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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?

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A 2008 Department of Homeland Security report, obtained by Reuters, warned of a growing fleet of rogue aircraft – at least 10 aircraft including executive jets, twin-engine turboprops, and aging Boeing 727s, crisscrossing the Atlantic. The DEA also told Reuters that all aircraft seized in West Africa had departed Venezuela.

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When it comes to traffickers use of planes between West Africa and Latin America, US military experts say there is a clear potential threat to American security. “We know what those planes are carrying across the Atlantic to Africa. But what goes back [on those planes] to [Latin] American shores?” says one US military official. “You know what the condition of the [US] southern borders are. You see the beginning of a process of thought.”

Al Qaeda funded by drug protection money?

If Al Qaeda is getting into the drug trade, it would not be the first terrorist organization to do so. Through much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Colombian leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has largely funded its 40-year insurgency through kidnapping and cocaine production. The Taliban were also thought to have turned to the opium trade in order to finance its own buildup of arms in the southern part of Afghanistan.

The motives of Al Qaeda would seem to be very different from those of the drug traffickers. Al Qaeda is an insurgent group fighting for a political goal, perhaps to defend its land or to impose its ideology. Drug traffickers are merely in it for money.

But in the West African Sahara, there's growing evidence that the two have found common cause in using the vast unpatrolled desert areas for transporting drugs up north to Europe, and as bases for military operations and training.

“Terrorists are looking at an ideology, they are fighting for their land,” says another US military official at Africom. “Traffickers don’t have an allegiance to an area, they change their routes, they change their methods, far faster than the law enforcement in a country can keep up with.”

Latin American cartels have been smuggling drugs to Europe via Africa since the 1990s. But For West African nations, keeping up with the traffickers and now the insurgents may seem an impossible task. In 2006, a UN report found that the annual value of smuggled cocaine through West Africa is more than twice the gross domestic product of Guinea Bissau.

US military trainers help out