In 2008 a report surfaced from the US Department of Homeland Security warning against “the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11." Authored by an anonymous official, the report detailed a makeshift fleet running drugs from South America to West Africa, where they're smuggled into Europe. The report cautioned that a verifiable link had yet to be connected to al-Qaeda, but it seemed likely given the group’s intensifying focus on Africa.
Yet for some unknown reason Washington, which never misses an opportunity to sound al-Qaeda's alarm, buried the report until Reuters unearthed it in January 2010. Responding to the story, the “dismayed” official stated in apparent shock, "You've got an established terrorist connection on this side of the Atlantic. Now on the Africa side you have the al Qaeda connection and it's extremely disturbing and a little bit mystifying that it's not one of the top priorities of the government.”
So why downplay or ignore al-Qaeda’s potentially airborne network - and what could be two-way flights - when Western governments have played up its African offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), since 2002? Has a fear of inducing panic held Washington back? Or does it seek to fuel the conflict in order to justify gradual military intervention?
The latter possibility is hardly far-fetched.
Although the Homeland Security report and Reuters’s follow up are “old” news, their trail remains white hot. This month the United Nations Office for Drug and Crime launched a much-anticipated initiative to “establish secure communication between airports in West Africa and Latin America.” Since cartels and smugglers, whether affiliated with al-Qaeda or not, have taken advantage of poor regional coordination, “AIRCOP” will form a transnational counter-narcotics network between Brazil, Cape Verde, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, and Mali. A key ally in the West’s battle against AQIM, Mali also serves as Reuters’s point of origin for two overriding reasons.
Last November authorities discovered a burnt out Boeing 727 laced with traces of cocaine, estimated between five and ten tons upon landing. A month later three AQIM operatives from Mali turned up in a New York courthouse, charged with offering DEA agents a smuggling route into Spain.
Of the many rumors surrounding AQIM - particularly its range into Europe - a network from Mexico to the Sahara may be the most concrete. The UN estimates an annual 200 to 300 tons of cocaine feed Europe’s appetite, with 50 to 100 tons exported from South America via West Africa. AQIM doesn’t have its hands on every bag and multiple cases surfaced of smugglers flashing AQIM in name only, likely a common ruse. But cocaine smuggling still forms a major portion of AQIM’s budget along with kidnapping ransoms and human trafficking.
An influx of cash coupled with a relatively low number of fighters (estimated around 400) has dispersed a technologically advanced group over an area half the size of Europe - the very threat Western officials now warn against.
So why overlook the Homeland Security report and ignore ways to dry up AQIM’s revenue? Why did AIRCOP, a $3 million dollar program, take years to get off the ground while Washington ships tens of millions in military funding to North African states? Corrupt or rogue elements in these governments and militaries have been known to offload, transport, and protect drug shipments.
To a point one must concede the obstacles at hand. Policing the Atlantic for 10 to 20 planes isn’t easy, especially when they mix their flight patterns and change routes before or mid-takeoff. Planes have directly landed at African airports, but more often use abandoned or makeshift runways cut out of the bush and hastily paved. The planes themselves, including Gulfstreams, have been outfitted with additional fuel tanks and on at least one occasion flew a Red Cross symbol. Outsmarting South American cartels and African drug runners is never simple.
Not when they bribe government and airport officials to land their cargo, a tactic readily employed in North Africa.
Further complicating matters, the DEA claims that all aircraft seized in West Africa departed from Venezuela. Though the DEA provokes a high degree of skepticism in certain quarters, rumors of the FARC flying drugs out of Venezuela have circulated for years. The state is ideally positioned geographically and remains one of several South American states without a DEA presence on the ground (the air is another story). Venezuelan troops have seized several planes, more proof of the drug network’s vitality, but President Hugo Chavez’s well-known opinion of America suggests duplicity.
Lack of cooperation from the main staging-ground severely hinders an efficient counter-narcotics network.
However these factors can, to varying degrees, be laid at Washington’s feet. Despite the appearance of international cooperation, US and European leadership has largely restricted itself to military cooperation when addressing North Africa. More public attention has been devoted to AQIM threats in the last month than its drug pipeline has received entirely. Only threats are hyped, not solutions, and a global problem has yet to be treated as such at the highest levels.
Alexandre Schmidt, the regional UN representative for West and Central Africa who helped organize AIRCOP, remarked back in January, "This should be the highest concern for governments.”
Western attitudes toward AQIM and North African militancy must undergo total renovation in thought and message. This message must remain globalized at all times, as both the problem and solution are global in nature. Rooted in disenfranchisement, corruption and poverty, conflict in North Africa inputs South American drugs and exports them into Europe along with heroin from Asia, fostering a variety of insurgencies along the way. The cartels’ market itself shifted because of security developments on the US-Mexican border, creating more reward for their risk in Africa.
The global implications of AQIM far outweigh its own global ambitions.
A shift in consciousness entails financial restructuring. 4,000 miles of ocean must shrink under an expanding radar blanket, which extends only to the Caribbean and north Atlantic corridors through fixed radar and P3 aircraft. Drug smugglers reportedly fly without fear of radar detection for absurd reasons. According to Interpol, planes landing in the Bijagos Archipelago, no more than 100 miles off the African coast, haven’t been intercepted due to lack of resources.
Meanwhile the DEA maintains field offices in most Latin and South American states, including Venezuela, while it doesn’t even list Africa as a region on its website. Unfortunately America’s over-extension has funneled a disproportionate share of DEA agents to Afghanistan while AQIM’s territory - over four times larger than the Taliban's - suffers from malnutrition. With only four African offices in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, and Sudan, the DEA clearly needs to expand its presence across North Africa if Washington sincerely intends to shut down this global pipeline.
Funding for international narcotics control and law enforcement in 2009 modestly exceeded a single, $4.5 million military shipment to Mali.
Though security investments require expansion in coordination and technology, the most important factor depends on whether the West can lead with non-military funding. Over $65 million in development assistance went to Mali in 2010, $50 million to Senegal, and $71 million to Ghana, but collectively Guinea-Bissau, Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger received less than five million from the US State Department. These figures should be standardized. Policy and message are inseparable in fourth-generation warfare, and long-term stability in North Africa can only be forged through political, economic, and social growth. Corruption is the primary enemy, not AQIM, and an influx in non-military funding cannot be siphoned off.
So long as the West continues to support African militaries without a corresponding progression in non-military spheres, AQIM and common smugglers alike will continue their operations with minimal disruption. The region sinks deeper into conflict. And with so many pieces out of place it’s hard not to wonder if the puzzle has been intentionally ignored, or whether al-Qaeda could smuggle itself back into America.
It wouldn’t be the first time.