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?

Tim Gaynor/Reuters/File
A policeman patrols a market in central Timbuktu, on December 28, 2009. The area around Mali's capital has become a stronghold for a franchise of Al Qaeda, and a hub for trafficking cocaine from South America by air, which is then smuggled onto Europe.

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.

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.

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.

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

Yet, confronting the traffickers and the insurgents is precisely what the US military hopes these nations will do in the very near future. In the past two years, American military trainers have increased their visits to West Africa, and conducted joint training exercises under Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans-Sahel Initiative.

On land, US Army trainers – many of them Special Forces commandos – train African soldiers in counterinsurgency methods, and the US government has begun to provide the army of Mali, Niger, and Mauritania with basic arms and equipment, something these nations can ill-afford to buy on their own.
In addition, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents have ramped up their efforts in West Africa, trying to help nations with weak law enforcement capabilities to rein in drug traffickers.

Last month, three suspects from Mali were extradited from Ghana to the United States to face charges of offering Al Qaeda protection to move cocaine from West Africa, through the Sahara, and up to Spain. The three suspects, Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman, told DEA informants that they were members of Al Qaeda’s North African branch, and they could protect drug shipments at a fee of $4,200 per kilo.

Given the scale of what drug traffickers are willing to pay – and what Al Qaeda apparently earns for its part of the business – the challenge of stopping the drug trade through West Africa will be immense, say analysts.

It is one thing for the US military to train a man to fight an insurgent. It is quite another thing to put that man out in the field, earning little pay, where drug traffickers or radical Islamists can offer them bribes or other incentives to look the other way when it suits them.
“These traffickers are shipping huge amounts of cocaine so they have lots of money,” says Depagne. “This is a huge threat for weak states of West Africa. When you compare the money of a drug cartel to the budget of Mauritania, or to the salary of a policeman in Niger – who receives less than $200 a month – it’s easy to see what will happen.”

As for Al Qaeda, “if they manage to get that kind of money, it will put them on another level,” says Depagne. “I don’t know if you can find any evidence proving a link between Al Qaeda and the drug traffickers, unless you are CIA. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why they would want to work together. To do terrorism, you need money, and what are you going to do in the deserts of Mali to make money. You take money where it is. You work with the drug traffickers.”

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