for his relationship with drug networks.
According to Magharib.com, one of the emirs of al-Qaeda splinter group Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), is Sultan Ould Badi. Malian authorities in 2010 identified Badi as a “top drug trafficker with ties with a gang whose members were arrested in neighbouring Mauritania and suspected of trafficking drugs to Europe”.
The religious discourse used by al-Qaeda is crafted to win sympathy. The words are empty, however, proven by the fact that al-Qaeda – in rejection of its own espoused religious and moral values – interacts with drug dealers.
Beyond the hypocrisy of the criminal alliance, this relation between al-Qaeda and drug networks threatens peace and development in the Sahel. The countries must act together to sever these dangerous ties by imposing pressures on outlawed organisations.
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).