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Blue Man Coup, Part 2: War for God, Country and Cocaine

Posted on May 16, 2012
AP/Jerome Delay

People gather inside a Tuareg clansman’s tent in Koygma in northern Mali in this 1997 photo.

By Susan Zakin

(Page 2)

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.


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“Indeed, the MNLA has said that the reason why AQIM is protected by both Algeria and Mali is because AQIM is a cover for the massive billion-dollar cocaine trafficking industry controlled by rogue elements in the political-military elites of both countries and which has turned Mali into a ‘narco-state,’  ” Keenan wrote.

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.

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By Guy, May 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a well researched and accurate assessment of the Tuareg dilemma.

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By omop, May 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Some years ago heard that the emir of the Tuaregs claimed that he was the
supreme ruler of all the Tuaregs regardless of the country they happened to
be in [Libya, Chad, Mali, etc, etc,.].

It now seems that the neocons in DC want to decide who is in charge in
those respective countries. While at the same time DC is incapable of
controliing the banking system in the 50 states.

Report this

By omop, May 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

Some years ago heard that the emir of the Tuaregs claimed that he was the
supreme ruler of all the Tuaregs regrdless of the country they happened to
be in [Libya, Chad, Mali, etc, etc,.].

It now seems that the neocons in DC want to decide who is in charge in
those respective countries. While at the same time DC is incapable of
controliing the banking system in the 50 states.

Report this

By jimmmmmy, May 17, 2012 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

An interesting but pointless article .  Probably would read better in National Geographic. Pull back the blankets any where on earth and you’ll find Christo-capitalists fornicating with the natives.

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By Darwin26, May 17, 2012 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i appreciate Susan Zakin’s review of Mali’s crisis. And i despise Neo-libs more and more everyday.
    If only we could crush the IMF and World Bank. Why can’t the Tuareg kidnap officials from these orgs? Or the US State Dept? the world would be a better place minus all of them.
    My heart goes out to the Malians as it does the Palestinians.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 17, 2012 at 3:30 am Link to this comment

Another prime example of U.S. meddling in a region where the centuries old dynamics are not understood.

It would be different if we were providing only well drilling equipment, food and building materials but the U.S. exports arms and military training which these folks don’t need.

The overgrown military establishment is in the process of cultivating future hotspots where they are planting the seeds of discord and assuring future business.

They will not go gentle into that good night.

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