International Reports

Ominous Alliances

by Dr. Isabella Hermann

On the Correlation between Weak Statehood, International Cocaine Trading and Islamist Terrorism in West Africa

The African continent is increasingly in the spotlight of Germany’s foreign and security policy, not purely due to the refugee and migration crisis. Weak states in West Africa in particular are proving to be a security problem in that they offer an almost ideal breeding ground for both organised crime and Islamist terrorism.
A United Nations peacekeeper secures the MINUSMA base after a mortar attack in June 2017 in Kidal, Mali.
A United Nations peacekeeper secures the MINUSMA base after a mortar attack in June 2017 in Kidal, Mali.

On 26 January 2017 the German Bundestag decided in favour of increasing its involvement in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and extending its support until 31 January 2018. Germany has participated in the mission since its inception in 2013 by providing air transport capabilities in order to improve the security situation in the north of the country. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had previously already visited Mali as part of a three-day visit to Africa from 9 to 11 October 2016. During her visit to Mali, the German Chancellor also met with German soldiers in the UN Peace Operation MINUSMA, which is currently considered one of the most dangerous UN operations. She pledged further support for Mali to its president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Germany is not only involved in the MINUSMA mission to improve the security situation in northern Mali but also supports the EU training mission for soldiers in the Malian army, as well as the training of Malian police officers. This is designed to stabilise the country, implement the peace agreement and secure the borders. Why is this in Germany’s interests? In her press conference with Keïta, Merkel referred in particular to the objective of securing borders to prevent human trafficking and drug smuggling, “which is a source of income for all fundamentalist forces here”. Drug trafficking, which to a large extent supplies the demand in Europe, is, in itself, already a barrier to security and development in West Africa. The fact that drug trafficking also finances fundamentalist and terrorist forces, is a further threat. In Mali and West Africa the primary concern is the profitable smuggling of cocaine – just as in Latin America, where the cocaine is produced. Connections with terrorist groups also exist in various Latin American countries. Cocaine production represents a lucrative source of income for these groups, such as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

In the following report we will first discuss the origin of the cocaine, which finds its way to Europe via West Africa, before then examining in greater detail the illegal cocaine trade and cocaine smuggling in West Africa, focussing mainly on the situation in Mali. The article further highlights the connection to human trafficking, as well as the existing links to jihadist terror groups – which are not to be overestimated – who also rely on the cocaine trade to finance their activities. A solution that achieves security and stability can ultimately only lie in strengthening statehood.

Cocaine Trafficking From Latin America to Europe

Even though, in global terms, cocaine is most frequently consumed in North America, consumption in Europe is stagnating at a high level. Cocaine is the most frequently consumed stimulant drug in Europe, accounting for some 91 tonnes annually and an estimated market of approximately 5.7 billion euros. The countries of entry and distribution centres are mainly Spain and Portugal, as well as the Netherlands and Belgium.

The cultivation of coca plants and production of cocaine take place in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. According to the latest information from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the amount of cocaine produced in 2014 can be estimated at around 745 tonnes – in the same year we can infer a confiscation rate of between 43 and 68 per cent. These production figures are slightly higher than those from 2013, but are still 24 to 27 per cent less than the previous peak in production in 2007. The current state of affairs is comparable to the late 1990s, albeit with an upwards trend. The quantity of cocaine produced in the countries specified is strongly dependent on the respective prevailing political situation. Since the onset of 2000 the cultivation of coca plants in Colombia has decreased by more than half, thanks to herbicide spraying from the air and manual destruction of the plants, as well as provision of subsequent alternative income options for the farmers. Yet, in Peru and Bolivia cultivation increased by around double the amount up to 2010. The abatement of production after 2010 in Peru and Bolivia was due, firstly, to successfully offering alternative opportunities for making a livelihood; and secondly, in Peru, to intensified destruction of the plants; in Bolivia, to exerting social pressure on the farmers. In Colombia cultivation of coca is rising again and, according to the latest figures from between 2013 and 2015, has even doubled. The reason behind this was the peace negotiations with FARC, during which coca fields were not destroyed from the air by using plant poison.

Cocaine comes from Latin America and travels by air or sea to Europe. The points of origin are predominantly Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, from where one transit route crosses the Caribbean. Despite the increasing spectrum of criminal players in operation, the Colombian cartels and the Italian Mafia continue to dominate there. Another important transit region is West Africa as well as nearby islands such as Cape Verde and the Canaries. Since the end of the 1990s West Africa has become more important as a transit zone for cocaine, also due to the fact that controls have been increased within the Caribbean transit area. Between December 2014 and March 2016 at least 22 tonnes of cocaine were seized en route from Latin America to Europe via West Africa. Its geographical location between the production sites in Latin America and the western European end markets makes West Africa the ideal trading hub for the drug, because this allows the risk of transport to be dispersed as widely as possible. The countries of entry are Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. If, as wholesalers, the Colombian cartels succeed in transporting the cocaine to West Africa via the South Atlantic, they will sell it to West African traders. The cartels from Latin America therefore make their profit regardless of whether the cocaine subsequently reaches Europe or even if it is seized. Through the introduction of West African actors, the role of West Africa has changed from being purely a transit country for Latin American criminal organisations to a marketplace from which the cocaine is trafficked further or even sold within Africa itself.

The weak statehood and volatile political situation in many West African countries is advantageous for the black market and drugs. Drug traffickers benefit from widespread corruption, readily available opportunities for money laundering, a weak prosecution system and porous borders. The amalgamation of state, military, business and organised crime undermines governance capabilities and not only hinders economic development but also has a negative effect on the provision of healthcare and education. It is a vicious circle, since the more extensively the drug traffickers exploit these weak national frameworks, or even form part of them, the weaker these frameworks become. In turn, political and social instability promotes a system in which it cannot be denied that getting involved in drug trafficking represents an opportunity to secure its livelihood. Guinea-Bissau is a very pertinent case in point: the country is de facto governed by organised crime, made up of a combination of Colombian and local cartels, state officials, members of the economic elite and military forces. The Latin American drug business was therefore open enough to allow local African players to enter. The major syndicates emerged within Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria. They developed their own distribution and smuggling capabilities based on the Colombian model. Nigerian organisations, which often use air carriers to transport the goods to Europe, are especially successful. Where the cocaine is not transported directly to Europe by plane, it is taken north by one of various routes through the Sahara, where it is passed on to a new set of middlemen. The route frequently travels through northern Mali, which, due to the lawlessness there, is one of the largest hubs for illegal black market trading, before the cocaine reaches the European countries of entry via Algeria or, further still, via Morocco or Libya. Due to its significance, the following report places greater emphasis on Mali’s complex set of problems in particular.

The Situation in Mali

Mali’s desert areas in the north are lawless, no-man’s-land zones with porous borders. In this unregulated area drug trafficking is a consequence of weak statehood and, in turn, has negative repercussions on state frameworks through its corrupting nature. After gaining independence from France in 1960, for a long time Mali was a beacon of stability in a region rocked by disasters. In view of the regularity of elections being held in Mali, the country appeared to many to be a flagship democracy, even though it had huge political, social and economic challenges to overcome. Yet its putative stability concealed enormous potential for conflict. The Tuareg people, a nomadic tribe in the peripheral north of the country, had long accused the government in the south of marginalising them and not recognising their culture. As the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg and other tribes demanded the creation of an independent Berber state of Azawad in the north. These demands gained new momentum after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, when Tuareg, who had fought on the side of Gaddafi, returned to Mali heavily armed. They attached themselves to the MNLA and, at the start of 2012, began an offensive against the central government. The weak Malian government troops in the north did not last long, allowing the MNLA to proclaim its Independent State of Azawad as early as April 2012. At the same time, a group of officers organised a coup against President Amadou Toumani Touré in the capital Bamako in the south, triggered by his poor crisis management. Islamist terror groups, such as “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM), “Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa” (MUJAO), which arose out of AQIM in 2011, or Ansar Dine, which the Amadou Toumani Touré government tolerated and allowed to operate in the north of the country, knew to make the most of their opportunity. For their part, they demanded an independent Islamic state and the introduction of Sharia law. In June 2012 these jihadist groups had forced the MNLA out of all major cities, while the fighting with the weakened Malian army continued. When they took the capital city of Bamako in their sights in 2013, France decided in favour of a military intervention and freed northern Mali from the terrorists. A support mission was undertaken at the start of 2013 by MINUSMA, initially under African leadership. In June 2015 the government signed a peace agreement with the Tuareg-dominated rebel group Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (Coordination of Azawad Movements, CMA) and the Platform, a coalition of rebel groups supporting a unified country.

The implementation of the peace agreement, which ought to set in motion a process of reconciliation and national dialogue, as well as provide more autonomy and development for northern Mali, is proceeding rather slowly. It lacks both political will from the government in Bambako, as well as unity within the CMA and with the Platform group. Against the background of the negotiations there is also the matter of control over key trafficking routes, whereby cocaine smuggling is immensely significant because it promises enormous profits. The collaborations and alliances are erratic and obscure. Links between the rebel groups, criminals and terrorists definitely exist when their interests appear to overlap.

The considerable profits from drug trafficking exceed by far other opportunities for earning an income in Mali.

Trafficking through Mali and Niger and the formation of the associated networks started in the 1970s with legal goods such as petrol, cigarettes, vehicles and foodstuffs. This laid the ground for the black market, trading illegal goods with higher profit margins, such as weapons, narcotics and drugs. Cocaine found its way into these networks at the start of 2000, after Latin American cartels discovered West Africa as a foothold for further trading to Europe. The nomadic Tuareg knew their way around the vast expanses of northern Mali’s deserts, since their settlement area extends over the Sahara desert and the Sahel and therefore, across Mali. Even if, as nomads, the Tuareg do not lay claim to “their” land, as people who pass through, the people have to pay protection money to ensure safe passage during their journey, which is known as droits de passage or rights of passage. Through drug trafficking these symbolic tribute payments have opened up completely new possibilities for wealth generation. Members of the Tuareg initially acted as guides or carriers, selling their knowledge of the area to traffickers. This slowly changed as they identified the business potential of becoming active themselves in the smuggling of weapons, cigarettes or illegal drugs. Since Mali is a transit country, however, the smugglers remain in the role of middlemen, without necessarily having a stake in the rest of the supply chain. They are only responsible for the secure transport of the goods through the expanse of Mali’s deserts, which can be a very lucrative business. They then send them on their way to Europe. In Mali, the high profits from illegal trading, especially when it comes to drugs, are not comparable with other opportunities for earning an income, particularly for young people. This may also be one reason why the Tuareg are fighting for their own national state, which constitutes a concept of land ownership, something that is alien to them as a nomadic people. A national state of Azawad would nonetheless make it possible to be able to better control illegal trafficking, to enshrine the rights of passage in a constitutional context and, in doing so, to secure the high revenues from the black market – either by taking over the trafficking themselves or by providing traffickers with a convoy escort.

Cocaine is, however, only the most profitable tip of the iceberg of an illegal economic system that has solidified over the years and includes, for example, the trading of cigarettes and weapons. This illegal system and the associated large-scale influx of money through the black market with profitable goods fundamentally altered the balance between the various different groups and lead to a change in culture and mentality, to new power structures and, as part of this, to new conflicts. While cocaine consumption is a problem in itself for public health in Europe – and in African consumer count ries too, such as Nigeria – the cocaine trade contributed to state disintegration in northern Mali due to its high profitability. Since the existing networks have an interest in the unstable set-up, there seems to be no clear will to change or stabilise the situation. This has other negative repercussions.

The Link to Human Trafficking

Angela Merkel also cited the end of human trafficking when talking about Germany’s objectives regarding its involvement in Mali. Following the closure of the Balkan Route, Germany’s Minister for Development, Gerd Müller, anticipates a further large-scale surge of refugees wanting to travel to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. In the first three months of 2017 their number has already doubled. In 2016 more than 180,000 refugees in total travelled to Europe via the Mediterranean; in 2017 this figure could rise to 300,000 to 400,000. Human trafficking represents a new and major market and has grown since the 1990s with the rise of irregular migration from Africa to Europe. Human trafficking is increasingly linked to illegal trading and drug smuggling. Goa in Mali or Agadez in Niger are no longer simply hubs for black market cigarettes and drugs, but also act as transit stations for migrants to Morocco or Libya on the way to Europe via the Mediterranean.

As UNDOC states, there opinions vary as to whether and to what extent we can speak of transnational, organised crime with fixed structures in relation to the refugee business. It is, however, undisputed that most African migrants are forced into irregular migration to Europe due to the lack of legal options. If they lack the financial means for a flight and false passports or visas, they can either struggle on to Europe, travelling alone via land or sea, and using the services of ad-hoc traffickers en route as necessary. Or, the more expensive option is to trust their fate to local middlemen who will organise the route as far as possible beforehand. Most migrants from central or western Africa favour the first “pay-as-you-go” method over the second “full package” option. In both instances, however, the migrants are faced with transnational networks and middlemen who organise transport, food and accommodation and negotiate bribes with customs authorities and police officers at numerous junctures along the way. We can assume the traffickers’ operations are becoming more professional in nature as a result of the increased demand over the last few years.

Migrants’ vulnerability is particularly exploited by protagonists and organisations that are either active in trafficking both humans and drugs, or see potential for profit in both sectors. The fact that the trafficking of both humans and drugs takes place along the same routes leads to migrants, who are on their way north with limited financial means, and have to pay for the costs of their transport and other related costs, smuggling heroin or cocaine. This is either arranged in advance or as a type of retrospective debt repayment obligation. The exploitation of migrants introduces a new facet to people smuggling and makes them de facto victims of human trafficking, i.e. victims of actions that they are forced to carry out against their will. The same phenomenon can be seen in Mexico, where, just like in (West) Africa on the way to Europe, irregular migration routes overlap with those of the black market in cocaine trading, from the south to the north of the USA. Here, too, there are links between the human traffickers, known as “coyotes”, and the drug cartels, which exploit people travelling to the USA. In similarly problematic scenarios there are no solutions in sight, except for recognising that purely restrictive and prohibitive measures on the part of the supply market – whether concerning drugs or migration – do not bring about fundamental success. The adaptable, flexible and professionalised networks continue to seek out and identify new routes and possibilities. The situation is rendered increasingly explosive by the threat of financing terror.

The Link to Terrorism

The perpetuation and expansion of jihadist groups in western and northern Africa requires money. Members of MUJAO, the faction of affiliated persons as well as the wings and individual members of AQIM are regularly involved in drug trafficking as a means of finance, which is a real threat, both for the region there and for Europe. Yet, in the media coverage, the involvement of terror groups in the international drug trade – and in part in human trafficking – is often directly linked to their rise and financing. According to this logic, focusing on fighting the terrorists would be an effective means of putting a stop to the drug trade and transnational crime. Even if groups such as AQIM and MUJAO have come to finance their activities through drug smuggling, this nonetheless firstly happens on a regional basis, limited to West African land routes and, secondly, the revenues from this are not responsible for the rise in these groups, nor are they their main source of income. In fact, from the mid-1990s it was actually ransom demands that accounted for the main source of finance for Islamist networks in the region and that established and exploited the complicity of state players.

Fundamentalist terror groups such as AQIM have operated in northern Mali since the start of 2000. As a result of the ransom demands, ominous alliances were forged between AQIM and – once it was founded – MUJAO, as well as with political and state representatives. As is the case with cocaine trafficking, weak statehood was and is initially exploited and further strengthened. The groups kidnap westerners, for whose release Malian and European governments must rely on dubious intermediaries who work with the groups. Politicians and state players are also involved. Once European governments have paid millions in ransom money, the profits are shared with the intermediaries and accomplices in the state system. It is estimated that, between 2008 and 2012, the revenues from ransom money amounted to 40 to 65 million U.S. dollars, whereby a sum ranging from 1.5 to 4 million U.S. dollars was paid for each western hostage. The fear of kidnappings had a negative effect on tourism, thereby further restricting the opportunities for making a livelihood not reliant on illegal activities.

Jihadist groups are also financed through drug trafficking, though not exclusively by this means.

In trafficking illegal goods and drugs the Islamist groups are able to benefit from a system based on bribery and complicity with state officials that they established in the course of dealing with ransom demands. It must be noted, though, that AQIM and MUJAO are neither the sole nor the most prominent groups actively involved in cocaine trading. The focus on jihadist groups under the key words of narco-terrorism and narco-jihadism distorts the discussion and steers political measures away from fighting the drug trade to fighting terrorist groups. This belies the fact that drug trafficking within the entire region is based on a network of politicians, state officials and the business elite enriching themselves, which existed independently prior to the involvement of Islamist groups. A one-sided fight against the illegal drug trade will be equally ineffective in doing away with Islamist groups, who, as described above, have financed themselves through extortion right from the beginning.


What is needed is a fully integrated strategy rather than one focused on terrorism. Fighting terrorism will not make the illegal frameworks that have embedded themselves in the culture of northern Mali and many West African countries disappear. The situation is comparable with that in Colombia, where the peace agreement concluded with the terrorist FARC organisation in the past year was not solely responsible for bringing cocaine production to an automatic standstill. On the contrary, a vacuum is created that is filled by other groups who are prepared to use violence. In Colombia, too, the drug trade infiltrated the state, economy and society. The various groups – cartels, paramilitary, guerrilla – compete with powerful means for cultivation areas, access and trading and trafficking routes. There is fighting in northern Mali over access to business and control of income. As long as there are significant profits to be made from illegal trading there will always be people – criminals, terrorists or state officials too – who will try to gain a piece of the pie. Like Colombia, Mali must also regain sovereignty over its territory and ensure security and alternative forms of development. Only a single all-encompassing approach paired with new ideas will lead to a solution – in Colombia, options to legalise drugs were also considered to target the demand market.

The link between terrorism and organised crime emerges in lawless and unregulated areas. The people who live here no longer trust or expect anything from the government. Gradual and long-term improvements are only possible when borders are controlled, laws and criminal prosecution are implemented, corruption and corruptibility are combated and integrated development approaches are thought through. Integration also means that the international community and regional stakeholders and states must be just as involved as the economy and civil society. The MINUSMA mission and Germany’s ongoing assignments to train soldiers and police officers are starting in the right places. To make continuing involvement at all possible, the country first needs to be stabilised. The total capabilities of the mission, 11,000 soldiers, do not, however, seem to be sufficient for a country that is more than three times the size of Germany and characterised by expansive, lawless desert regions. The decentralisation approach should also be reassessed, since greater autonomy and less control currently seem to mean the consolidation of organised crime. This is especially relevant when it already pervades the state and social frameworks so deeply.

There is, therefore, no change for the better at present in Mali. At the end of March the “Conference of national unification” met in the Malian capital, Bamako, to continue to work on a lasting peace. Representatives from the government, the Opposition and rebel groups all took part. The key Tuareg group, CMA, and representatives of the civil society were absent from the proceedings, however.


Dr. Isabella Hermann is Desk Officer in the Team Africa South of the Sahara at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.


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