Al Qaeda sowing seeds of corruption
Experts say al Qaeda and the traffickers are exploiting the fact that law enforcement agencies in politically unstable states in the Sahel with porous borders are underfunded and corrupt. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, says Algeria's Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), AQIM's predecessor, has a history of involvement in crime. AQIM can "build on the GSPC's networks in the Sahara Desert, where it had long been engaged in smuggling a mix of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants, along with jihadi hit-and-run attacks against local security forces," Filiu said in a study just published by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. Other experts note that many AQIM recruits are criminals and fellow travelers, who operate like a gang.
Since 2007, AQIM has killed scores in suicide bombings, including 11 UN staffers four Frenchmen, a Brit and an American. Many more have been kidnapped and held for ransom.
Western intelligence services are struggling to stifle al Qaeda's growing reach in the Sahel region
The DEA sting operation came amid an increased US and European military and law enforcement focus on the Sahel. Encouraged by the US and the EU, military officials from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed last fall on joint efforts to tackle terrorism and cross-border crime. The US in 2008 increased security aid to $100 million. Much of this funding goes to the US Africa Command's Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) designed to train regional forces and furnish them with needed military materiel. Similarly, Britain's Border Agency and Serious Organized Crime Agency works with authorities in the region to fight drug traffickers.
Europe facing major challenge
The emergence of western and northern Africa as a key hub in drugs trafficking poses despite the US sting operation a greater challenge to Europe than it does to the United States, according to some experts. "As the drugs fly from Colombia, via Venezuela to West Africa then the expanding European-Central European-Asian markets, it is clear the U.S. market is no longer so relevant," Douglas Farah, a Washington-based expert on terrorism who focuses on the Latin America-Africa nexus, told Deutsche Welle.
Critics of US and EU policy charge that the United States abetted by local regimes hungry for increased military and security assistance is likely to aggravate issues by approaching the region's problems exclusively as a problem of global terrorism and trans-national crime rather than in terms of democratization and development. "If you treat it from a soley security perspective, you're producing more jihadists," Yahia H. Zoubir, an expert on the Sahel and professor of international relations at Euromed-Marseille, told Deutsche Welle.
That realization may be taking hold in Washington as well as European capitals. The Africa Command (AFRICOM) has begun focusing on relations with the tribes in a bid to minimize its overt involvement in security. The US in late December suspended non-humanitarian aid to Niger and imposed travel restrictions on government officials in response to President Mamadou Tandja's refusal to relinquish his mandate.
In an earlier, relatively rare emphasis on reform rather than security, the Bush administration responded in 2008 to the toppling by the military of a democratically elected government in Mauritania by suspending military aid to a junta that was touting the al Qaeda threat as part of its raison d'être.
Weak regimes - soft targets
Analysts warn nonetheless that the drugs trade not only strengthens the Islamists and rebels, but could turn already weak regimes into crime-driven enterprises. "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," Princeton Lyman, an Africa expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, told Deutsche Welle.
Lyman cautions that heavy handed operations could push nomadic Tuareg rebels demanding a greater share in revenues from the region's resources towards closer cooperation with AQIM. He says the Boeing 727 incident and the arrest of the al Qaeda operatives demonstrates the need to focus on preventing drugs from getting into the Sahel by patrolling the region's coast line and airports rather than increasing military presence on the ground that would further alienate local populations.
"Smuggling has a long tradition and constitutes a major source of income for groups that feel marginalized by their government….Political groups with narco money make it more difficult for governments to offer an alternative. The question is how do you separate the marginalized groups from AQIM. The way you do it is by stopping the drugs from getting in. AFRICOM is looking at this," Lyman said.
Author: James M. Dorsey
Editor: Rob Mudge