Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch — considered the “wealthiest” — likely generates tens of millions of dollars annually through drug trafficking linked to violent Latin American cartels like the leftist terrorist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other criminal activities, reveals the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), considered al-Qaeda’s wealthiest branch in 2012, may make tens of millions of dollars per year, and likely has enough funding to sustain itself and its Sahel affiliates,” reports FDD, later adding:
AQIM has tended to profit from drug smuggling by taxing shipments and charging smugglers for “providing protection” … The taxation and direct sale of drugs will likely continue to be AQIM’s most consistent stream of funding in the years to come, as the drug trade in West Africa is growing.
Acknowledging that the “full extent” of al-Qaeda’s cooperation with Latin American cartels remains unclear, FDD points out that the two groups have discussed “improved coordination.”
Citing the United Nations, the think tank estimates that AQIM makes an estimated $15 million annually, adding:
The group’s funding has come predominantly from ransoms and from smuggling drugs, cigarettes, arms, and other contraband … For the next ten years [after 2003], ransoms yielded roughly $100 million, becoming the predominant source of funding that allowed the group to spread its influence across the Sahel region.
Ransoms were the top money maker in the al-Qaeda branch until 2015, when drug smuggling reportedly displaced kidnappings as the predominant source.
“The group is likely to rely more on making money from drug smuggling and taxation in the near future, partly as a result of the region’s security disintegration,” reports FDD.
Primarily based in Algeria and Mali, AQIM reportedly operates across the North African region, including in Tunisia, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
The groups smuggling networks stretch across the Sahel and Sahara regions.
Echoing the U.S. military and American lawmakers, FDD notes that the al-Qaeda branch is working with violent Latin American drug cartels, a relationship that the American armed forces believe poses a national security threat to the United States.
AQIM has spent over a decade cultivating relationships with Latin American drug cartels, tribes, and smugglers.
The opportunity for tapping the narcotics market is huge; in 2012, cocaine smuggling alone through Western Africa was valued at $1.25 billion. As drugs are increasingly made in Africa, AQIM may move towards direct production in addition to facilitation.
“Reports in 2010 indicated that AQIM had agreed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to provide protection for drugs being transited across northern Africa,” points out FDD.
The U.S. government has designated the FARC, an official political party in Colombia and the country’s largest drug cartel, as a foreign terrorist group.
In 2014, the then-commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Gen. John Kelly (now retired and serving as the White House chief of staff), linked AQIM to Latin America’s lucrative drug trade, saying the jihadist group raises “a lot of money” by charging the cartels for trafficking cocaine into Europe through West Africa.
Some U.S. military officials have expressed concerns that the Latin American cartels may be helping al-Qaeda bring jihadists into the Western Hemisphere.
SOUTHCOM — charged with U.S. military activities in Latin American countries below Mexico and the Caribbean — has warned that jihadist organizations may exploit the smuggling route knowledge of Latin American drug cartels to infiltrate the United States.
AQIM provides a “vital Sahel way station between suppliers in Latin America and European markets.” Latin American drug traffickers smuggle drugs across Africa en route to Europe as a way to diversify away from only sending drugs to Europe by sea, a route that has been increasingly interdicted. In addition, African gangs are increasingly producing drugs which are also smuggled on these routes.
Besides drugs, FDD reports that the al-Qaeda branch is also involved in arms and human trafficking, noting:
Arms smuggled from [the late Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddaf’s stockpiles were worth around $15-$30 million annually in 2015. A report on transnational organized crime estimated that human trafficking across the Sahara was usually worth $8-$20 million, though this number had ballooned to $255-$323 million due to the incipient migrant crisis. AQIM would have earned part of both of those figures, based on direct sales and taxation.
Each year the United States apprehends hundreds of special interest aliens, or illegal migrants from terrorism-linked Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa, trying to enter the United States.
In November, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, warned that Islamic terrorist groups “are teaming up with violent drug lords” in Latin America, noting that the relationship poses a “grave threat” to U.S. national security.