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Al Qaeda in north Africa helps drug traffickers

world Updated: Jun 15, 2010 14:07 IST

Al-Qaeda's north African operation is not above offering protection to drug traffickers moving into the region, say experts despite Islam's condemnation of drugs.

The well-armed, well-connected members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are in a position to guarantee the safe passage for the convoys of heroin and cocaine bound for Europe, several sources told AFP.

For while Islamic values might so far have prevented them from taking a more direct role in the trade, that did not mean that there was no crossover between the Islamists and the traffickers.

For the moment however, they were not themselves getting directly involved in drug trafficking itself, an activity condemned by Islam.

Active in Algerian, Mali and Mauritania for nearly 15 years now, AQIM's fighters have a hand in all the trafficking in the region, particularly in cigarettes.

Drug trafficking, particularly in cocaine from Latin America, has now opened up the prospect of a far more lucrative trade.
Because of their Islamists beliefs however, it is one that poses a moral dilemma for the group.

"In fact, they are very divided on drugs," said one Mauritanian jurist familiar with the problem but asked not to be named.
"There are those for whom drugs are 'haram' (taboo) and who won't touch it," he said.

"And then there are those who protect the traffickers, who escort their convoys..."

This second group was happy to let the trafficking go on, especially since the drugs were on route to "poison western youth", he said.

Figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggest that between 50 and 60 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America and 30 to 35 tonnes of Afghan heroin that has come up through east Africa reaches Europe via west Africa, the Sahel and the Sahara.

In February, the Mauritanian army intercepted a drug convoy escorted by armed Islamists.

"It is the proof of a connection between them and the traffickers," a source in the Mauritanian military told AFP.

"You have terrorist networks, smuggling networks, human trafficking networks, and there are points of contact, coordination between all these nice people," said one diplomatic source in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

"We know that AQIM people have been involved in the drug trade, but as freelancers," he added.

"Some are members of AQIM and of criminal gangs at the same time. Some are there for an ideal, but some are finding there a way of channelling their criminal activities."

This is what Michael Braun, the US Drug Enforcement Administration's former head of operations, calls "the witches brew".
"The Colombian cartels have established business relations with AQIM," he told AFP.

"They are using long-established AQIM smuggling routes to North Africa and Southern Europe, moving tons of arms or tons of cocaine: it's the same route."

Nor was it the first time the Colombians had set up this kind of route, he said.

"The Colombians are very good at this. It's the exactly the kind of relations they developed with Mexican traffickers 25 years ago, when we managed to close down almost entirely the Caribbean corridor to Miami.

"They turned to the Mexicans because they knew that they had smuggling routes into the US for hundred years," he said.
And he warned: "If nothing is done about it, we're soon going to have in Africa the same kind of problems we have in Mexico."

For beyond the issue of financing terrorism, the destabilising power of drug trafficking, particularly cocaine, is worrying many observers.

They hold that the poor and poorly equipped administrations across north Africa face an uneven battle against the rich traffickers and their well-organised allies in AQIM.

The smuggling routes being used go back to the the ancient routes once used to smuggle salt, said one Paris-based specialist in the region, who asked not to be named.

"They are part of the landscape," he added.

"But with cocaine, you are changing the scale. The sums involved are enormous. They can corrupt everything."

And as had already happened elsewhere in Africa, he said, it was already clear that the drug money had reached high up into certain countries in the region.