Illegal trafficking, organised crime and terrorism:  taking on the funding network

By Antonin TISSERON, consultant, UNODC ROWA (Dakar)

A connection between illegal trafficking and terrorism is sometimes put forward as a theory to explain the rise of terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region. This theory fits the Algerian regime’s discourse—during its offensive against armed Islamist groups—on the criminalisation of GIA and GSPC combatants in the 1990s and 2000s, and is a narrative which has been upheld by the media in light of two recent events: First, the November 2009 discovery of a Boeing in Tarkint, north of Gao, carrying 7 to 11 tons of cocaine from Venezuela. Then one month later, three Mali natives were scheduled to stand trial in the United States for cocaine trafficking and alleged ties to AQIM, with the latter charge eventually being dropped.

Reducing drug trafficking to “narco-terrorism”, or terrorism in northern Mali to a drug issue, draws a skewed perception of the root causes for the violence, the involvement of terrorist groups in this activity, and their revenue sources. Although the inner workings of drug trafficking networks are kept under wraps, terrorists do not appear to be the key players. During their 2012 occupation of northern Mali, Ansar Eddine, while in power, sought to curtail drug trafficking in the Kidal region, and in Gao, relations between the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and drug smugglers sparked internal conflict. Furthermore, AQIM’s establishment in the region and the country’s trajectory since 2012 are the result of political and social factors, which the classification of “narco-terrorism” fails to acknowledge while otherwise central questions go unanswered, such as the motivations behind certain acts and the connection between social grievances and political violence. Finally, drugs are just one of several sources of financing: hostage ransoms, so‑called taxes collected from populations in controlled territories, other types of trafficking, and a variety of external funding.

Of course, organized crime and terrorism are undeniably linked, and our analysis must look beyond financing in order to fully understand this connection, namely the ways in which these two worlds intersect to form hybrid entities that are fluid and evolving.

In this regard, the Sahel region offers ground for several observations.

  1. While gaining their foothold in the Malian desert, GSPC combatants took advantage of the growth in organised crime which helped feed social and ethnic tensions, undermined the credibility of State representatives and traditional local elites, and hampered the capabilities of security forces. Over time, the group formed closer ties with drug traffickers, on whom they relied for their knowledge of the desert while gradually implanting their ideology throughout the region. The same is true in the tri-border region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger: Malian jihadists formed alliances with local gangs in exchange for weapons of war and the promise of cash.
  2. Due to marriages between Algerian combatants and members of local northern Mali communities and to the recruitment of Sahelians, today armed militants, criminals and terrorists coexist, sharing the same space and intersecting with groups, who are sharing their values, especially those relating to religion. This interaction occurs within the societal tribal and family structures, with strategies varying across individuals, families and tribes. Groups exchange goods and services, joining forces out of necessity (power dynamics, threats, etc.) or mutual interests. Combatants move from one entity to another, for the duration of an operation or sometimes longer, forming mutually beneficial relations, whether for trafficking, securing logistics, or for “winning over hearts and minds” through interactions. Abdelmalek Droukdel remarked in 2012 that it is in AQIM’s interest to work with rather than against populations, to guide and nurture them through pedagogic efforts to, in Droukdel’s words, create the best conditions in which to “sprout” the seeds that have been planted.
  3. The financing role of drugs and illegal trafficking is constantly evolving in accordance with the people and the environment. Throughout the 2000s, debates between Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar on available resources attest to the divisions in leadership with regard to funding sources. On the one hand, given that the group’s main priority is to pursue armed operations and to expand, to what degree is it wise to run up against drug lords and those involved in drug trafficking? What are the possible repercussions? What are the alternative sources of revenue? On the other hand, what are the consequences of conspicuous involvement, direct or indirect, in the trafficking of illegal goods on terrorist groups’ image, discourse and their ability to attract and recruit members?

In this respect, one of the major challenges is to identify these players while also enforcing rule of law. The following are just a sample of the many possible avenues which could be taken: The first is to improve our knowledge and understanding of the interactions between groups and their members, primarily through greater cooperation between agencies and investigation services on both a national and international level. The second, given the socio-economic and political foundation on which terrorism and organized crime is built, is to combine security measures with support strategies that aim to fight against corruption and minimize the appeal of terrorist groups and criminals as “alternatives” to state power through a dual dynamic of incentives and pressure. Lastly, the international ramifications of terrorism and trafficking reinforces the importance of undertaking efforts to increase the traceability of global financial circuits and strengthen regional cooperation.


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Antonin Tisseron is a research associate at the Thomas More Institute and GRIP. Doctor in History from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, his work focuses on the Maghreb and the Sahel.



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