Counter-Terrorism: Al Qaeda In West Africa


August 12, 2010: Counter-terrorism officials are increasingly concerned about Islamic terrorists joining forces with drug gangs. This is a problem in Afghanistan (where heroin producing gangs fund the Taliban) and Lebanon (where drug gangs work with Hezbollah). The latest point of contact is West Africa, where the African nation of Guinea-Bissau is cooperating with cocaine smugglers. Because of the South American drug gangs using Guinea-Bissau as part of their new smuggling route to Europe and the Middle East, West Africa is becoming a new source of income for al Qaeda, which guards the drug shipments moving north to European and Middle East markets. 

At first, the U.S. attacked the problem by putting sanctions on Guinea-Bissau. That has not stopped officials in Guinea-Bissau from working with the cocaine gangs, which pay well for that cooperation. Al Qaeda has been seen operating in Guinea-Bissau for several years now. Two years ago, two al Qaeda members were arrested and charged with the murder, in nearby Mauritania, of four French tourists. At the time, the United States suspected Qaeda involvement in cocaine trafficking in South America. Then 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 shipments. There were four such encounters in 2008, and fifteen last year. The most valuable of the smuggled drugs is Colombian cocaine, which is flown into West Africa, and then moved north. Al Qaeda has been detected working 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.)

Apparently al Qaeda has learned from the Taliban, which earns huge amounts partnering with Afghan drug gangs that produce most of the world's supply of opium and heroin. While both the Taliban and al Qaeda officially condemn these drugs, they don't mind handling the supply chain, and even passing them out to their fighters to keep them in the right mood for dangerous operations. Terrorist leaders justify the drug involvement with the "we are using drugs to destroy our enemies" angle. While there is some truth to that, millions of Moslems also become addicts. This does not help the Islamic terror groups in Moslem countries, where these drugs are as destructive as they are in the West.

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.

The situation in Guinea-Bissau, however, is different. If al Qaeda can make themselves sufficiently useful to the cocaine gangs operating there, the country could become a new base for the terrorist organization. This is what happened in Afghanistan and Lebanon. As long as the terrorists can protect the drug gangs, the criminals will forget about their usual fear of associating with terrorists. The gangsters do not want the additional attention of counter-terrorism organizations, which tend to be better equipped and more aggressive going after suspects. But gangsters don't care about being "terrorism suspects" if the terrorists are powerful enough to keep the cops at bay.





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