January 31, 2015: Strategy Page
Despite major defeats in Algeria and northern-Mali Islamic terrorists continue to be active in western Africa. Thanks to over $100 million a year earned from South American drug gangs (and a few smaller local operations) Islamic terrorists have plenty of incentive to remain active in Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. It is, as one famous bank robber said, where the money is.
The Islamic terrorists mainly use bribery to remain free from attack by local security forces and to get across many international borders. If cash doesn’t work they are also heavily armed and will fight anyone trying to interrupt the movement of tons of cocaine from Guinea-Bissau to the Mediterranean coast and Spain. From there the cocaine is distributed to over four million cocaine users in Europe. This traffic has been going on for at least a decade and all efforts to halt it have failed. Local producers of hashish and marijuana or synthetic drugs can also buy passage to the major markets.
Efforts to halt this operation, and cut the terrorist supply (of cash) line. Has been going on for nearly a decade. In 2010 the U.S. cut all military aid to of the African nation of Guinea-Bissau, which was in response to Guinea-Bissau refusing to remove military officers known to be involved with cocaine smugglers. The U.S. had proof that the military there had not only been bought off by drug gangs but that the newly appointed head of the army, general Antonio Indjai, was heavily involved in the drug business.
South American drug gangs were using Guinea-Bissau as part of their smuggling route to Europe and the Middle East. Thus West Africa had become a new source of income for al Qaeda. The U.S. tried dealing with the problem in 2010 by putting sanctions on two senior military commanders in Guinea-Bissau. Air force chief of staff Ibraima Papa Camara and former navy chief of staff Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto were accused of being "drug kingpins" and key members of a drug smuggling operation that moves cocaine from South America to Europe and the Persian Gulf, via Guinea-Bissau. The sanctions froze any assets the two men had in the United States and prohibited Americans from doing business with the two. This did not stop the pro-drug commanders, who then staged a coup to remove the anti-drug army commander. To further make their point, pro-drug gang troops also briefly arrested the prime minister. Subsequent negotiations convinced the government to let the pro-drug gang officers have their way. The U.S. is still trying to persuade all West African leaders to stay away from the drug trade.
Al Qaeda has also been seen operating in Guinea-Bissau as Islamic terrorists for a while. In 2008 two al Qaeda members were arrested and charged with murdering four French tourists in nearby Mauritania. At the time the United States already 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, not kill or kidnap Europeans.
Since 2008 Algerian police that patrol their southern border have been encountering more and more al Qaeda gunmen escorting drug smugglers. There were four such encounters in 2008, and fifteen in 2009 and the number kept climbing until 2012 when the smugglers realized it was safer to go through chaotic Libya instead. That and more discreet movement of the smugglers made it more difficult to even detect the drug shipments. 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 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 throughout Europe.
Apparently al Qaeda learned from the Taliban, which began earning huge amounts in the 1990s by 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. That may have already happened.