Air Al Qaeda: Are Latin America's drug cartels giving Al Qaeda a lift?
There is growing concerns that Al Qaeda in Africa and Latin American drug cartels are working together. Latin American cocaine flights go to Africa, en route to Europe. Are Al Qaeda members on the empty planes back to Latin America?
Johannesburg, South Africa
It's known as the Coca Cola plane. In early November, drug traffickers landed a Boeing 727 in the Malian desert in Gao state and offloaded as much as 10 tons of cocaine. Then, rather than fly it back across the Atlantic to Latin America, they simply burnt it, treating it like a used Coke can.
The terrain of northern Mali is stark desert, and a haven for Islamist insurgents with close ties to Al Qaeda. Initially, investigators thought the plane had crashed in the desert on take off.
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But now, based on the fact that the plane was largely intact, many experts suspect that the drug cartels – perhaps in coordination with their Al Qaeda partners – burnt the plane deliberately.
“That shows you the strength of the drug cartels, and how much money they have,” says Rinaldo Depagne, a West Africa expert at the International Crisis Group in Dakar, Senegal. “It’s like a plastic [Coca Cola] bottle to them. When you are done with it, you just throw it away.”
According to UN reports, nearly 60 percent of the cocaine sold in Europe transits through weak West African states such as Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Guinea Bissau – a flow of cash and contraband that undermines the credibility of each country’s ability to govern itself.
As many of these same countries are now becoming a haven for a shadowy group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), there are growing concerns that Islamist radicals and Latin American drug cartels may be working together, both to enrich themselves and to weaken the law enforcement capability of those West African states.
“At this point Al Qaeda in the Maghreb seems to be nothing more than just facilitators, but more and more we see evidence of them working together,” says an official for the US military at the Africom command center in Stuttgart, speaking on background. But it is safe to assume, the official adds, that Al Qaeda “is profiting from the drug trafficking trade going through its areas” of the Sahara.