Militants are exploiting weak law enforcement in West Africa to raise funds from rackets ranging from people smuggling to drug trafficking and even fake Viagra, experts said.
While blacklisted groups like al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) have not attacked targets in West Africa, intelligence sources say their members and supporters are using the region to finance activities elsewhere.
In the past two years, South American cartels have switched their trafficking routes into Europe to funnel drugs via lawless swathes of war-scarred West Africa, particularly Guinea-Bissau, aiming to put Western anti-narcotics officials off their trail.
”There is a link between the financing of terrorism and the activities of these cocaine dealers in specific countries in West and Central Africa,” Amado Philip de Andres, deputy head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in West Africa, said on the sidelines of a regional anti-terrorism meeting.
”These extremely organised and well-funded networks do not only fund terrorism, they traffic arms from post-conflict countries, … they do cocaine trafficking, and that is linked to smuggling migrants.”
One of two Colombians arrested in Guinea-Bissau this month in a police anti-drugs operation was a member of the Farc left-wing guerrilla group, de Andres said. Despite an extradition attempt, the Colombians were freed due to pressure from ”interest groups” in Bissau, he said.
In West Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has long been linked to smuggling and extortion in Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Investigations of attacks, such as the March 2004 Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people, have unearthed links between Islamic groups and drug smuggling.
United Nations officials urged greater cooperation on border security to clamp down on terrorism funding. A new UN-backed customs programme in Dakar port to track containers from certain states recently seized a consignment of tiles from Pakistan filled with cocaine.
”To beat terrorism we need to fight it globally, with the same strategy,” Senegalese Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom told delegates. ”Its links with cross-border crime rings, drug smugglers and organised mafias make it more difficult to beat.”
Fake Viagra funds terror
During a decade of brutal, intertwined wars which spilled across borders from Sierra Leone and Liberia, smuggled ”blood diamonds” were linked to the funding of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.
The Kimberley certification scheme, launched in 2003 to stop diamonds financing rebel groups, has closed off that option but criminal and terrorist gangs have found more ingenious means to fund their activities, such as fake pharmaceuticals.
”In Nigeria and Ivory Coast, fake laboratories for Viagra are producing massively and these medicines are then used to launder money and to finance terrorism,” de Andres said.
Desperate economic migrants, often trafficked from as far afield as Afghanistan or Pakistan, can be duped into carrying illegal drugs to pay smugglers for a passage costing $20 000.
Home to some of the world’s poorest countries, West Africa is fertile recruiting ground for mafia groups, whose resources often far outweigh the cash-strapped authorities they face.
”We are facing the destabilisation of West Africa through specific states which have no means to fight against terrorism, the financing of terrorism and specifically drug trafficking from Latin America,” de Andres said. – Reuters