The link between African drug trafficking and terrorism

Drug trade accounts for nearly 1% of the world’s GDP, and over $320 billion generated annually. Africa is one of the world’s largest players in the drug trafficking industry: 50% of non-U.S.-bound cocaine passes through West Africa, accounting for 13% of the global flow. Drug trafficking poses a risk to government and political stability, the rule of law, and the quality of regulation in the country.

There are multiple factors associated with West Africa’s increased trafficking of illegal drugs over the past 5 years: involvement of organized criminals, networks of gangs and dealers, lack of drug agency power, corruption, and most importantly economic instability. Africa is the world’s poorest inhabited continent, making it a prime region for drug trafficking since there are large economic incentives for the trade. West Africa has been motivated by economic reasons to participate in illegal economies multiple times before, involving itself in industries such as illegal fishing and diamond mining, and now drug trafficking.

Nigeria is not only the economic hub of West Africa but also the drug trafficking hub. In 2006, 44% of the West African drug traffickers arrested in Europe were Nigerian. Networks of gangs and dealers make drugs easily available on the streets. Nigeria’s reputation for weak border security makes its airports, roads, and ports key transportation points. Organized criminals have been extremely important to the drug smuggling business since the 1970s and are now emerging as key suppliers as human drug traffickers for the illegal trade from South Asia to the U.S. Nigeria’s own drug agency was even involved in scandal immediately after it’s founding in 1990 after its own top people were found to be involved in drug trafficking. Since the drug agency complains of its lack of equipment and manpower, and the institutional well being of military and police forces continues to be of low priority to the government, little is being done about the trafficking.

While many Nigerians transport drugs to China and Korea, where drug trafficking laws are stricter than those in Nigeria, traffickers face possibilities of execution and extended prison sentences. Since Nigeria also faces corruption and drug trafficking is seen as a low priority, the government typically does not make many interventions to get Nigerian drug trafficking prisoners transferred to prisons in Africa. Motivations must be extremely high for people to enter the drug trafficking trade, since not only is their life threatened by prosecution in foreign countries, but ingesting drugs (one of the common forms of transporting drugs) poses a great health risk, and can even result in overdose and death.

UN officials have reported terrorists and anti-government forces are increasingly leading the drug trafficking in Africa, thus making Africa into a center for crime. The head of the UN drug agency (UNODC) stated that drugs were flowing through the Sahel, just south of the Sahara, where militant groups and terrorists, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group, are known to operate. Drugs being transported to Europe from South America have found it increasingly more difficult to deliver the drugs directly to Europe due to more rigorous controls in this area. Drug traffickers then saw an opportunity to transport their drugs through Africa, due to decreased border control and minimal regulations, giving terrorist groups the opportunity to profit from this trade. Terrorists are using resources taken from the drug trade as a means to fund their operations, buy equipment, and pay foot soldiers. They use their knowledge of the desert, extensive weaponry, and transportation to protect drug traffickers moving through this region in order to make money. Members of AQIM have also been recently found to be recruiting Saharawis who are trained in fighting in order to carry out their operations for them by protecting drug trafficking operations or even kidnapping them. AQIM has also spread its operations further south into the Sahara, taking hold of many of the drug trafficking operations in Africa. Even though AQIM is an independent unit of al-Qaeda and does not provide them with any of the profit, it has been speculated that money drawn from this activity could be used to plan their own attacks on European cities. The UNODC is calling for a trans-Saharan network to be set up in order to intercept criminal groups and drug traders. But since police forces and the tackling of these issues are placed at such a low priority in the country, it is unlikely that this effort will receive much support from the government, nor will it have much of an effect. The attitudes of other governments and the non-willingness to support Africa are further hindering the efforts to destroy the link between drug trade and terrorism, and without cooperation between multiple countries, this issue cannot be dealt with properly.