June 27, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.
Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.
Blue Man Coup, Part 2: War for God, Country and Cocaine
Posted on May 16, 2012
By Susan Zakin
In 2009, a Boeing 727 crash-landed in northern Mali, where “an undisclosed but by all accounts significant quantity of cocaine” was offloaded. The smugglers, who had flown from Venezuela, torched the jet. The burned hulk was found abandoned in the desert.
This watershed event was a signal that the days of cramped Beechcraft three-seaters are long gone; drug smugglers have gone global, with transatlantic ships and corporate and commercial jets. West Africa is a major crossroads for the international cocaine trade. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2007, 40 to 50 tons of cocaine was funneled through West Africa, worth an estimated $1.8 billion at European wholesale prices. But the real volume is believed to be much higher. Perhaps the best gut-level index is the construction industry in the Senegalese capital Dakar, where the economy is nose-diving, yet white concrete mansions are rising along the coast at record speed.
Along with Nigeria, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, Mali is a route for shipments from the transit hub of Dakar to Europe. As much as 80 percent of the cocaine seized in Western Europe is believed to have crossed Mali. Drugs and politics are intertwined on both sides of the equation. Colombia’s rebel group FARC trades cocaine for arms, with the reported involvement of government figures. In Mali, the trade is dominated by emirs like Iyad ag Aghaly, one of AQIM’s leaders. Keenan is sometimes accused of being a conspiracy theorist, but he has spent considerable time on the ground in the Sahara. The professor believes that Aghaly is partners in the cocaine trade with Algeria’s secret police.
The Algerian government explained its army’s presence in the north of Mali in December as an effort to combat AQIM, but Keenan says that the Algerians were on the ground to protect their stake in the drug trade from the Tuareg MNLA.
Square, Site wide, Desktop
Square, Site wide, Mobile
To add to the intrigue, economist Gutelius also heard rumors that the Malian government had made deals with radical Islamists in the north to suppress the nationalist element of the Tuareg movement.
The drug trade remains lucrative, but Gutelius said that a U.S.-backed crackdown on drug smuggling by the Malian government has shifted much of the Sahara’s criminal activity to kidnapping. After AQIM claimed responsibility for kidnapping four Europeans in 2009, Daniel Benjamin, coordinator of counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State, wrote that AQIM was “financially strapped, particularly in Algeria, and unable to reach its recruiting goals” so it was becoming reliant on kidnapping Westerners. Since 2009, kidnappings have decimated tourism in the Sahara—yet another blow to the region’s above-ground economy.
Two of the victims were not mere tourists. Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic might be described as two characters in search of a coup—French nationals who are either mercenary soldiers themselves or claimed ties to mercenaries. Verdon, who once ran an airline in Madagascar, claims to know the legendary mercenary Bob Denard and was last seen with an Israeli general allegedly discussing the use of soldiers of fortune in Libya. Lazarevic reportedly owns a security company in France and is wanted for questioning in Kosovo. He is believed to have recruited mercenaries for former Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko in the ‘90s and is also thought to be cozy with French intelligence. Last November, the two men arrived in Mali, ostensibly to work on a cement project, and were promptly kidnapped by AQIM members.
France’s role in Mali has been fairly quiet, but few believe the country ever willingly relinquishes control of its former colonies. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has stepped back from meddling in the Sahara, and in terms of outside influence, Gutelius, among others, reports that it’s France’s game. Although there’s no evidence that Verdon and Lazarevic had the Sarkozy government’s imprimatur, there is more than a whiff of an old Frederick Forsyth potboiler in their travails.
But the majority of AQIM’s kidnapping victims have been innocent: aid workers, tourists and missionaries. The group is implicated in the deliberate killing of at least 10 European civilians and the kidnapping of half a dozen Europeans.
“I think it’s part of this larger story of increased competition in the Sahel,” Gutelius said. “You’ve got higher-priced commodities. Instead of guns and cigarettes, you’ve got people. When risk goes up, so do prices.”
When the game changed to kidnapping, Gutelius said the balance of power among the smugglers in the desert shifted. Old school GSPC emir Belmokhtar, for example, considered it an affront to his power base and “felt a bit threatened.”
“He wasn’t into the whole kidnapping thing,” Gutelius said.
Are the emirs of the Sahara criminals or revolutionaries? A little bit of both, probably. Stephen Harmon, a professor at Kansas’ Pittsburg State University and a specialist in West African Islamist history, is convinced that the GSPC and AQIM are more concerned with their illicit business than with overthrowing the Algerian government or jihad. In the Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin, Harmon argued that the U.S. and Algeria have exaggerated the threat posed by these groups to justify an American military presence and, in Algeria’s case, the continued rule of an authoritarian government.
Banner, End of Story, Desktop
Banner, End of Story, Mobile
Watch a selection of Wibbitz videos based on Truthdig stories:
New and Improved Comments
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide