The Crime Terror nexus in West Africa

RUSI Analysis, 15 May 2013

By Charlie Edwards, Senior Research Fellow/Director National Security and Resilience

The attack on the Al-Amenas facility in Algeria earlier in the year reveals the nexus between organised crime and terrorism in West Africa. This has major implications for the international community and requires greater support to national governments in the region.

Late last month, UK Border Force officials seized cocaine valued at over ¬£17 million at the Port of Tilbury in Essex. While the value of the drugs is not the largest on record, what makes this particular seizure of interest is that the drugs are believed to have been smuggled via Senegal to Europe by an Al-Qa’ida affiliated group. If confirmed, this will be the first time an Islamist terrorist group has attempted to ship a considerable amount of Class A drugs directly to Europe from West Africa and is a significant step for Al-Qa’ida in the Maghreb (AQIM) in terms of both funding and operations. Officials believe the cocaine was part of a major deal between AQIM and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) who provided cocaine in return for weapons the Islamist terrorist group had procured – possibly from Libya. The seizure of such a large volume of drugs suggests a transnational network not seen since FARC and the IRA collaborated in the early years of the last decade.

The link between AQIM and drug traffickers in West Africa is becoming clearer. Dr Kwesi Aning, Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana suggested recently that a decade ago the trade was dominated by Tuaregs and middlemen who guided traffickers to water and fuel dumps in the desert.

Ten years later, and after Al-Qa’ida became involved, there has been a massive increase in the quantities of cocaine involved.¬†The conflict in Libya has made the region even more dangerous with a growth in available weapons and material – some of which have been sold in exchange for a variety of contraband items including drugs.¬†A UN report cited multiple cases¬†- both proven and under investigation – of illicit transfers from Libya to more than twelve countries of heavy and light weapons, man-portable air defence systems, small arms, related ammunition and explosives. Belgian-manufactured landmines¬†originally supplied to Qadhafi’s army¬†appear to have been used by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group in their attack on the Al-Amenas gas facility in January this year.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that AQIM has a long established link in the global drug trafficking network, having traded in opium and marijuana from countries such as Morocco to Europe. For example, the Al-Qa’ida inspired attack on the transport network in Madrid in 2004 is believed to have been almost entirely financed by the sale of narcotics from West Africa. The smuggling of drugs and bootleg cigarettes, a long-term problem in the UK, has been used as a steady source of finance for AQIM for a number of years. This collaboration between terrorist groups and organised crime groups is not only a problem for West Africa. The Taliban, for example, have relied on the drug trade a major source of income for decades. Moreover¬†according to some reports, the Taliban uses poppy-derived income to arm, train and support fundamentalist groups including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as well as the Chechen resistance.

It is difficult to prove whether or not these examples demonstrate formal alliances between groups or whether these are actions of opportunist individuals. Nonetheless, incidences in Afghanistan, South America, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa reveal clear links between organised crime and terrorist groups worldwide. The concern for officials in Europe is how serious the situation in West Africa has become and how the situation will evolve. Is the region a nexus for terrorism and organised crime groups?

Organised Crime in West Africa

West Africa is an epicentre for organised crime. Cocaine from Latin America to Europe continues to be the most lucrative of crime activities in the region. Even though the flow of cocaine has declined in recent years, its value on arrival still exceeds the national security budgets of many countries in West Africa.[1] Most cocaine seized is transited through Brazil from Colombia or Peru, and then arrives in West Africa through Benin and C√¥te d’Ivoire by air and sea.

Other organised criminal activities in the region include the increasing number of methamphetamine labs – made from diverted precursor materials such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from South and East Africa – which have sprung up across the region. For those involved in organised crime and terrorism, Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) substances offer a great profit margin, and may become an area for growth for actors such as AQIM.

The region is also seeing an increase in the trafficking of Afghan heroin from Pakistan into East Africa for onward shipment to Europe and elsewhere. Fraudulent medicines are a significant health problem for West Africans, while the profits generated by the trafficking seem to be relatively small and dispersed, substandard medication is cheap and attractive even if they have a negative impact on the health of the sick.

Maritime piracy is usually associated with the waters off the coast of Somalia, but is an increasing problem in the Gulf of Guinea. Fifty-eight incidents were recorded in 2012, including ten hijackings and 207 crew members taken hostage. Much of this activity is linked to the regional oil industry and the existence of a booming black market for oil. Most of the attacks are simple robberies that yield relatively low profits for the criminals, but the frequency of the attacks drives insurance premiums up, which in turn decreases the use of West African ports for shipping and deprives regional Governments of vital income.

The Corruption of a Region

The increase in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is symptomatic of two major trends in the region: lawlessness and deep corruption in the public and private sectors. The lack of law enforcement in the Sahara has allowed both radical Islamism and the cocaine trade to flourish, in a region that is exceptionally difficult to police. Little or no security in some West African states, limited air traffic control and almost no centralised power provides safe havens for terrorist and organised criminals to operate.

The region’s lawlessness was blamed for the now infamous ‘Air Cocaine’ incident in 2009. A Boeing 727 was found burnt-out in the Malian desert. The plane was believed to have been carrying up to 10 tonnes of cocaine. While officials originally thought the plane had crashed, investigators believe that the plane was burnt deliberately after it had landed and the cocaine had been removed. In 2010, a Malian police commissioner was convicted in connection with attempts to build an airstrip in the desert for future landings.[2]

Where national governments do have a footprint and influence locally the issue of corruption can be widespread. This has a deeply corrosive effect on trust in government and contributes to crime and political disorder. In the political realm, corruption undermines democracy and good governance by flouting or even subverting formal processes. For example the former caretaker President of Guinea-Bissau has been linked to a major cocaine and arms-trafficking scheme allegedly run by a former senior military officer from the small and unstable West African state.

In early April, Rear-Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, a former Chief of the Guinea-Bissau navy was caught in a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting on board a yacht in international waters in the Atlantic. According to prosecutors,¬†he planned to bring 3.5 tonnes of Colombian cocaine to the African country¬†inside a shipment of military uniforms and then smuggle weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, back to Colombia’s FARC rebels.

Such widespread corruption has a destabilising impact on security and development in West Africa. According to the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, ‘drug cartels buy more than real estate, banks and businesses, they buy elections, candidates and parties. In a word they buy power.’

Corruption in legislative bodies reduces accountability and undermines policymaking; corruption in the judiciary compromises the rule of law; while corruption in public administration results in poor social equality.[3]  This raises serious questions about the capacity of local law enforcement to manage the dual challenges of organised crime and terrorism, especially when the approach is being undermined by senior people within national governments in the region.

European governments have finally awoken to the problem. For example, the Department for International Development recently announced it would provide support for specialist units in the Metropolitan Police, City of London Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Organised Crime Agency to investigate and prosecute some of the most complex and significant cases of overseas bribery and corruption.

Such support is welcome – not least by a Department that has, until recently, been reluctant to accept that it plays a role in UK National Security. The reality, however, as seen in West Africa, suggests the British government and the international community will need to do much more to convince national governments in the region that they mean business.

While the consequences of the Arab Spring ¬†and the spectre of terrorism has renewed the international community’s interest in West Africa, and tackling organised crime in the region remains a priority for European member states, the increasingly visible crime-terror nexus points to a situation out of control.


[1] Transnational Crime in West Africa: A Threat Assessment, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (Vienna: 2012)

[2] Ibid. p.13

[3] Corruption and State Instability in West Africa: An Examination of Policy Options


Original Article