The Western intervention in Libya has enabled an abundance of criminal financial streams unique to the Sahel to profit local terrorist organizations.

The vast, ungoverned spaces of the Sahel have long been utilized as a land of commercial enterprise, where economic exchange and survival are transposable. The trade routes and networks governed by the nomadic and pastoral communities of the region date back the halcyon days of the 15th century when cities such as Timbuktu were important transport hubs.

Nowadays the historic trade routes across Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Chad have become infiltrated with criminal and terrorist groups, inordinately fueled by the current regional instability.

The Sahel’s permeability has made it an ideal place to traffic contraband including drugs and people alike, posing a significant problem to those attempting to combat the threat these organizations pose in the region, trafficking contraband from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea is contributing to the weakening of states and exacerbating political and social instability.

Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels) have taken significant advantage of this situation, the symbiotic and economic links it has developed with the indigenous Tuareg and Bérabiche tribes, predominantly through marriage, has enabled it to become intimately involved in their trafficking and smuggling operations—most often cocaine, cannabis and tobacco, the group has also used the trade routes to facilitate its ‘kidnap economy’ allowing it to traffic people freely through the region, and it has been suggested that even when they are not directly involved in smuggling operations they frequently ‘tax’ those that are. The accumulative amount of money coming into AQIM is considerable with ransom payments alone projected between 60–175 million dollars.

Kidnap for ransom remains the staple tactic of Sahelien terror groups; the income generated is incomparable to other illicit sources of income and the willingness of European states to facilitate the payment of these ransoms further encourages these groups to seek out new targets. Vicki Huddleston, a former US state department official, told the New York Times “The danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement but that it makes all our citizens more vulnerable.”

Yet whilst the kidnap industry is one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in the Sahel, it is also the most unreliable. The opportunities to kidnap foreign national’s operating in the Sahel are marginal and by contrast day-to-day trafficking of contraband and illicit narcotics provides a much more stable income source.

AQIM’s reported links with South American narcotraficantes has enabled them to professionalize their operations and improved their capabilities in contraband transport. There is substantial evidence which highlights the trafficking problems in the Sahel, the most infamous of which is the case of ‘Air Cocaine’ which involved the crash of a Boeing 727 loaded with approximately ten tons of cocaine in Mali in November 2009 this, though the most famous case of drug trafficking, it is only a sample of the actual amounts which pass through the Sahel a 2011 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report calculated that the volume of cocaine trade in the Sahelian region was sixty times the amount it was 2002, albeit it also noted that trafficking had been declining since 2007, although the report notes that “There is debate as to whether the flow of cocaine decreased commensurably or whether the traffickers have simply found less detectable ways of moving the drug”.

In 2012 alone it was estimated that 18 tons of cocaine amounting to $1.25 billion transited through West Africa and the Sahel, highlighting the scale of the problem. Indeed a recent report states that the “Colombian drug trade via Guinea-Bissau….creates local incomes of at most US$10-20 million for operatives  in the Sahel, Algeria, and Libya”

The problems associated with this activity are not just the explicit issues commonly attributable to drug trafficking. The association between terrorism and drug trafficking in the region have previously been documented; the members of the terror cell, which had tenuous link to the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group that committed the Madrid Train Bombings in 2004, were purportedly hashish traffickers before they became radicalized, and used revenue acquired through the sale of narcotics to fund the operation, reportedly acquiring the explosives via an exchange for drugs. Whilst this example is fraught with uncorroborated claims and circumstantial evidence it offers an outlook of how future jihadi operations could be intimately tied to drug trafficking, and more appropriate evidence can be seen in how Afghan and Pakistani insurgency is funded by the opium trade.

The scope of illicit trade in the Sahel, though, specifically in relation to the narcotics trade, is widely disputed. The crux of the problem in attributing any perceptible affiliation between narcotics trafficking and terrorism in the Sahel is that the majority of information regarding the subject is often anecdotal and unverifiable. For instance, one example that is often cited by those espousing the relationship between narcotraficantes and terrorist groups in the Sahel is the 2010 operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in which undercover agents posed as members of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seeking to move cocaine through the Sahel region, met with men claiming to represent AQIM, and offered to protect their shipment for $2,000 per kilo. The operation led to the first indictment of Al Qaeda affiliates on narco-terrorism charges and ostensibly also confirmed the suspicions that Islamic terrorists were involved in the movement of narcotics throughout the Sahel. However, further analysis indicates that the claim made by the defendants was not anything other than false representation of their credentials. As noted by Wolfram Lacher, whilst the “three Malians were handed prison sentences, the narco-terrorism conspiracy charges were eventually dropped”.

Moreover, many experts agree that French-led military intervention in Mali in January 2013 has disrupted existing drugs trafficking networks in the Sahel, although a report by The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime argued that current trafficking levels have continued largely unabated in spite the French-led military intervention. Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop affirmed these concerns during a UN meeting on October 1, 2015, stating drug trafficking remains a major source of funding for non-state armed actors.

Another potential problem arising from the crime-terror nexus, and one which has been dominating current headlines, is the potential trafficking of terrorists into European cities.

There is an undeniably vibrant economy in the trafficking of undocumented workers through West Africa and the Sahel, with Libya often the final destination of choice—with an estimation of the number of undocumented workers there between 750,000-2.5 million.

AQIM and Tuareg caravans have been monitored moving undocumented workers from Nigeria and Burkina Faso through Mali onto Mediterranean cities such as Tripoli and Algiers, where entry into Europe is relatively straightforward, the majority those being trafficked is usually for the benign purpose of economic opportunity, indeed, Hiroute Guebre Sellassie the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Sahel states that 60 per cent of the human trafficking victims detected in the region were children.

Nonetheless there is considerable worry about the prospect of jihadist cells following the same route into Europe. The most recent justification for such concern followed the discovery of a Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) cell operating in Spain, although it must be pointed out, this seems to be anomalous and the current threat is likely vastly overblown.

Lesser criminal operations are also prevalent in the region, fuel and tobacco smuggling is a highly lucrative business and in the jihadi sphere, monopolized by al-Mourabitoun, which was formed through a merger between MUJAO and the Signed in Blood Battalion and  is commanded by one of the most infamous smugglers in the region, a former commander of AQIM: Mohktar Belmohktar, also known as ‘Laaouar’ and more tellingly as ‘Mr. Marlboro’ due to his extensive cigarette smuggling dating back to the 1990’s. The merger of his group with MUJAO also indicates the latter group’s ascendancy into more traditional contraband smuggling, with the group having long been purported to have connections with cocaine traffickers; further evidence which supports this is their association with Tilemsi Arab smugglers who have entrenched smuggling networks throughout the region.

The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and the resulting chaos, which has essentially rendered Libya a failed state, has only exacerbated the crime-terror nexus. Since ousting him from power “the traditional tribal trans-Sahara trade, in drugs, counterfeit products and migrants and arms to grow to around US$43-80m” according to a 2015 report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, moreover it has intensified the migrant trade with “coastal migrant trade, valued now at US$ 255 – 323 million per year in Libya alone” and that migrants traversing from Libya , the majority of which are now Syrians “make up roughly 60% of all illegal migrants to Europe.”

These increasing illicit revenue streams are proving highly beneficial to terror groups in the region. The lack of governance in Libya since Qaddafi’s fall and the French intervention in Mali precipitated several groups to relocate their operational centers to Libya, including both AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun. The presence of the Islamic State in Libya is another cause for concern; however, the Global Initiative report indicated that the group has made no incursions into the potentially lucrative smuggling routes of the Sahel, which may be due in part to tensions it has with rival Jihadi groups. But with Libya now seen as the hub of illegal activity across the Sahel and the Maghreb, expanding southward is not a necessity for the currently preeminent terror organization.

The current situation though is disquieting, the inadequacy and dearth of local governance and security infrastructure, particularly in Libya, has enabled abundance of criminal financial streams unique to the Sahel to profit local terrorist organizations. These financial opportunities, unless more effort is done by the local and international community to disrupt, will continue to fund insurgency throughout an already unstable region.