As select parts of North and West Africa continue to descend into lawlessness, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is finding it easier to expand its area of influence, raise funds to support its operations, and build partnerships with local groups of indigenous rebels and radical Islamists. Nonetheless, whereas the global Al Qaeda network relies heavily on the personalities and strategic minds of its leaders, AQIM does not have as many well-known personalities, and so it must rely on financial incentives to attract new recruits and expand into new territories.
Further, as Al Qaeda’s central command continues to suffer losses in northwestern Pakistan, its regional affiliates have had to become more self-sufficient in terms of both funding and planning. Nor can AQIM rely on donations from wealthy patrons and so it is depends on what western journalists and officials have dubbed “gangster jihadism”: a mix of kidnappings for ransom (KFR), human trafficking, and drug running in the largely ungovernable areas of southern North Africa and the Sahel.
Analysts estimate that AQIM spends around $2 million each month on weapons, vehicles, and payoffs to families whose children join local katibas, or combat branches. The United Nations has reported that the network pays families in northern Mali around $600 per child soldier, followed by monthly payments of $400 if the child remains engaged in active combat. Money for these transactions comes from both high-profile kidnappings of western diplomats and tourists and trafficking of narcotics – increasingly Latin American cocaine – into Europe.
Kidnapping: Still AQIM’s primary source of revenue
According to some estimates, AQIM has profited almost $90 million in ransom money from 20 kidnappings since 2003. Individual ransoms can earn the network an average of $3 million, while Italy and Spain allegedly paid $19.4 million for the release of three humanitarian aid workers kidnapped from the Saharawi refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, in 2011. From 2003 to 2007, AQIM averaged approximately one KFR per year, but the rate has increased to three to five since 2007. Furthermore, since 2007, all of the victims – while not originally taken from Mali – have wound up in northern Mali, which is increasingly becoming solidified as AQIM’s base of operations. Nonetheless, increasing insecurity in Mali has also led to a decrease in travel by both tourists and officials to the country, so AQIM affiliates are being forced to focus on additional sources of revenue, particularly narcotics trafficking.
The Drug Trade: Latin America’s inroads into North and West Africa
While the U.S. is the main destination of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin from Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and other South and Central American countries, Europe follows in a not-too-distant second. Before 9/11 and terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, Latin American cartels shipped their product directly to European ports and airports, but with increases in Europe’s security measures, dealers had to find new routes.
Meanwhile, North and West Africa experienced a boom in the smuggling of cigarettes, subsidized gas, and illegal migrants. As smugglers built alliances with military leaders, customs officials, and politicians, informal networks replaced traditional trade routes and import controls, creating a culture of complicity among those responsible for combating trafficking. Producers and distributors from Latin America have capitalized on these networks, illegally transporting their product by air and sea to West African states, notably Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Nigeria. Narcotics are then transported through Nigeria, Mali, and the Western Sahara – currently under Moroccan control – into the North African countries of Algeria, Libya, and Morocco, from where they are smuggled into Europe. Today, about 13 percent of the 217 tons of cocaine that travel from South America to Europe pass through West Africa, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
The full extent of the growing links between jihadists and Latin American cartels became evident when military officials located a burned Boeing 727 in the middle of the desert in Mali in 2009. The plane had been loaded with cocaine and other contraband in Venezuela, flown across the Atlantic, crash landed in the desert, and burned to eliminate the evidence. The trend has been increasing over the past decade. Since the April 2012 military coup, reports of drug smuggling into Guinea-Bissau have grown substantially. For example, in the four months immediately following the coup, UN officials documented more than 20 landings of twin-engine planes with modified gas tanks that were suspected drug flights from Latin America.
While no local or western intelligence agency has yet linked AQIM to the organization of the trans-Atlantic drug trade, there has been considerable evidence that the jihadists are profiting by charging smugglers a fee for safe passage through lands under their control, particularly northern Mali. A group of Mauritanian traffickers recently detained by Algerian security forces reported that a convoy of hashish – another drug transported through the region – would have to pay up to $50,000 to pass through AQIM-controlled territory. While such payments are much less than profits made from KFRs, they represent a more consistent source of income as the drug trade grows in the region.
At the same time, it is clear that some of AQIM’s more conservative leadership does not condone support of the drug trade as an acceptable means of fundraising. For example, according to Malian officials, Mokhtar Belmokhtar – one of the top AQIM’s commanders in northern Mali, and a particularly influential figurehead in the local network – was relieved of his position in October 2012. Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM’s supreme leader, allegedly took issue with Belmokhtar’s participation in the drug trade, which runs counter to the jihadists’ emphasis on abstinence from both alcohol and tobacco. In addition, Belmokhtar had been becoming increasingly roguish with his katiba, frustrating Droukdel and his colleagues.
Such divisions in AQIM may at first seem encouraging to outside observers, but a more divided network also makes it harder to eliminate. As the lines between Islamists, nationalists, drug runners, and opportunists become more blurred, it will be more difficult to target specific groups and individuals.
Recommendations: Reestablish the UMA
The U.S. government – particularly the Department of State and the Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) – has acknowledged the security risks posed by the growth in the trans-Atlantic drug trade, as well as its links to AQIM. Secretary of State Clinton has reached out to Algerian President Abdelaziz Boutefliqa to enlist greater participation by the Algerians in security missions into northern Mali to eliminate the AQIM-linked Islamists there and reestablish law and order, thus eliminating both a narcotics smuggling route and a terrorist stronghold. The D.E.A. has similarly set up new offices in West Africa to train counter-drug commandos, based on its previous strategies in South and Central America. Such hard power activities are necessary to establish immediate security, but in the long term, they will be ineffective in combating the drug trade with Latin America.
Legitimate, regional trade in the Maghreb is extremely low – intra-regional trade accounts for less than 4 percent of total trade in North Africa – as are economic opportunities for citizens. Many people who cannot find legitimate employment turn to smuggling of one form or another. For these North and West Africans, trafficking of both smuggled goods and migrants is not viewed as illegal or dangerous activity, but simply as a means to make a living. Therefore, no matter how many rule of law programs or counter-drug missions Washington and its European counterparts fund in the region, smuggling will not cease until economic opportunities improve for those driven to participate in the drug trade.
An important first step in improving the economic climate in the Maghreb and the Sahel would be to encourage improved relations between Morocco and Algeria. These two regional powerhouses have the potential to be the France and Germany of North Africa. While animosity runs deep, particularly between the two countries’ military brass, mediation by the UN, the U.S., France, or Saudi Arabia could slowly build trust between Rabat and Algiers. A repairing of relationships between the two countries could eventually lead to the restarting of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), the regional economic bloc that has been defunct for 18 years. A strengthened UMA would provide the platform for political, military, and economic cooperation that could boost regional trade, promote local development, build stronger ties with Sahelian neighbors, and combat both AQIM and drug smugglers in nearby West Africa.
While this is a long-term solution, only locally-inspired measures will eventually ensure the stability and security of the region. Any measures imposed from the outside will simply be abused by the recipient countries or will fade out as funding dries up. To fight AQIM and the narcotics smuggling that supports it, North Africa must work towards a unified regional approach based on economic integration and local development.
Timothy Kustusch is an Analyst at 361Security