The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged sahel
Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region

Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region

From a new Carnegie paper by Wolfram Lacher:

The Sahel and Sahara region is far from a pivotal area for transnational organized crime. The importance of organized criminal activity there stems from the fact that there are few alternative activities that produce similar profits and rapid enrichment. This particularly applies to three undertakings that have expanded significantly since around 2003: smuggling of Moroccan cannabis resin, cocaine smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom. Individuals and networks involved in these activities have converted their wealth into political influence and military power. Contraband trade in licit goods, which had developed across the region in previous decades, laid the institutional basis for the development of these high-profit activities.

This kind of drug networks have their origins in cigarette trafficking that took off in the 1980s and were instrumental in financing Algeria's jihadists in the 1990s.

Cigarette smuggling in particular has greatly contributed to the emergence of the practices and networks that have allowed drug trafficking to grow. The smuggling of cigarettes to North African markets began to thrive in the early 1980s, and it developed into a large-scale business controlled by a few major players. Cigarettes, imported through Mauritania, supplied a large portion of the Algerian and Moroccan markets, while those imported through Cotonou in Benin and Lome in Togo were routed through Niger and Burkina Faso to Libya and Algeria. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated cigarettes smuggled along these routes accounted for around 60 percent of the Libyan tobacco market (or $240 million in proceeds at the retail level) and 18 percent of the Algerian market (or $228 million).

The key actors in this trade are legal cigarette importers and distributors, who import their merchandise from free trade zones such as Dubai. The trade is therefore best interpreted as a deliberate strategy by tobacco companies to circumvent tax regimes or break North African state monopolies on cigarette distribution.

Funny to think that something as technocratically banal as a Maghreb customs unions would have discouraged such things.

Tuareg-Islamist alliance collapses in northern Mali

DSC_1514 Kidal, Mali.

Above, houses from the Kidal region of northern Mali, where as you might tell good governance has not been part of the picture for a while. Paul Mutter sends in the latest on what's happening in the Sahel as international involvement increases.

Le Monde estimates that over 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries in the wake of the ongoing "Tuareg rebellion," while at least 150,000 more have become international displaced persons. It is by now though, a misnomer to call this conflict a "Tuareg rebellion," as the MNLA, the Tuareg organization originally fighting to establish an autonomous homeland in northern Mali, has been driven from the cities it captured from the government. The government was driven from the north months before, and so the initiative is now in hands of the militias proclaiming Islamist goals.

Despite their superior armaments, MNLA fighters have now been driven from Gao which they had declared to be the capital of their autonomous state of "Azawad." Reporter Peter Tinti interviewed residents of Gao following the MNLA's departure from the city, offering insight into the Islamists' success:

The Islamists' "acceptance" seems to be less a matter of sincerity on the part of the "liberated" residents of Gao for "Les Mujadadin" than it is a hope that the past weeks of looting and arbitrary violence against civilians will subside. Neither the MNLA nor the Malian Army found themselves to be very popular as occupiers in the past few months because of their actions.

Indeed, success in Gao for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - an organization involved in bombings, smuggling and kidnappings in Algeria - and Ansar al-Dine, founded by the Tuareg Islamist and former MNLA commander Iyad Ag Ghali, did not just come militarily. It also came through through the fact that the Islamists accurately read street protests over the murder of a local official and their escalation against the MNLA occupation and Tuareg separatism in general. France24 reports that MUJWA and Ansar al-Dine quickly took up places alongside the demonstrators A spokesman for Ansar al-Dine claims that the Islamists, who do count Tuaregs among their numbers, "only" moved against the MNLA in order to prevent them from further brutalizing the city's residents.

Tuaregs are now reportedly vacating northern Mali in fear of further reprisals from all parties, while MUJWA is apparently trying to win over Mali's Songhai minority. At the same, all of the Islamist militias have reportedly begun imposing their versions of Sharia law in the towns they hold: a family interviewed by Phil Paoletta reports public floggings and other harsh measures have been instituted in Timbuktu, while throughout the north, armed gangs are descending upon Sufi shrines to tear them down.

Unpopular as these actions are proving to be, an even greater dearth of popular support bedeviled the MNLA since the onset of the fighting that saw Mali's US-trained armed forces retreating before separatist Tuaregs kitted out with stolen Libyan weaponry. It was no coincidence that these columns bore the arms of the Jamahiriya - the late Colonel was a patron of Tuareg separatism in Mali in the 1980s and 1990s, when severe droughts and resentment towards Bamako's policies sparked revolts. Representatives of Tuareg tribes eventually reached a ceasefire with the government in 1998, though clashes continued to occur on and off since then and disappointment with the central government - in both the north and among the military - has festered through that time. The returning mercenaries from Libya provided the means for the conflict to be reignited.

But as the shock of its assault wore out over Mali's geographic space and ethnic divisions, the Tuareg's position deteriorated (they account for no more than a fifth of Mali's total population, and many have since moved to the cities). The MNLA has been hurting for manpower and finances. Additionally, the several-thousand strong MNLA did not represent all Tuaregs. Splits within the movement among participating Tuareg tribes, such as the Kel Adagh, had weakened the separatists before the falling out with Ansar al-Dine occurred in Timbuktu.

The conflict's regional implications are still being calculated. Mauritania and Algeria are deploying more border units, and Mali's West African neighbors have proposed direct military intervention. Parliamentarians and protestors in Bamako are demanding that the army - still chastened from its losses and self-defeating coup against President Touré in the spring - take more proactive measures to regain government control over the north.

Finally, there is the matter of assessing how possible next steps in this conflict - further Islamist offensives, outside military intervention from ECOWAS, refugee movements, a government offensive - might affect a Sahelian food insecurity crisis warned of by aid organizations for this year. Oxfam warned in June that "[l]ow rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants are all causing serious problems .... National food reserves are dangerously low, while prices of some key cereals have dramatically increased: prices of corn in the Sahel are 60-85% higher than last five year average prices." Water access issues in the north are being exacerbated by conflict-related disruptions. And between 70,000 and 100,000 refugees have gone to [Mauritania], where "700,000 people (over one-quarter of the population) in Mauritania are [already] estimated to be vulnerable to food insecurity." The World Food Program and other NGOs remain optimistic that international donors and the region's governments can remediate most of these problems, including in Mali, where Oxfam plans to provide food aid to around 350,000 people.

Update: For more information on Ansar al-Dine's Iyag Ag Ghaly, AFP's Serge Daniel has a profile of the Tuareg Islamist leader up at Slateafrique.com.

Tuaregs, climate and guns in the Sahel

Strife in the Sahel: A perfect desert storm | The Economist:

"Low precipitation may seem normal near the Sahara. In fact, much of the Sahel normally gets enough rain to allow modest farming. But a rise in water temperatures in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has shifted the flow of rain clouds southwards, meteorologists say. Livestock have died in droves. Long-term overgrazing and fast population growth have made the problem worse.

Oxfam, an aid agency, warns of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 1m children facing severe malnutrition. Villagers in Chad already dig up ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. But the worst-affected place is now Niger, a landlocked country of 15m people which, even in normal times, accounts for a sixth of global child deaths from malnutrition. Save the Children, another aid agency, says that the situation in Niger has worsened since September, when a lack of rain led to crop failures of up to 80%.

Misery has made the Sahel’s thousands of unemployed an easy target for recruiters from extremist groups. Their main base lies across Niger’s badly patrolled border with Algeria, where the Sahel becomes outright desert. A two-decade-old Islamist insurgency there has adopted the mantle of global jihad and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Having failed to dislodge the military regime along Algeria’s densely populated Mediterranean coast, these extremists are increasingly focused on the sandy hinterland.

In January they kidnapped a provincial governor near Niger’s border with Libya. They also hold at least 18 Europeans hostage. Several of these are in the custody of a new splinter group that announced itself in December. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is led by black Africans, rather than the Arabs who typically dominate jihadi circles. To set themselves apart they strive to be even more radical. Modern weapons flow to them from Libya. After the collapse of its government last summer, some former rebels have been selling off the contents of looted armouries."

Great rare piece on the complex range of factors that are making the Sahel more explosive than ever. If course the spread of weapons from Libya was something many warned about before the civil war there. But impact of climate change may be more serious in the long run.

Smugglers in the Sahel

Interesting item from Algeria:

ALGIERS (Reuters) – Saharan countries trying to contain a growing threat from al Qaeda have agreed to recruit smugglers to help them track down the militants' desert camps, an Algerian government security source said on Thursday.

Al Qaeda's north African wing is holding seven foreigners, including five French nationals, in the Sahara desert after kidnapping them two weeks ago in an operation that underlined the growing threat the group poses to security in the region.

The plan to enlist smugglers, who criss-cross the Sahara with contraband cigarettes and drugs, was one of a series of measures agreed at a meeting of regional intelligence officials in the Algerian capital, the source told Reuters.

But what if the terrorists are the smugglers? There is some partial overlap, after all, and Algeria's infiltration of radical Islamist groups and alliance with Sahel smugglers have long been suspicious. Some noted Algeria experts, such as Jeremy Keenan, have pointed out the murky links with the likes of Africa's biggest cigarette smuggler, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Algeria's military intelligence. Furthermore, this implies that Algeria's full cooperation with the smugglers on their main activity in exchange for information. We know regime-run trabando had taken over Algeria, but this makes the country officially a mafia-state.

The edges of Arabia
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A giant baobab tree in the Sahel from Flickr user Osvaldo Zoom

We don't often cover issues from the Sahel here — that strip of land on the edge of Arabo-Berber North Africa — so here are a few links to some interesting links.

The Majlis takes a look at a recent New Yorker piece on Somalia, which if you want to follow seriously, you should read the blog Africa Comments.

Sahara new centre for drugs trading, UN warns:

The Sahara desert has become a new centre for trading cocaine from West Africa for heroin from East Africa, the UN's drugs chief said yesterday.

Antonio Maria Costa said drugs money was being used to fund terrorists and anti-government forces and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime had "acquired evidence" of new trafficking routes across Chad, Niger and Mali.

He told the UN security council that the trade of West African cocaine for East African heroin was making drugs a new kind of currency in the region.

"Terrorists and anti-government forces in the Sahel extract resources from the drug trade to fund their operations, purchase equipment and pay foot soldiers," he said.


✩ Of course there is the old question of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and how it may benefit from the drug trade and other forms of organized crime. Some see behind it the machinations of the Algerian regime, a kind of exporting/subverting of the remnants of armed Islamic groups from the civil war to carry out black ops, project strategic importance, or simply make money.

✩ Meanwhile, Guinea's leader is recovering in Morocco following an assassination attempt. The country is still highly unstable. It is one of the main routes for drug trafficking across Western Africa, a route that ends in Morocco. Which is hosting several politicians believed to be involved in that trade, and has a poor record of officials being complicit in aiding or covering up the drug trade.
Links for 08.16.09 to 08.17.09
U.S. group invests tax-free millions in East Jerusalem land - Haaretz - Israel News | Prosecute them: "American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a nonprofit organization that sends millions of shekels worth of donations to Israel every year for clearly political purposes, such as buying Arab properties in East Jerusalem, is registered in the United States as an organization that funds educational institutes in Israel."
Palestinian state is not synonym for terrorist entity - Haaretz - Israel News | "The Jewish army's work in the territories we still call "Judea and Samaria" is done by non-Jews: Arab police, American instructors, European money. How has Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it? Paradise."
Al-Ahram Weekly | Region | Hamas faces Gelgelt | On links between the Salafist Jihadist group and "our son of a bitch" Muhammad Dahlan.
Is the Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline a Viable Project? The Impact of Terrorism Risk - The Jamestown Foundation | To me this is a ridiculous idea but what do I know?
Al-Ahram Weekly | Culture | Tractatus Franco-Arabicus | A Wittgensteinian review of Sonallah Ibrahim's latest.

Links for 07.13.09
Class action at 3arabawy | Hossam's latest article, covering a strike at a QIZ factory, highlights practice of forcing workers to sign a resignation letter when hired so they can easily be fired.
Maybe Ahmadinejad just likes gallopinto | The Majlis makes a good point about the huffing and puffing made by Hillary Clinton over the fact that Iran is boosting its ties with Latin American countries. Maybe if Bush hadn't let the Monroe Doctrine slip, this would have not have happened.
La mafia sicilienne, colombienne et russe s’offre les services d’El Qaida au Maghreb | Algerian newspaper claims AQIM working with Moroccan, Sicilian, Russian and Colombian mafias for drug trafficking.
The Dark Sahara by Jeremy Keenan [PDF] | New book by Jeremy Keenan, leading investigator of Algerian govt. involvement in "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."
Qashtamar Rules Everything Around Me (Q.R.E.A.M.) « THE BOURSA EXCHANGE | Very funny.
Britain revokes five Israeli arms export licences - Yahoo! News | Out of 182, over Gaza war. Note here that the Perfidious Albion claims humanitarian concern, as if they don't continue to export arms to other unsavory types, or that this decision did not come out of domestic pressure rather than routine humanitarian review.
Israel to keep only Hebrew names on road signs (AFP) | This reminds me of the Flemish-Waloon road sign wars of Belgium - except they had the good sense to keep the English: "AFP - The Israeli transport ministry said on Monday that it will get rid of Arabic and English names for cities and towns on road signs, keeping only the Hebrew terms."

Was British tourist a pawn in deadly intelligence game? - Africa, World - The Independent
Was British tourist a pawn in deadly intelligence game? - Africa, World - The Independent
On the murky sands of alleged Sahel terrorism and al-Qaeda's supposed operations there, which some have suggested are false flag ops by Algeria or merely local resource conflicts labeled at Global War On Terror to get major power attention and funding.

Links December 19th and January 5th

Automatically posted links for December 19th through January 5th: