Published 29 May 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Criminal Networks in West Africa: An Emerging Security Challenge
On April 30, Sidi Ould Sidna, a.k.a. Abou Jendel, an al-Qaeda-linked militant who was escaped earlier in the month from the courthouse in Nouakchott, Mauritania, where he was being tried for the Christmas Eve 2007 killing of four French tourists, was recaptured in a predawn police raid on a residence in the capital city's Arafat district. Captured with Sidna was another militant, Khadim Ould Semane, who had been sought for a February 1 attack on the Israeli embassy in the Mauritanian capital, one of only three members of the Arab League to host a full-fledge diplomatic mission from the Jewish state. Both men have admitted their association with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its predecessor organizations (see my May 8 update on AQIM).
Sidna's itinerary illustrates the complex web connecting organized crime and terrorist groups in West Africa which is increasingly presenting a new security challenge to authorities in the subregion and their international partners. His victims were a family of French tourists, including two children, who were gunned down as they were picnicking outside the southern Mauritanian town of Aleg. Four members of the family were killed instantly, while the seriously wounded father survived. Originally authorities thought the incident was robbery gone awry, but it was later learned that the gunmen were members of an AQIM sleeper cell after a video submitted to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya satellite television news channel by the terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the attack as well as one on a Mauritanian military base three days later which left four soldiers dead.
After the hit on the vacationing French family – which, incidentally, caused the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) to cancel the annual off-road Dakar Rally – Sidna and one of his partners, Ould Sidi Chabarnou, a.k.a. Abou Soulema, traveled some 80 kilometers south to the Senegal River where they were ferried across into Senegal. From there, the two made their way through The Gambia to Guinea-Bissau (another participant in the attack, Maarouf Ould Haiba, stayed in Mauritania and was arrested in Nouakchott in early April after an alert police officer noticed the rather unfeminine way he was walking while covered in a malahfa, a traditional veil worn by Mauritanian women). After an extensive three-week manhunt involving an unprecedented collaboration between several security organizations, Sidna and Chabarnou were arrested in Guinea-Bissau, along with three people suspected of aiding in their flight, and extradited back to Mauritania. The three accomplices were all Mauritanian nationals, although one of them had lived in Guinea-Bissau for several years. Even more perturbing was the fact that the three accomplices were caught in flagrante delicto while they were shoot surveillance video of the very same French overseas security officers who were helping coordinate the manhunt for them.
While the saga of Sidna and his terrorist cell will, hopefully, conclude with swift justice dispensed by a Mauritanian government which has shown little tolerance for radicals opposed to its longstanding pro-Western orientation, it has not been lost on observers that their flight followed routes and employed networks indistinguishable from the ones used by organized crime in the subregion. Shortly after Sidna's capture in Guinea-Bissau, Antonio Mazzitelli of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told Reuters that the arrest showed how West Africa has become a "black hole" for crime mafias, traffickers and terrorists:
This sort of thing confirms our worst worries, that all kinds of criminals can turn up in places like Guinea-Bissau or elsewhere in West Africa...there might be many others like these. West Africa has become a black hole where any kind of wanted person can come and operate or hide ... be they terrorists or other kinds of criminals ... It's a criminal paradise.
What the UN official meant was that the same porous borders and lack of governance capacity that engender crime can and are being exploited by terrorist and other extremist groups. The organized criminal activity in the West African subregion takes on several forms:
Drug smuggling. As I first reported in this column space last year, West Africa has become a major hub for cocaine and other drugs. In the five years between 1998 and 2003, the total quantity of cocaine seized in all of Africa averaged around 600 kilograms. In the following five-year period, the amount seized in West Africa alone has basically doubled each year, with preliminary data for the just the first nine months of 2007 indicating a record level of 5,600 kilograms, with major seizures of at least 150 kilograms reported in Benin, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, and Senegal. The most recent big seizure was a Liberian-flagged vessel, the Blue Atlantic, which was intercepted by the French Navy's Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Tonnerre while carrying 2,500 kilograms of pure cocaine, worth an estimated $500 million on the streets. While cocaine has captured most of the headlines, heroin destined for European markets and, to a lesser extent, the American market, is also moved through the subregion from Afghanistan or Southeast Asia via Dubai or transshipment points in East Africa. Hashish is also moved through the subregion, passing through the Sahel, before being distributed by Maghrebi diaspora communities in Europe. Earlier this year, in an interview with the French-language Algiers daily La Tribune, Algerian health minister Amar Tou admitted that his country had evolved from a transit point to a consumer to a producer of illicit drugs.
Human trafficking. A 2001 report by the International Labor Organization estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 West African children alone are trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation both within Africa and abroad to the Middle East. Gaul Wannenberg of the South African Institute of International Affairs has suggested that traffickers "can receive $10,000-20,000 for a child and $12,000-50,000 for a woman, depending on the purpose they will serve and the rates that can be earned in a country." From the international security perspective, however, an even more urgent challenge is emergence of well-organized networks which smuggle illegal immigrants to Europe through a succession of land, sea, and air segments. While exact numbers are difficult to come by, a senior Italian security official told me that he thought there were approximately one million Sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya who were stopped before they could attempt the short passage across the Mediterranean to his country. A 2006 report on Organized Crime and Irregular Migration from Africa to Europe prepared by UNODC estimated that "the market for smuggling human beings from Africa to Europe in ... transfer fees alone could be on the order of $300 million each year."
Contraband. The same routes used to smuggle drugs and people are used to move contraband. While some of this smuggling involves nothing more than attempts to avoid taxation on products like cigarettes, there is also a considerable traffic in more immediately lethal goods. It is estimated that somewhere around 8 million illegal small arms are circulating around West Africa, often moving from conflict zone to conflict zone. Counterfeiting is another example of contraband posing a security threat. One INTERPOL report has noted that "it is becoming increasingly obvious that there are criminal organizations, including terrorists, that use counterfeit goods to finance their activities" and cited the somewhat amusing example of a bust near Paris which caught three members of AQIM's predecessor group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), with some seventy boxes of fake designer clothes. Moreover the networks dealing in contraband are not only extensive across West Africa, but also have tremendous reach in immigrant communities in Western Europe.
Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources. I reported in this column nearly two years ago that al-Qaeda, Hizballah, and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups had used West African diamonds both to hide money and to make a profit (see W. Thomas Smith Jr.'s breaking coverage last week on Hizballah's activities in the subregion). Precious stones are, of course, not the only natural resources in the region. With 36 billion barrels of proven reserves and daily production of just under 2 million barrels, notwithstanding cuts to pumping capacity by ongoing strife in the Niger Delta by groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which last week accused the government of "insincerity" in its negotiations and pledged to step up its attacks (see my report one year ago on the vulnerability of the West African state's oil infrastructure), Nigeria is Africa's largest petroleum producer. The problem is that it is estimated that at least 10 percent of that crude oil is stolen in a highly organized operation known euphemistically as "illegal bunkering." With the New York Mercantile Exchange price for a July barrel of light, sweet crude closing last Friday at $132.19 after soaring on Thursday to an all-time record of $135.09, the value of the amount siphoned off annual is approximately $9 billion. While most of these profits currently go to corrupt politicians, criminal gangs, and loosely tribal militias, extremists can easily get into the act.
The impact of the increased organized criminal activity on national and regional security has not been lost on policymakers and analysts. Last year, in a report to the Security Council on cross-border issues in West Africa, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed:
The rapid extension of transnational organized crime is of growing concern in West Africa. Such illicit activities and trafficking take many forms, including drug and human trafficking, Internet fraud, smuggling of migrants, smuggling of diamonds and other natural resources, forgery, cigarette smuggling, the illegal manufacture of firearms, trafficking in firearms and armed robbery and the theft and smuggling of crude oil. These activities challenge State authority, especially the capacity of the State to enforce law and order, and can lead to tremendous national tragedies, as witnessed in the recent cases of oil smuggling in Nigeria and the deadly attempts to reach Europe by irregular migrants. Many West African State institutions are greatly weakened by economic crisis and/or civil war, making them susceptible to corruption and lawlessness, which are fertile ground for organized crime.
While he emphasized that "the link between combating illicit activities and reforming the security sector, especially the judiciary and the police, should be given priority," the secretary-general also acknowledged that "in spite of the difficulty in gathering reliable information on essentially hidden practices, the links between organized criminal activities and the financing of terror should be explored, and the vulnerability of the subregion assessed."
However, the linkage between crime and terrorism may go beyond merely financing opportunities for the latter in the activities of the former. As former Central Intelligence Agency case officer and psychiatrist Marc Sageman (in his 2007 book Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century) and other researchers have pointed out, the hierarchical structures of many transnational terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have been considerably "flattened," enabling greater freedom of initiative. The same phenomenon has been witnessed among other illicit organizations, including crime syndicates. The result is that both terrorist and criminal cells are largely forced to find their own funding sources as well as obtain their own documents, transport routes, and safe houses, while perhaps still looking the erstwhile central leadership for inspiration. Consequently, the boundaries between criminality and ideological extremism have blurred as operatives seek alliances of convenience. While whether there will be a transformation of the two types of groups into a hybrid category as some scholars have predicted remains to be seen, the fact is that there is a considerable emerging overlap between terrorists and criminal organizations in places like West Africa, a development that makes both a greater challenge to regional and international security.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). 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 is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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