World Defense Review


Published 28 Jan 10

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Emerging West African Terror-Drug Nexus Poses Major Security Threat

Over the course of the last month, the foiled attempt by would-be "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger flight on Christmas Day has underscored the dangers of ignoring threats from Africa to the security of the United States, even as the Obama administration's handling of the case has raised questions of its own preparedness to grapple with the reality of the war against Islamist terrorism—so much so that this past weekend a Washington Post editorial excoriated the decision to read the Nigerian his rights as "myopic, irresponsible and potentially dangerous," characterizing it as resulting "not from a deliberative process but as a knee-jerk default to a crime-and-punishment model." Largely ignored in the debate, however, has been the nearly simultaneous emergence of clear evidence of a potentially even more dangerous threat emanating from the same West African region: the alliance between terrorists and drug traffickers.

Exactly one week before the attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the U.S. Attorney for the South District of New York charged three men from the West African country of Mali—Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré, and Idriss Abelrahman—with conspiracy to commit acts of narco-terrorism and conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. According to the complaint, unsealed on December 18, 2009, the trio agreed to transport cocaine through West and North Africa with the intent of supporting no fewer than three groups formally designated by the U.S. State Department as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" (FTOs): al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The case marks the first time that associates of al-Qaeda and its franchise in the Maghreb/Sahel regions had been charged with narco-terrorism offenses in an American court.

Readers of this column may recall that in a piece last May analyzing trends with AQIM, specifically the activities of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a.k.a. Khaled Abou al-Abbas, a.k.a. Laâouar ("one-eyed"), who had emerged not only as the leader of the AQIM's operations in the Sahel, but also its most effective field commander, I warned:

These developments suggest that the Saharan/Sahelian brigade of AQIM may be succeeding where the central leadership of the organization, notwithstanding its "rebranding" as al-Qaeda's authorized "franchise" in North Africa, has failed: shedding an almost exclusively Algerian orientation in order to take on a broader Maghrebi identity. Moreover, the manner in which Belmokhtar has integrated himself into the social fabric of his chosen theater of operation represents a not insignificant advance from ad hoc cooperation between terrorists and criminals to a convergence, if not transformation, of the two spheres of activity. The question vexing many analysts is whether AQIM will seek to expand its reach, both criminal and terrorist, into the large North African diaspora communities in Europe. Taken together, all of these factors suggest that far from being crippled, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may be evolving into an even greater challenge to security not only in Africa, but well beyond.

The case as prosecutors have presented it, confirms the very danger anticipated. According to a joint statement released by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bahara, and the Acting Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michele Leonhart, the three defendants, who were arrested by authorities in Ghana and handed over to U.S. authorities, were secretly recorded and videotaped by federal agents over the course of a four-month investigation from September to December 2009:

Issa, Touré, and Abelrahman, who stated that they were associated with al-Qaeda, conspired to assist purported representatives of the FARC in transporting hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from West Africa through North Africa and ultimately into Spain. In a series of telephone calls and meetings with two confidential sources working with the DEA who claimed to represent the FARC ... the defendants stated that they had a transportation route from West Africa through North Africa, and that al-Qaeda could provide protection for the cocaine along that route.

In meetings with the DEA's confidential sources, Touré—apparently boss of the alleged conspirators—"described his strong relationship with al-Qaeda groups that controlled areas of North Africa, and discussed instances in which he had transported drugs with al-Qaeda's assistance." He explicitly assured his interlocutors that "al-Qaeda would protect the FARC's cocaine shipment from Mali through North Africa and into Morocco en route to Spain" not only because it wanted money—the criminal complaint says that after initially quoting a transportation price of $2,000 per kilogram of cocaine, the defendants insisted on $10,000 per kilogram for shipments of between 500 and 1,000 kilograms (according to data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, a kilogram of pure cocaine was worth about $112,000 wholesale last year in Great Britain, Europe's largest market)—but because the groups "were committed to the same anti-American cause." He also described two possible transport routes, one going through Algeria and Libya and the other through Algeria and Morocco.

Beyond the immediate case of Issa, Touré, and Abelrahman is the reality that, as the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, told a special session of the UN Security Council in December, "Drug trafficking in the region is taking on a whole new dimension. In the past, trade across the Sahara was by caravans. Today it is larger in size, faster at delivery, and more high-tech, as evidenced by the debris of a Boeing 727 found on November 2 in the Gao region of Mali—an area affected by insurgency and terrorism. It is scary that this new example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism was discovered by chance, following the plane crash." Considered dispassionately, however, there are several reasons why there has been such a sharp rise the movement of drugs between Latin America and West Africa.

First, it stands to reason that West Africa would be chosen as a transit hub for the smuggling of a contraband substance like cocaine. Traditionally, the drug has been produced in the Andean region with the three largest cultivators of coca being Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, respectively (the president of the latter country, Evo Morales, started out as a coca farmer and still heads the cocaleros' umbrella union). However, in recent years, intensified eradication and interdiction efforts by the DEA and other law enforcement agencies have disrupted the networks that historically moved the cocaine from South America to the United States and Canada. Moreover, the increasingly dominance of Mexican gangs in the northward flow have weakened the position of the South American syndicates which, in turn, opted to make a strategic shift to the European market. To this end, not only is West Africa the shortest transatlantic destination from South America, but the subregion's geography—myriad coastal inlets and lagoons as well as sparsely populated open interior spaces—make detection very difficult.

Second, the political geography of the region is as favorable as its physical topography. The combination of weak governments, endemic poverty, and instability ensure that law enforcement and judicial authorities—where they even exist—will be either ill-equipped to combat the new challenge or simply corruptible.

And that AQIM might be involved in the West African drug trade is hardly a surprise. The group's activities in its traditional stronghold in the Berber region of Kabylie along Algeria's Mediterranean coast continue to decline because of pressure from security services. In its struggle for survival, the terrorist organization has come to rely heavily on drugs, kidnapping for ransom, and other criminal enterprises in the south to get the money it needs to keep going. Working in its favor is the relative weakness of many of the states in the Sahel and their general lack of capacity to monitor what is going on in their vast territorial expanses. Even countries with robust capabilities like Morocco (see my report last year on "Morocco's Comprehensive Counterterrorism Approach") find their best efforts stymied either by weaker neighbors or, worse, neighbors whose agendas do not necessarily include regional cooperation, much less on sensitive matters like security and law enforcement.

Nor is AQIM the only Islamist terrorist group to exploit the possibilities offered by the drug traffic through West Africa and across the Sahara to Europe. In the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, journalist Marco Vernaschi reports from Guinea-Bissau:

According to reports from Interpol and United Nations agencies, cocaine traded through West Africa accounts for a considerable portion of the income of Hezbollah. These reports say Hezbollah uses the Lebanese Shiite expatriate population in South America and West Africa to guarantee an efficient connection between the two continents. To maintain and expand its influence on the Shiite community, however, Hezbollah needs money. The estimated $120 million given annually by Iran is just a slice of the pie. Most of Hezbollah's support comes from drug trafficking, a major moneymaker endorsed by the mullahs through a particular fatwa. In addition to the production and trade of heroin in the Middle East, Hezbollah facilitates, for a fee, the trafficking for other drug-smuggling networks, such as the FARC and its cocaine trade.

Again, an open secret to longtime observers of the region—I had a column in this space on "Hezbollah's African Network" more than three years ago and my colleague Stephen Ellis of Amsterdam's Free University documented in the journal African Affairs last year that "Lebanese smugglers were using West Africa as a transit point to transport heroin to the U.S.A. as early as 1952"—but one whose scope is certainly troubling. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, Douglas Farah of the International Assessment and Strategy Center outlined the framework for relations between the Lebanese Shī‘a terrorists and drug traffickers:

Given the prominence of the Lebanese Diaspora community and its members' control of most of the existing pipeline to import and export illegal commodities, it is inevitable that those organizations and the drug trafficking groups will encounter each other and mutually benefit from each other because they each has something the other wants and needs. The Lebanese networks control the decades-old contraband networks and routes to Europe, while the drug traffickers offer a new and lucrative product for the existing pipeline. Violent clashes may take place, but the history of both groups indicates they will cooperate where useful.

Given Hezbollah's long-established presence on the ground in the region and the closeness of its operatives to that community, it is also reasonable to assume that Hezbollah and the drug traffickers, operating in the same permissive environment, will cross paths. It is precisely this type of environment that allows for the otherwise unthinkable alliances to emerge. Most are short-lived, centering on specific opportunities and operations that can benefit both groups, but others are longer lasting and more dangerous.

More ominously, Farah, a veteran investigative journalist who uncovered al-Qaeda's procurement of West African "conflict diamonds" through the good offices of then Liberian strongman Charles Taylor in the period immediate before 9/11, warned:

There is a long history of outside terrorist actors, particularly Hezbollah, being active in Latin America ...

Given Iran's ties to Hezbollah and Venezuela, Venezuela's ties Iran and the FARC, the FARC's history of building alliances with other armed groups, and the presence of Hezbollah and other armed Islamist groups in Latin America and on the ground in West Africa, it would be dangerous and imprudent to dismiss the possibility of an alliance of these actors. The history of these groups indicates that they will take advantage of the ungoverned spaces and corrupt and weak states of West Africa to get to know each other, work together, learn from each other and exploit areas of mutual interest. Unfortunately, the primary area of mutual interest is a hatred of the United States.

Although the increasing amounts of South American cocaine being smuggled through West Africa in recent years that have received the most attention (see my earlier report on this subject), they are not the causes for concern. UNODC chief Costa told the Security Council in December that his agency had "acquired evidence that ... two streams of illicit drugs—heroin from Eastern Africa and cocaine into West Africa—are now meeting in the Sahara, creating new trafficking routes across Chad, Niger, and Mali." Obviously the revenues terrorist groups can derive from their newfound links to drug syndicates enable them not only to purchase arms, but also to fund increased recruitment. Earlier this month an exclusive investigative report by Reuters correspondents Tim Gaynor and Tiemoko Diallo described a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that warned of the growing fleet of jet aircraft regularly crossing the Atlantic from the cocaine-producing areas of South America with the connivance of Venezuelan officials who permit their country's air fields to be used. The anonymous author of the DHS report told Reuters: "The obvious huge concern is that you have a transportation system that is capable of transporting tons of cocaine from west to east, but it's reckless to assume that nothing is coming back, and when there's terrorist organizations on either side of this pipeline, it should be a high priority to find out what is coming back on those airplanes."

While the direct threat from the alliance of terrorists and drug traffickers, however real, is perhaps farther on the horizon, the impact on states in West Africa is much more immediate. Not only does the narcotics trade bring new resources to extremists and criminals, but it undermines governments, turning corrupt regimes into crime-driven enterprises. Commenting last week for a special report by the German international broadcasting service Deutsche Welle, Princeton Lyman of the Council on Foreign Relations, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, noted: "A lot of these countries have very weak governments and the potential of turning them into narco-states is very scary. There is already a lot of drug money along the coast of West Africa ... lots of the fancy homes in [the Senegalese capital of] Dakar are now owned by drug lords." (Ambassador Lyman's mention of Senegal is rather interesting. I have written elsewhere about the corruption of Karim, son of that country's President Abdoulaye Wade. Certainly neither terrorist networks nor drug gangs function especially well without the benefit of some of modernity's infrastructure. In many respects, Senegal combines the best of both worlds: a relatively developed infrastructure, conveniently under the authority of Wade fils in his role as "super minister" of regional planning, air, transport, and infrastructure, and a government whose reputation for shady dealings is centered on the selfsame individual.)

In addition to corruption, which itself discourages the type of foreign direct investment countries in the region needed to grow their economies, the drug trade also undermines development by making its potentially fabulous short-term monetary gains that much more attractive than longer-term commitments to more productive enterprises. As a result, while a very small number of people will actually get richer, the vast majority of the population is rendered even poorer, increasing already massive inequalities and, ultimately, heightening social tensions. Furthermore, there is evidence that transit hubs quickly become destinations in and of themselves as drug consumption spreads to local communities and crime increases and addicts desperately try to feed their habits. The cumulative effect of all this is a vicious circle that is likely to permanently cripple some West African countries, if it has not already done so.

A multifaceted approach will be required to deal with this burgeoning threat. At one level, it will require strengthening law enforcement capacity in African countries. Some of this will require more resources for the training of law enforcement and criminal justice managers, such as conducted at the State Department-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Gabarone, Botswana (see my previous discussion of this center). In an address on "The Escalating Ties between Middle Eastern Terrorist Groups and Criminal Activity" last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson announced an effort by his bureau over the next three years to "strengthen criminal justice institutions such as the police, prosecutors and the courts to successfully investigate, prosecute and incarcerate transnational criminals, networks and organizations." However, operational level liaison will also be needed. While the DEA has some eighty-seven foreign offices in some sixty-three country, it currently has only a presence in four African countries—Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa—with plans afoot to open a fifth office in Kenya. At an entirely different level, counterterrorism capabilities will also need to be built up such as is being done by the State Department-led, Defense Department-supported Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which involves Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. Programs are also required to increase maritime domain awareness and maritime security capacity of states on the West African littoral, needs which the African Maritime Law Enforcement Program (AMLEP) and the Africa Partnership Station (APS), both initiatives under the aegis of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), try to meet (see my report in this column on APS). Finally, development is needed if the allure of both the extremists and the drug barons is to be resisted. In short, no one solution will be sufficient.

Furthermore, efforts to counter the challenge must be sustainable, which means that while the many countries—some quite distant from the region—are impacted by the alliance of terrorist and narcotics networks, it is those in the front line which must assume ownership. Hence the strategy, as General William E. "Kip" Ward, commander of AFRICOM, noted in an address to a counter-narcotics seminar for senior government officials at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, last week, needs to be "focused on building security sector capacity of our African partners through sustained security engagement—such as bolstering support and special staff capabilities ... bolstering special staff capabilities; conducting training to help ensure effective African non-commissioned officer corps; or improving military and dual-use infrastructure." In addition to strengthening national capacity, regional capacities must be promoted: countries affected need to pool their information and integrate their efforts with each other lest the transnational criminal forces which threaten all lawful states exploit the gaps between them. Likewise the international partners assisting African states need to coordinate there efforts. For example, U.S. efforts to embed DEA and other counter-narcotics experts with African governments will have even greater effect when they complement similar initiatives by European countries to provide technical and managerial experience, like "Operation Westbridge," the successful British program to send Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs officials to work side-by-side with their Ghanaian counterparts.

The task of breaking up the terror-drug nexus will undoubtedly require a significant investment of resources by the United States and its allies in the international community. However, failure to act now will only increase the costs down the road, in both human and financial terms. Hence the effort must be undertaken because at stake is not only the stability of West Africa, including the Maghrebi and Sahelian regions, but the outcome of the larger struggle against jihadist and other terrorist networks opposed to the very order on which civilization is built.

J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.

© 2010 J. Peter Pham

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