Just as the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s funded the expansion of the Cosa Nostra, the present-day prohibition of drugs is the life blood of al-Qaeda.
The 37 foreign workers who died in the assault on an Algerian gas plant were victims of terrorists whose weapons may have been paid for by cocaine users of Britain and Europe, reports Colin Freeman.
By Colin Freeman, Segou
7:30PM GMT 26 Jan 2013
Like everywhere else that has fallen under Islamist rule in northern Mali, the city of Gao on the edge of the Sahara is not a place where vice is tolerated. Drinking and dancing are banned, the city’s two nightclubs have been burned down, and the only thing that passes for street entertainment is watching citizens being flogged in public for smoking.
Such all-encompassing piety, though, comes to a halt outside the high walls of the gaudy new villas on Gao’s outskirts, which stand out amid the shanty towns overlooking the sand dunes.
Nicknamed “Cocainebougou” – which translates as “cocaine town” – the strip of mansions is home to the elite of the city’s ancient smuggling community, which has trafficked goods across the Sahara since the 11 century, when Gao was better known than nearby Timbuktu.
Unlike their ancestors’ cargoes of spices, salts and silks, the contraband that Gao’s smugglers bring in today from Colombia is deemed strictly “haram”, or forbidden, by Islam.
Yet the city’s ever-zealous Islamist morality police have a good reason for turning a blind eye. For it is thanks to the trans-Saharan cocaine trade that Islamist groups like al-Qaeda have become a power in the region, building up formidable war chests to buy both arms and recruits.
“Cocainebougou is full of very rich traffickers, all with gleaming new SUVs,” said one former resident of Gao, who asked not to be named. “But they and the Islamists have a very close relationship.”
The cocaine trade first exploded in this region five years ago, as Latino cartels, faced with a saturated market in the US, sought new routes to get their product to Europe’s borders. First the drug is shipped or flown across the Atlantic to lawless, corrupt coastal states like Guinea Bissau, then it is moved thousands of miles across the Sahara to Algeria, Morocco and Libya.
Already, the influx of drug cash into such a poor region has had a disastrously corrosive effect. In Guinea Bissau, for example, the cartels’ limitless funds have bought up so many police, politicians and soldiers that it has been dubbed Africa’s first “narco-state”, with a military coup last April blamed on in-fighting over drug trade proceeds.
But while Britain and other Western nations have committed vast resources to fighting a similar narco-terror axis in the Taliban-controlled poppy fields of Afghanistan, the threat directly beneath Europe’s belly has had rather less attention. The entire region has only a handful of Western counter-narcotics agents assigned to it, while many local police forces, such as in Guinea Bissau, lack even the cash to put petrol in their cars.
Now, though, the trade’s potential to wreak far wider havoc has become horrifyingly clear, in helping to bankroll the al-Qaeda movements behind both the Islamist take-over of northern Mali and the murder of western workers at the Algerian gas facility earlier this month.
Among its most prominent beneficiaries is none other than Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed jihadist and smuggler who has claimed responsibility for the mass hostage-taking in al-Qaeda’s name.
Nicknamed the Marlboro Man for his lucrative cigarette smuggling empire, Belmokhtar, who helped found Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is thought to have diversified into drugs a few years ago, earning himself the moniker of “le narco-Islamiste” on the smuggling routes between Mali and his native Algeria.
More widely, AQIM is thought to levy “taxes” on other drug smugglers in return for safe passage, earning the group a direct subsidy from the cocaine that ends up in the clubs, bars and crack dens of Britain. As the US State Department puts it, AQIM provides “protection and permissions for traffickers moving product through areas they control”.
As someone who boasts of fighting jihad in Afghanistan while just a teenager, Belmokhtar seems to have had no problem accommodating a sideline in “haram” contraband into his puritanical Islamic vision. As drugs are seen as a largely Western vice, jiihadists can argue that enabling them to flood into Europe is all part of a plan to weaken and corrupt the enemy.
In any case, smuggling has never been considered a disreputable professsion in the Sahara, especially along today’s Mali-Algeria border. Goods in Algeria’s oil-subsidised socialist economy are vastly cheaper than in dirt poor, remote Mali, creating a thriving black market in everything from petrol to semolina.
“In northern Mali, everything that is eaten comes from Algeria and comes illegally,” said Andy Morgan, a British- based Sahara expert. “It has generated a massive smuggling economy, like Cornwall in the 18th century. Smuggling is in people’s blood, it’s not deemed a nefarious activity, and most of the region’s powerful people are involved, like Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid (another AQIM leader).”
Today’s smuggling caravans are very modern affairs, using the latest SUVs rather than camels, and steering by GPS rather than the stars.
However, thanks to the smugglers’ time-old knowledge of the secret trails and hiding places that cover the Sahara’s vast expanse, they are extremely to catch. The drug convoys are usually also heavily-armed, and are even said to sow certain sections of their routes with landmines to hinder police and army.
Gao, which sits on the River Niger in Mali’s north-east, has long been one of the main drug transit points, where convoys begin winding north through the mountainous dunes of the Sahara proper. Notoriously, it was the scene of the so-called “Cocaine Air” incident of 2009, when an elderly Boeing 727 airliner was found abandoned in the desert near Tarkint, a sandblown village north of the city.
The United Nations Office for Drug Control believes the plane, carrying up to 11 tonnes of the drug, had been flown direct from Venezuela – one of an entire “fleet” of decrepit airliners pressed into service by Latino cartels. The incident prompted the UNODC to warn that terror-backed trafficking in West Africa was “taking on a whole new dimension.”
Pierre Lapaque, the UNODC’s regional head, who estimates that 35 tonnes of cocaine now pass through the region every year, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Northern Mali is the Wild West. There is absolutely no control.”
While Mr Lapaque cautions that hard proof of al-Qaeda’s role in the cocaine trade is, by definition, difficult to come by, US officials are rather more confident. In particular, they cite a court case in New York last November, when a man from Gao and two other extradited Malians were jailed for offering to transport cocaine for an FBI agent posing as a Latino drug baron.
The defendants, who claimed to be al-Qaeda affiliates, allegedly asked for a premium of $2,000 per kilo, which they said would “help the cause”. While they later claimed to have simply fabricated their terror connections to impress their client, the DEA said the case proved a “direct link between terrorist organisations and international drug trafficking”.
Such activities are believed to have enabled AQIM to go on a lavish shopping spree in the vast arms bazaar that sprung up in Libya after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011. That, in turn, helped them to seize control of cities such as Gao last year, when they joined forces with Mali’s Tuareg separatists to drive out the Malian army, prompting the subsequent military coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure.
There are even claims that the militants use cocaine as a stimulant when fighting. Last week, residents of the town Diabaly, where Islamists were driven out by French forces last week, said that some of the guerrillas who had invaded the week before had carried small bags of “white powder” with them.
“I saw two of them putting the power on the back of their hands and sniffing it,” said Adama Sanogo, 44. “We assumed it was to give them energy during the fight.”
While it was not possible to verify the claims of Mr Sanogo and other residents, it is not unheard of for al-Qaeda to use stimulants during battle. During the siege of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, US soldiers found needles and quantities of amphetamines in militants’ safe houses.
Yet the AQIM and its various Islamist affiliates, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faithful), are not the only ones benefiting from the cocaine trade. President Toure’s government and army were likewise said to be on the take, with one 750 kilo seizure of cocaine mysteriously “disappearing” after being intercepted by troops in northern Mali in 2008.
Also thought to be complicit are local government officials around Gao, where the drug trade is dominated by the Telemsi, a tough Arab smuggling clan.
Identifying who exactly is involved is never easy, and within the various Islamists groups and their Malian government “patrones”, allegiances and activities shift as constantly as the sands of the Sahara. One person who typifies the way they murkily interlink, though, is Baba Ould Cheikh, the tough, gun-toting Telemsi mayor of Tarkint, where the Boeing 727 landed.
While there is no suggestion that he is involved in the drug trade, many note that the traffickers chose to land the plane in his region. Equally intriguing is the role he has played in AQIM’s other big money-raising activity – kidnapping Westerners for ransom.
On at least three occasions since 2003, he acted as a go-between for President Toure, driving thousands of miles into the desert to negotiate the release of hostages with AQIM brigades. And while he was always successful, Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat abducted by Belmokhtar in 2008, noticed that Mr Cheikh seemed on somewhat cordial terms with the AQIM leaders.
According to Mr Fowler, during the meeting at which he was finally released Mr Cheikh even had the kidnappers adjust the firing pin on his AK47.
“President Toure used to refer to Baba as ‘Mon bandite’,” said Mr Fowler, who spent 130 days in AQIM captivity. “He may or may not have had unsavoury connections, although I have to say that if it wasn’t for Baba, I might not be alive today.”
Smugglers and kidnappers, friends and foes, these shadowy webs of influence are the ones that France, Britain and other nations must now disentangle if they wish to have any chance of restoring stability to Mali and the wider region.
But while David Cameron has already pledged drones and Special Forces to “find and dismantle” al-Qaeda, it may be harder to stamp out the drug trade that nurtures them. Western nations have already begun training counter-narcotics police in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, fearful that West Africa could face the kind of drug violence convulsing Mexico if the cocaine trade continues to expand.
But those countries most in need of help are already almost beyond it.
The hotspot of Guinea Bissau is a formidably difficult environment for trainers and counternarcotics officials to operate in, not least because, according to UN officials, many of those behind the coup and now in power have links with the drugs business.
And diplomats point out that for all the West’s talk of helping to retrain Mali’s chaotic army, it was already the recipient of a generous US counter-terrorism programme when it collapsed last year.
“You can spend all the money you like, but these are not easy regimes to deal with,” said one serving drug enforcement officer who covers West Africa. “Some of them are already so bad that you can’t achieve anything.”
Do you fight for your impoverished country, or take the jihadists’ coin? Colin Freeman in Diabaly talks to Malians weighing up their grim options.
By Colin Freeman, Diabaly
In the end, Corporal Adama Toure chose to serve his country’s interests rather than his own, but it was a close-run thing.
Sitting under the shade of a mango tree in the village of Diabaly in northern Mali last Thursday, he told how he was tempted to switch sides when al-Qaeda fighters attacked the dusty farming hamlet the week before.
Not because he any particular interest in militant Islam, but for the simple reason that the pay and conditions were better.
“Look at me – in 18 years I have only moved from private to corporal, and I am still poor like a beggar,” grumbled Cpl Toure, whose army gives him a Kalashnikov and shabby green uniform but no boots, forcing him to wear tennis shoes instead. “I tell you, a lot of us soldiers have been tempted to join the militants, myself included.”
On the condition that his real name not be used, Cpl Toure spoke candidly to The Sunday Telegraph as life in Diabaly gradually returned to normal after a turbulent fortnight as a weathervane town for Mali’s future. Having fallen a fortnight ago to the Islamists, who easily outgunned the few Malian troops stationed there, it was then “liberated” again last weekend after a French aerial bombardment destroyed several of the Islamists’ gun trucks and sent them fleeing into the forests further north.
Corp Toure, whose unit was 10 miles from Diabaly at the time and was ordered to let the French do the fighting, said he later heard that among the Islamist guerrillas was one of his old comrades, who also had an older brother living in the village.
“The older brother asked him: ‘Why did you join the militant people?’” recalled Corp Toure. “He replied: ‘Because they pay well.’ He said he was earning two million CFA (£2,600) a year, plus 500,000 CFA (£750) for every day spent fighting.”
That might not sound much by Western standards, but Corp Toure said that even the basic pay level was double his own army income.
Especially after the inevitable “deductions” from his superiors, who routinely cream a bit off from the lower ranks’ earnings each month to line their own pockets. And when it came to earning the “fighting” bonus, it was probably safer to be the side of the well-armed, well-organised militants than the chronically under-equipped Malian army, who lost so many battles to them last year that it sparked the military coup in March and, ultimately, this month’s French intervention.
“I did wonder about joining them, but then I had second thoughts and decided to protect the people instead,” added Corp Toure, as he watched children playing around the wreckage of three burnt-out gun trucks. “But if you look up in Timbuktu and Kidal (militant-held towns in the north) I can tell you plenty of soldiers who have switched sides there.”
The fact that members of Mali’s security forces are willing to take the mercenary coin is just one of the challenges that the French military now faces in trying to ensure that towns like Diabaly do not fall to the Islamists yet again. In doing so, they may also have to grapple with the country’s other underlying problems, which include not just chronic poverty but almost total disillusionment with both civilian and military governments, to which the Islamists claimed to offer an uncorrupt alternative.
More immediately, there is also the risk of ethnic score-settling now that the militants are on the back foot.
Reports have already surfaced in the past week of Malian soldiers executing people deemed to have been sympathetic to the Islamists in and around the central Malian city of Severe, allegedly throwing their bodies down wells. Some were apparently ethnic Tuaregs, the light-skinned nomads of northern Mali who have long had tensions with the black Africans of the south.
“They gathered all the people who didn’t have national identity cards, and the people they suspected of being close to the Islamists, to execute them and put them in two different wells near the bus station,” one eye witness told The Associated Press.
The France-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said it had credible reports of up to 20 killings, and called for an inquiry to “determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators”.
General Carter F Ham, the commander for Africa of the branch of the US military responsible for monitoring threats on the continent, admitted last week that not enough attention had been paid to “ethics” during US training of Malian troops in recent years.
To date, the French intervention still appears to have the overwhelming backing of most Malians, with the tricolor still being waved in many places last week. But should the French role have to expand to policing Mali’s different ethnic sects that could change, creating an opportunity ripe for exploitation by Islamists.
For while there is little overt support for the Taliban-style rule that al-Qaeda has imposed in cities such as Gao and Timbuktu in the north – where French forces were fighting on Saturday – there is nonetheless support for hardline Islam in some sections of Malian society. Preachers of Wahabbism – the puritanical brand of the faith exported from Saudi Arabia – can now fill arenas in the capital, Bamako, and in parts of the city, veiled women are now a common sight.
One Malian aid worker, who returned to the country in 2003 after nearly two decades abroad, said: “When I came I was shocked by the changes I saw in the extent of radical Islam here. There are lot more radical Muslims and radical Islamic organisations that didn’t exist before.”
In some parts of the country, the lawlessness that goes hand in hand with a weak, corrupt, coup-ridden government has also created strong support for harsh punishments, if not necessarily the religious dogma that goes with it. Abdurraham Ballo, 64, the imam of the Mosque of the New Bus Station in Segou, said the only thing that was wrong with the amputations carried out in the Islamist-held towns further north was that they cut off feet as well as hands.
“That practice is not allowed in Islam, it should only be the hands,” he said. “But the purpose of amputation is to prevent as well as punish, and if it can stop people stealing and robbing, then why not? Nowadays there all kinds of people stealing, and carrying out robberies with violence.”
Mr Ballo added that he laid part of the blame on Mali “importing Western laws”, which stopped people beating thieves and emphasised criminals’ “human rights”.
“All laws in Africa are imported from Europe these days, and they all talk of ‘human rights’,” he said. “Who is human? Only Europeans?”