On the 9th of December 2010, an AFP communiqué quoting a source from the Malian security forces reported the arrest of six drug traffickers in the Sahara desert. The traffickers belonged to one of the three main drug smuggling networks in the region. This event is noteworthy but by no means exceptional. According to Interpol, around 50 tonnes of cocaine- to a total value of 1,8 billion dollars- circulates in West Africa each year.
More interestingly, a large majority of members of the network come from the Polisario camps and some are close to Polisario leaders. The members of the Sahrawi independence movement, which seeks independence for Western Sahara from Morocco, are not new to this. In February 2006, a Polisario member was arrested in Timbuktu for smuggling foodstuffs from international organizations and intended to supply the Tindouf camps. Likewise, a report drawn up by the Mauritanian National Security Department in 2008 estimated that 70 000 weapons were circulated within Mauritania in this year, a figure on the rise due to the proliferation of criminal activity on the part of Polisario Front members. According to the report’s authors, some of the organization's members who are very familiar with the region and practice gun-running here, benefit from the porosity of the contact zone between Western Sahara and Mauritania. The porous nature of this border also favors the passage of clandestine migrants towards the Atlantic coast and from there towards Morocco, as well as the smuggling of cigarettes.
While resorting to crime is nothing new and has its basis in the culture of predation and corruption endemic to the region, the breaking down of the Polisario Front can only encourage the Sahrawis’ descent into crime. On the one hand, while the recent Polisario Front congress does not appear to have achieved the anticipated results, the independence movement depends heavily on Algerian aid, which is subject to fluctuations in petrol prices. On the other hand, for Sahrawis who are faced with a lack of solutions to the conflict and the political stagnation of a movement that- for the time being- has not changed leadership since its creation, smuggling is a means to earn an income and to become proficient in new activities that are more in tune with the times. Guerillas without a cause and young Sahrawis who have grown up in the Tindouf camps with no prospects are potential recruits for Islamist terrorists.
The terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb uses Sahrawis to carry out its criminal operations in the Sahel region, outsourcing a part of its activities and giving credence to the Moroccan theory of a connection between Al-Qaeda and Polisario members. One such smuggler, a prominent figure in the movement arrested by Malian authorities, confessed to providing Islamist terrorists in the region with logistical support, echoing the involvement of Omar, alias “the Sahrawi”’ in the kidnapping of Spanish hostages.
The links between crime and terrorism in the Sahel, however, are not limited to the type of sub-contracting typical of Western armies outsourcing recruitment. According to Mathieu Guidère, who specializes in the study of Islamism and terrorism, AQIM has lifted the right to passage on smuggled goods in exchange for safe-conduct. This allows AQIM to remunerate its intermediaries, mercenaries or informers of the “hybrid industry” of kidnapping, to equip itself with modern communication tools, to acquire arms and ammunition and various goods, indeed even to acquire political capital.
Henceforth, as the representative to General Wiliam E. Ward (head of the American military command for Africa- Africom) noted in January 2009, “in the Maghreb, a global approach to counter terrorism is indispensable”. More than this, we could extend this notion to include a global approach under the aegis of members of civil society. AQIM in the Sahel is certainly an indicator of the weakness of some states in the region, but it has also revealed human dramas and crisis situations that run deeper than terrorism.
Antonin Tisseron is a research fellow at the Thomas More Institute.