October 24, 2011:
For the last four months, troops from Mauritania and Mali have been seeking out and killing al Qaeda members hiding in the Wagadou Forest (actually a thousand hectares/2,500 acres of brush and trees in a semi-desert area), which lies astride the border. Al Qaeda have apparently been there since early last year. The Wagadou Forest has become a way station for cocaine and hashish al Qaeda escorts from Guinea-Bissau to the Mediterranean coast. This is how al Qaeda finances itself in West Africa these days.
Two years ago Al Qaeda has proclaimed the formation of a new chapter south of Algeria, among tribal rebels and disaffected urbanites in Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania. This was more PR than reality. There are some Islamic terrorists in the region, and these pronouncements appear to be an attempt to unify pro-Islamic terrorist elements via the Internet and the mass media. So far, the many disaffected groups in the region have shown little interest in uniting. Too many different objectives and al Qaeda has a reputation for being a loser.
Meanwhile, West Africa is becoming a base area for al Qaeda. But the work is less religious and more recreational. It all began when senior officials in the West African nation Guinea-Bissau agreed to operate a drug smuggling operation that moves cocaine from South America to Europe and the Persian Gulf, via Guinea-Bissau. Al Qaeda had already been seen operating in Guinea-Bissau, and throughout West Africa. Three years ago, two al Qaeda members were arrested and charged with the murder, in Mauritania, of four French tourists. At the time, the United States was suspicious of al Qaeda involvement in cocaine trafficking in South America. Then many more al Qaeda operatives began showing up in Guinea-Bissau. Before long, evidence emerged that al Qaeda was there mainly to facilitate cocaine smuggling.
Algerian police that patrol their southern border are encountering more and more al Qaeda gunmen escorting drug smugglers. There were four such encounters in 2008, fifteen the next year and more each year after that. The most valuable of the smuggled drugs is Colombian cocaine, which is flown into West Africa, and then moved north to Europe and the Persian Gulf (two of the biggest markets). Al Qaeda works with the Colombian drug cartels to handle movement of the drugs from West African airports to North African ports (where local smuggling groups move the drugs into Europe.)
Terrorist groups in general have always worked with common criminals in order to raise money, and obtain weapons and other gear. Usually, the terrorists stuck to low profile scams like fraud (credit card, mortgage) and smuggling. Drugs were always considered more profitable, but higher risk and bad for the image. In these desperate times, caution is something the terrorists cannot afford. Either they raise money to keep themselves together as an organization, or simply dissolve. This led to greater use of kidnapping and grand larceny, as well as buying, selling and transporting drugs.