For long, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was little more than a footnote in the intelligence reports analysing the increasingly muscular presence of Islamist groups in Saharan Africa.
The man whose al Qaeda-inspired Signed in Blood Battalion led the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which at least 38 people were killed, was considered a relatively unimportant figure in the political ecosystem of the vast region. But Belmokhtar, who fought for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Islamist GIA in the Algerian civil war before becoming a commander in the Mali-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was ambitious.
In 2003, he masterminded the kidnapping of 32 European tourists whom he successfully ransomed. The money gave him the seed capital he needed to develop a sophisticated trading business throughout Saharan Africa, along the ancient 2,000-mile salt route used by the Tuareg tribesmen to transport goods from the continent’s west coast through to Timbuktu in Mali, then on to Niger before arriving in the Algerian south, gateway to the Mediterranean.
But while the Tuareg made their money in trading salt, gold and silk, Belmokhtar, who secured close links with the tribesmen through marriages to the daughters of several of their most prominent families, made a fortune through a different commodity: smuggled cigarettes. Such was the volume of his trade that he earned himself the sobriquet “Mr Marlboro”.
“He was not an important figure in AQIM, he was quite different from al Qaeda and bin Laden,” said Morten Boas, a senior research fellow at Oslo University and editor of African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine. “He is known as one of the more pragmatic figures, more interested in filling his own pockets than fighting jihad.”
The key role cigarettes play in facilitating terrorism has been inexplicably ignored. But it has become of urgent interest to western intelligence agencies as they seek to check al Qaeda’s diverse factions operating across the Saharan region.
Indeed, after interviewing numerous agents and experts in the field, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has concluded that “cigarette smuggling has provided the bulk of financing for AQIM”. AQIM’s affiliates include Ansar al-Sharia, an offshoot blamed for the killing of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi last year.
Often the smuggled products are not a premium western brand, such as Marlboro, but one of the cheaper, less prestigious marques that the tobacco giants are keen to introduce to developing nations as a way of gaining a foothold.
Inevitably, the endemic smuggling of cigarettes in such countries has raised questions about the role played by big tobacco, and in particular the extent to which it should be made responsible for distribution routes being used to fill the coffers of some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.
Internal company memos show that in the 1980s British American Tobacco in Africa used a Liechtenstein-based company, Sorepex, as a key distributor. BAT documents reveal that the company saw Sorepex as a “gravy train” and a way of providing “cover, albeit increasingly flimsy, for BAT in some fairly shady business”. The company insists that it condemns all forms of smuggling.
Experts say that the profits provided by cigarette smuggling fuel other criminal activities, including drug, oil and human trafficking, activities which often use the same distribution networks. But cigarettes remain the most profitable and least risky form of contraband. As Louise Shelley, a crime expert at Washington’s George Mason university, told the ICIJ: “No one thinks that cigarette smuggling is too serious, so law enforcement agencies don’t spend resources to go after it.”
This helps explain why terrorist groups exploit the illicit trade. According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the IRA made as much as $100m between 1999 and 2004 by smuggling cigarettes into Northern Ireland. Hezbollah ran a successful smuggling operation in the US, shipping cigarettes from low-tax North Carolina to higher-tax Michigan.
Ironically, Belmokhtar may have been too successful at smuggling cigarettes. It is rumoured that late last year he was forced out of AQIM and his base in Mali after the organisation’s leaders questioned his commitment to their cause. Mr Marlboro, they suggested, was more interested in money than ideals.
The slaughter in the Sahara may have been Belmokhtar’s attempt to prove them wrong, something that has huge consequences for his operations.
“His days as a smuggler are over,” Boas predicted. “No bandits or traders will want to be within a kilometre of him now. They don’t want to be targeted by American drones.” But, given the money at stake, there will be no shortage of others ready to take his place.
Guardian News Service