Al-Qaeda, drug traffic alliance threatens Sahel security
Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis, Siham Ali in Rabat and Fidet Mansour in Algiers contributed to this report – 08/01/10
Three men from Mali, with alleged links to a rebel group from South America, were recently arrested in Ghana and flown to the United States to face trial. Many Maghreb observers, however, are feeling repercussions from the international criminal case much closer to home.
Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré and Idriss Abelrahman are accused of conspiring to finance al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operations by transporting drugs. According to the US indictment announced on December 19th, the Malians agreed to help the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) move Europe-bound cocaine from Ghana to the North African desert.
But their South American contacts were not members of the al-Qaeda linked Colombian rebel group that uses Africa as a drug-trafficking gateway to Europe; they were US intelligence agents.
"The involvement of al-Qaeda in the drugs trade does not come as a surprise," Maghreb affairs expert Nasr El Din Ben Hadid told Magharebia. "They adopt the principle of 'the ends justify the means'."
"The fact that terrorist groups have resorted to the trafficking of drugs is an open secret," agreed Amine Kirem, an Algerian researcher on Islamic movements.
"Investigations carried out by the special services in Algeria have highlighted a very close relationship between terrorist groups and drug barons," he explained, adding that terrorists are using the illegal drug trade to buy weapons and explosives.
"During the 1990s, these groups had the money they needed to fund their activities. This is no longer the case," Kirem said.
Desperate circumstances are prompting desperate measures, according to Algerian security expert Elias Boukeraa.
"Having been beaten politically and militarily, terrorists in the Sahel are trying to bounce back by creating more armed cells within this vast region. These groups are exploiting the poor socioeconomic situation and armed conflicts in an attempt to re-establish themselves," he said.
The region must now face a "confirmed" link between terrorist groups and drug-trafficking networks, former Malian Defence Minister Soumeylou Maiga Boubey told an Algiers conference on December 28th.
"Mafia activity, the trafficking of drugs and arms and kidnappings are all methods used by these groups," he said.
"To say that the danger is far away from our borders and shirk our responsibilities is to make a huge mistake. Terrorism poses a serious threat to stability and peace in the region," the former minister added.
North Africa, the Sahel/Sahara region and the whole of West Africa are particularly affected by the problem, said Moroccan security and terrorism expert Mohammed Benhemmou.
"Over the past few years we have witnessed a change in the routes by which drugs are trafficked, from Latin America, via West Africa and across the desert towards the target markets, taking advantage of the failure of certain countries to monitor what is going on in their territory," he said.
Morocco, according to a source within the Ministry of the Interior, has long been aware of the activities of terrorist organisations and the ways by which they are financed. The government is therefore implementing anti-money laundering laws and other initiatives targeting organised crime and drug trafficking.
But terrorism cannot be defeated by one country alone, Benhemmou pointed out: "Even though the ends of drug trafficking and terrorism are not the same, since the former is done for financial gain and the latter for political, the two activities assist one another."
Even if Morocco steps up checks along its borders and inside its own territory, neighbourly relations in the region are fragile and a high degree of co-operation is required if goals are to be reached, the expert said.
To this end, Arab states are co-ordinating efforts to dry out funding resources for terror operations. Last September, the Secretariat-General of the Council of Interior Ministers endorsed a three-year plan to implement a unified Arab strategy for combating illegal drugs and the related issue of money-laundering.
Algerian expert Boukeraa proposed going even further, suggesting to Magharebia that all countries in the region should consider creating a combined army to overcome the threat. Pan-Arab initiatives against drug-related crimes and states' focus on internal security, however, are not the whole story, argued Lahcen Daoudi, an MP for Morocco's Party of Justice and Development.
"Whether we're talking about terrorism or drug trafficking, we have to look inwards to find the root causes," he said. "Why do people become terrorists or drug traffickers? We need to know the reasons underpinning it so that we can do something about them. One way of doing that is take action in schools."
Beyond discussions of regional security concerns, Maghreb counter-terrorism strategies and social projects to stem the problem at its source, some people question the sheer incongruity of terrorists who claim faith but use drug trafficking as a source of income.
"This is a crime against ethics, human rights, and religion, a crime against Islam, because the fatwa they use to justify such crimes take place under the banner of Islam," said Sami Burham, a Tunisia-based expert on Islamic groups.
"I think they justified their selling of drugs on the basis of a fatwa that permitted Muslims to sell alcohol to non-Muslims," Burham added. "Terrorists use the same logic to rob money from non-Muslims to finance jihad, because according to that fatwa, non-Muslims have no sanctity."
Drugs are also being used to lure the next generation of terrorists.
According to Salim Ahmed, an Algerian journalist who specialises in security issues, the failure of "extremist religious" arguments has spurred these groups to seek new ways of operating and recruiting new members.
"Young people no longer believe promises that they will go to heaven. It was necessary to find another way of recruiting them to commit acts of violence," Ahmed said. "Drugs are one such method."
Indeed, he said, "several suicide bombers have acted under the influence of drugs".
"People who have slit infants' throats, raped women, killed themselves or blown themselves up cannot have been in full control of their senses," he concluded.
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.