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Special 012510 Logan-ISN

Monday, January 25, 2010

DEA Uncovers a Latin America-Africa Drug-Terror Nexus

By Samuel Logan

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), along with the US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced on 18 December their intent to charge three alleged members of al-Qaida with acts of narco-terrorism and support of a foreign terrorist organization.

According to the announcement, it was the first time members of al-Qaida have faced charges linked to drug trafficking. The sting operation, which used DEA confidential sources (CSs) posing as agents for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), uncovered a Latin America-Africa nexus between drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and al-Qaida that one former DEA official has called the “tip of the iceberg.”

This operation is the third time the DEA has used CSs posing as FARC agents or operatives to lure suspects into a trap orchestrated to capture and convict transnational criminals. The first time the DEA used this ruse it resulted in the capture, arrest and conviction of Syrian arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar, who was arrested in Spain in 2007. The second sting captured renowned arms trafficker Viktor Bout in 2008, who currently languishes in a Bangkok prison awaiting extradition to either Russia or the US.

The capture of three Malian men, proclaimed members of the North African al-Qaida franchise known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is the first time the DEA has uncovered what appears to be a solid connection between Latin American drug smugglers and a well-established terrorist organization.

“There are clear connections between drug traffickers and terrorism because there are many similarities between the two,” DEA spokesperson Dawn Dearden told ISN Security Watch, adding, “they’re both clandestine, they both have corrupt officials at the highest levels [...] and they both rely on shadow facilitators.”

The DEA backbone

The DEA, as a member of the US intelligence community, operates 83 offices in 62 countries – the largest overseas presence of any federal law enforcement organization. Unlike other agencies that have tended toward using technology to gather intelligence, the DEA, due to its small size and relatively limited budget, has fewer options.

“The DEA has continued to rely on [human intelligence], which other intelligence groups have stopped doing,” Douglas Farah, senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told ISN Security Watch.

“Confidential sources have long been the backbone of DEA’s enforcement and intelligence programs,” Dearden said. She explained that CSs gather information from sources not necessarily available to law enforcement officials; they blend in where agents might quickly attract attention as a stranger. CSs may conduct “undercover negotiations” with DEA suspects, and, perhaps most importantly, they can gain firsthand, timely intelligence.

The French-speaking DEA CS, who performed some of the undercover work for the DEA’s sting operation that recently netted the three AQIM members, posed as a Lebanese radical committed to “opposing the interests of the United States, Israel, and [...] the West and its ideals,” according to a 19 December AP article.

This CS ultimately convinced the three Malian suspects that the FARC needed the AQIM to assist with moving a significant amount of cocaine across the Saharan sands. One of the men, court documents show, told the DEA CS that “Al-Qaeda would protect the FARC’s cocaine shipment from Mali through North Africa and into Morocco en route to Spain.”

The drug-terror nexus

The AQIM purports to spread its influence and control across North Africa, a region known as the Maghreb. The men who originally formed this Algerian rebel group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, joined the al-Qaida franchise on 11 September 2006, and have since conducted a series of kidnappings and bombings across Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity, some analysts specializing in North Africa terrorist groups said that the AQIM appeared to have begun to lose its religious footing, preferring to grasp a more ideological tack that involves a focus on raising funds through kidnapping and, as the recent DEA arrests indicate, drug trafficking.

A kilo of pure cocaine in El Paso, Texas, may be worth as much as $20,000, and increasingly more as it moves north from the US-Mexico border. That same kilo, however, once inside Rome, Madrid or Paris, may be worth twice that amount.

As Europe has established itself as the premier emerging market for Latin American drug traffickers, groups like the AQIM are well placed to earn thousands of dollars a shipment, simply by safeguarding the transport route from arrival points inside nations in the Gulf of Guinea through Mali or Mauritania, and finally into Algeria and Morocco, before crossing the Mediterranean into Spain.

“The DEA is becoming more aware of the nexus between the drug trade and terrorist financing,” Farah said. He added that the DEA had begun to track a network of “shadow facilitators,” who operate in the middle ground between drug trafficking and terrorist networks as logistics coordinators, money laundering agents, business brokers or maybe even pilots.

Narco aviation network

AQIM knowledge and control of desert routes snaking through the no-man’s land in northern Mali, Algeria and Mauritania has as much to do with its increasing role in drug trafficking through Africa as does the de facto presence of a narco airline that uses retired Boeing 727 and Gulfstream II jets to ferry drugs and people east from destination points in South America.

A narco aviation network operates between Venezuela and points in West Africa, namely Guinea Bissau and Mali, according to a 13 January Reuters article, which heavily sourced a jaded Department of Homeland Security counter-narcotics aviation expert. On both points of the trans-Atlantic flight, a lack of government oversight facilitates the movement of a significant amount of drugs into West Africa, en route to Europe, where jets may take off and land with little to no worry of detection or scrutiny once on the ground.

Years ago, when a trickle of cocaine passed through Africa into Europe, Latin American DTOs could rely on a network of mules, individuals willing to swallow packets of cocaine or heroin before traveling to the EU. Yet as demand for cocaine inside the US flattened, the EU became the premier destination for cocaine, increasing the need for an aviation network to move tonnage across the Atlantic. Given the relative size of law enforcement black holes of government sovereignty in the Gulf of Guinea nations, they became logical points for routes from Colombia through Africa to Spain.

The DEA has limited to no operations in Venezuela, and does not currently operate offices in Mali or Guinea Bissau, a country with an 80-island archipelago that has no national radar system. According to the Reuters article, the officials in Mali are happy to take a bribe to protect narco flights once they’ve landed on Malian territory.

AQIM, for its part, has been working steadily over the past few years to capture control of drug trafficking through North Africa, a strategy that analysts who spoke with ISN Security Watch believe is a result of the concerted effort of the Algerian government to disrupt the group’s terrorist activities in the region. 

As the need to smuggle more cocaine to survive forces groups like the FARC to reach out to any organized group they can find in North Africa, they will likely come into regular contact with a group like the AQIM, which stands to benefit from the suggested $2,000 to $4,000 it could earn per smuggled kilo of pure cocaine.

If what the DEA and some analysts allege is true, then AQIM could be the best fit for Latino DTOs interested in moving narcotics through Africa into the EU. The DEA’s current case against the three Malian members of AQIM may conclude that the FARC-AQIM nexus is possibly only an indication of the vast network of jungle rebels, desert Bedouins and rogue pilots networked together to move Colombian coke from the Andes to the Alps and beyond.

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This article was originally published at ISN Security Watch (01/21/10).  The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide.  Reprinted with permission from ISN.

Samuel Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999.  He is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch, and editor of Southern Pulse – Networked Intelligence.  He is the author of This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, (released by Hyperion in summer 2009).  For issues related publications go to http://www.samuellogan.com/publications.html.

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