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Where Two Wars Meet

This article by Jeremy Waldron and Alberto Espinosa, interns at IWP for summer 2013, was originally published by the IWP student journal Active Measures.

It’s a familiar and gruesome story. A group of armed men wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting population with regional actors powerless to stop them. They come in pickup trucks loaded with AK-47s and take over villages – beheading, dismembering, and bombing all those who stand in their way. They use their enterprise to corrupt politicians and policemen, and when security forces finally do come to look for them, they return into the vast, inhospitable landscape, beyond a small state’s reach. And in a twist of tragic irony, the group’s financial sustenance comes from smuggling the same cocaine that is consumed by the countries that seek to destroy them. The group has effectively created a narco-state.

If you think we are talking about jungles of South America, you may want to rotate your globe; they are in the deserts of West Africa. The efforts of the War on Drugs has made it more difficult for cartels to operate in Latin America and the Caribbean due to U.S. actions to increase state capacity and to secure smuggling routes. Narcotraffiking, however, has found a new haven in the unsecure region of West Africa, and has taken a disquieting ideological turn. There is evidence to suggest that the ideological zeal of Islamic fundamentalism may have joined forces with the profitable enterprise of nacrotrafficking in a region of low-state capacity to create the perfect storm of terrorism. It is where the War on Terror meets the War on Drugs.

The Perfect Storm

The North-West Africa region has faced several troubling developments within the last decade on both fronts. In terms of the War on Drugs, organized crime has become a large problem in the past decade. Corruption and crime are nothing new to West Africa between the veterans of frequent civil wars and the cursed-blessings of oil and diamonds. However, the degree of growth of organized crime and its pivot towards cocaine trafficking has now infiltrated the political elites of society in several countries, including some of the most high level officials such as presidential guards.1 Even more troublesome is that many state’s police forces do not know how to deal with or recognize organized crime. Several governments do not keep accurate records on drug seizures and other measures of organized crime. Therefore, while there is a lack of evidence of large criminal activity, it is more likely that most of the operations are undetected. Interpol believes that now 2/3 of all drugs in Europe have been smuggled from West Africa.2 Organized crime is a problem that is inadequately addressed by the states involved, and within the last decade, organized crime has been able to flourish.

In terms of the War on Terror, Islamic extremists have been a problem in the region since the early 90’s. Since the end of the Algerian Civil War, many well-trained and battle- hardened Islamists still roam in the region. Groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, Boko Haram, and Signed in Blood Battalion have stayed alive, profiting from kidnapping and smuggling activities. These groups have shown increasing audacity and capacity, hijacking the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, attacking oil facilities in Algeria, and brazenly attacking the American embassy in Benghazi.

Perhaps the most dangerous catalyst for instability has been the fallout of the Libyan Civil War. Before the Arab Spring, Gaddafi imported large amounts of arms without spending the proper revenue to recruit or train the soldiers that would use them. This strategic error not only led to his downfall, but also led to an overabundance of arms, which he stored in “caches” throughout the country in open places such as office buildings or even in public monuments.

During the civil war, these caches were exposed, and there was such an overabundance of arms that they were sometimes left in the street for anyone to pick up. Coupled with porous borders with its neighbors, groups such as Boko Haram, AQIM, and Ansar al Dine took advantage of the situation to smuggle arms out of the country for their own uses. These arms have provided the power needed to sustain any group in a conflict. Whether it is the Tuaregs in Mali or al-Shahaab in Somalia, every criminal, terror, and insurgent group in Africa benefited from Gaddafi’s arms.

West Africa is a perfect place to operate for both types of groups. Between the constant ethnic tensions and the fragility of the states, no one African state can help stop their growth.  The situation in the region is getting direr, and it seems as though this is a critical period to intervene.

Lessons from Latin America

This is not the first time there has been a problem of terrorism and organized crime in fragile states. Latin America has struggled with drug cartels for years. It is beneficial to look at U.S. action in the War on Drugs during the 1980’s to figure out policy going forward in West Africa.

The War on Drugs officially began in the 1969 with President Nixon claiming that drugs were a threat to the nation; however, it was during the 1980’s that the war escalated. The drug cartels in Colombia, particularly the Medellin cartel, gained major political power, securing seats in Congress, winning support of the people with public projects, and intimidating/bribing public officials, judges, and journalists. Drug violence was rampant in the region, with assassinations of elites a common occurrence. Furthermore, General Noriega of Panama allowed for sanctuary of key cartel leaders, such as Pablo Escobar, and allowed their enterprises to operate in his country.3

The violence and corruption bought on by drug lords soon affected the United States. Reagan developed a holistic strategy that addressed every level of the drug problem. Domestically, Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” campaign, and penalties for prosecuting drug users and dealers became harsher. He also focused on tightening the borders and the smuggling routes, increasing funding to the Coast Guard and the DEA. Internationally, the U.S. gave advice and increased capacity for foreign law enforcement, and conducted joint tactical operations with these agencies, which helped lead to the death of Escobar. Finally, the United States under George H.W. Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega on charges of money laundering and supporting drug trafficking.4 Thus the U.S. policy has been to prevent usage domestically, treat addiction, cut off smuggling routes, enable foreign law enforcement, and increase state capacity.

Rhetorically, the War on Drugs (and the War on Terror) is over according to the Obama administration. The language from the Office for National Drug Control Policy orients the executive towards a reevaluation of the drug issue, focusing more on the troubled domestic structures and less on international action.5 There is little that the U.S. will or can do with regards to this problem, as our military force is exhausted, defense budgets are cut, the War on Drugs is seen to have failed, and the problem is in Europe’s backyard, not America’s.6 The most we can do is give “lesson’s learned” advice to the Europeans as they combat the growing drug epidemic, if they so choose to prosecute these international criminals to the fullest extent.

Looking Forward

While evidence suggests that Islamists have been working with or at least have been involved with the organized crime in West Africa, there are major hurdles to a full cooperation and merging of forces. The first hurdle is the differences in cultures. A key difference comes from the “organized” in organized crime. Any coordinated criminal activity, such as smuggling operations through Venezuela, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Algeria requires centralization, something for which AQIM has not recently been known. 

The second hurdle is the differences in culture between business and jihad. The culture of a holy struggle fighting enemies of God does not easily mesh with a policy of focusing on the bottom line, increasing profits as much as possible and removing any force that may cause losses, such as fellow pious Muslims. A final hurdle is the degree of escalating operations. Although AQIM and its affiliated groups have engaged in kidnapping and smuggling for profit, such as individuals like Mokhtar Belmolkhtar, it does not mean that they will be so ready to accept narcotics for profit. Smuggling cigarettes and kidnapping Americans is much different than smuggling cocaine and conducting “in-house cleanings” on fellow devout Muslims.

On the other hand, cocaine smuggling can become ideologically congruent with the goals of AQIM. If part of the Islamist goal is to attack the West, there is no more symbolic way to do it than by feeding its own decadence with cocaine, causing strife and destabilization in European countries. At the same time that Islamists are fueling the drug problem, the importers are fueling the Islamist’s wallets.7 It is a symbiosis that can survive the ideological test. Furthermore, the Islamist Taliban have no problem with protecting poppy farmers and profiting from their products. Such a merger, therefore, seems likely.

If Islamists and organized crime do merge, it will be another disaster for the development of Africa. The new organization will be massive due to the size of AQIM and organized crime, and therefore, the criminal enterprise will expand its operations further into Africa. The unintended consequence of this larger organized criminal operation, especially with regards to drug trafficking, would be destabilizing the economy (especially in agriculture), increased crime and violence, further weakening of state security, and drug dependence within the countries smuggled. Finally, the most troubling and obvious problem is an explosive growth of the finances to violent Islamist organizations, which would increase their capacity to dominate the region, and possibly even one day conduct attacks abroad. Unfortunately, intervention is not in our hands, but mostly in the European’s.

However, there is plenty that can be done. Primarily, it is important to instruct African law enforcement of the differences between organized crime and other crimes, as well as teach them about counter-narcotic operations. Supporting law enforcement in other countries, with the help of the DEA (in a way similar to the approach the U.S. used with Colombia), can be very beneficial towards stemming the growth. Furthermore, it will increase data collection; the first step in dealing with a drug problem, in this case, is knowing you have one. From there, both local police and international advisors can properly address the situation.

The most difficult and most important step, however, is to keep the integrity of high officials. It will be too late to solve organized crime and terrorism if politicians and lawmen are already in the pockets of organized crime. There is plenty we can do and have done regarding countering corruption in these countries. Nonetheless, stemming the tide of corruption in Africa has never been easy, and organized crime is just another problem that we have to combat.

Part of the Obama counterterrorism strategy is to cut off resources for terrorists. Continuing to allow drug trafficking in Africa hurts everyone. It allows terrorists to gain more funds than they could ask for, help refuel the cartels in South America, feed the drug problem for our allies, and create violence and terror on a level that cannot be predicted. If the antagonists from the War on Terror and War on Drugs meet, we may find ourselves with an enemy bigger than we faced in both.


1              “Sahel to High Water: Drug Trafficking in West Africa.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. no. 7 (2013): 44-49.

2           O’Regan, Davin. “Cocaine and Instability in Africa: Lessons from Latin America and the Caribbean.” Africa Security Brief. no. 5 (2010): 1-8.

3              National Public Radio, “Timeline: America’s War on Drugs: NPR.” Last modified April 2, 2007. Accessed July 15, 2013.

4              Drug Enforcement Administration, “A Tradition of Excellence.pdf 1985

1990.pdf.” Accessed July 10, 2013.


5              Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Principles of Modern Drug Control Policy.” Accessed July 14, 2013.

6              Nicols, Michelle. Reuters, “Global War on Drugs Failure, High Level Panel Says | Reuters.” Last modified June 2, 2011. Accessed July 13, 2013.

7           Ainsworth-Vincze, Cameron. “Al-Qaeda: The World’s New Pushers.” no. 2 (2010): Maclean’s. 002429262 (accessed July 10, 2013).