Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Al Qaeda and the West African Drug Trade
I have recently been briefing U.S. government agencies on what I see as a fundamental sea change as a result of the globalization of the world market, most visible in the increasing transit of cocaine through West Africa.

One of the issues I have raised has now gone public - the protection of cocaine shipments through the Trans Sahel region by a combination of criminal and terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).

The other is the fact that now, after decades of saying the key to dismantling the cocaine cartels was to lower U.S. consumption (something that was long true), the panorama has changed dramatically. 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.

Given the expanding markets elsewhere in the world, I would venture to say that if the U.S. reduced its demand by 20 percent overnight it would have relatively little impact on the GLOBAL flow of cocaine. It would be problematic for some suppliers, but not a defining issue, and that is radically different than the situation a few years ago.

This influx of cash is both dangerous for the immediate neighborhood, but would also give AQIM a whole new level of international financing, as I noted here.

We have the first public case where AQIM offers to protect large cocaine shipments transiting the region, and claims to have already provided such protection.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ran a sting operation alleging to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which now has an operational presence in West Africa. This is the same scheme the DEA used to lure Monzar al Kazar to his arrest, extradition and conviction - as well as the same ploy used to lure Viktor Bout to Thailand, where he was arrested and awaits a ruling on a U.S. extradition request.

The arrests mark the first time U.S. authorities have captured and charged al-Qaida suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa, in a case officials say demonstrates the spread of the terror network into global criminal activity.

The three suspects -- believed to be in their 30's and originally from Mali -- were arrested in Ghana earlier this week and arrived in the United States early Friday morning, according to law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

The three suspects are expected to appear Friday in federal court in New York on charges stemming from a months-long undercover investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. They face charges of narcoterrorism conspiracy, as well as conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

Authorities say the men are associates of al-Qaida's North African branch, and told DEA informants that al-Qaida could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region, driving the drugs by truck through the Sahara desert before eventually bringing them to Spain.

A criminal complaint unsealed Friday charges that Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman worked with al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb.

Court papers say Toure and Abelrahman at one point claimed the profits from the drug business ''will go to their people to support the fight for 'the cause'.''

Of course, the majority of the money will flow back to the Colombian (i.e. FARC) groups that control the cocaine pipelines, as well as the Mexican cartels, which are increasingly reaching further and further south in order to expand their market share.

And the money paid out to AQIM will strengthen and embolden a terrorist group aiming at the United States, but primarily Europe, Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. Given its formal integration into al Qaeda central, AQIM could also become a financial vehicle for other parts of the radical Islamist universe.

In a nutshell, the enemy has opened another front, and we have weak allies, if they exist at all, fighting on the new front. And that is bad news indeed.
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