Thursday, January 28, 2010

Al-Qaeda Airlines?

Reuters recently published an in-depth article on an incredibly sophisticated aerial drug-smuggling ring that some security experts now fear could have ties to al-Qaeda. While drug-runners have used small airplanes to ferry narcotics from Latin America into the United States for many years, the operations that Reuters reported on are far larger in scale – these smugglers are using jet aircraft, including a retired Boeing 727 passenger liner, to ferry large quantities of drugs between South America (most notably Colombia and Venezuela) and a collection of sites in western Africa.

This route allows the South American cartels to take advantage of two things; a collection of weak governments in West Africa, which are unable to properly secure their own borders; and a network of abandoned military bases and other improvised airfields. It also lets the South American cartels avoid competition from the strong Mexican drug organizations that now dominate the United States market. Once the drugs have landed in Africa, they are transshipped through waiting supply networks to cities throughout Europe. This South America-to-Europe-via-Africa route has been developing for several years, and has been wreaking havoc on several impoverished West African states. As far back as 2007, the United Nations was warning that the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau was on a path to become Africa’s first true narcostate. Guinea-Bissau is ranked as one of the world’s least developed nations and is struggling to recover from a brutal military coup last year. According to Reuters, the country does not have a functioning aviation radar system, meaning it is virtually impossible for them to track aircraft entering their airspace.

For their part, the smugglers are becoming more sophisticated in their use of aircraft. To hide their identity, smugglers will file false flight plans before departing South America, or will change them in mid-flight. The use of phony tail numbers is also a common ploy; the UN also reported of at least one smuggler’s aircraft using a false Red Cross logo as a way of avoiding scrutiny. The scope of the jet smuggling network only came to light in late 2008 when a burned-out Boeing 727 was found on a caravan trail far out in the deserts of Mali. Smugglers had apparently landed to unload their cargo of drugs (it’s estimated the 727 could carry as much as ten tons of narcotics) but because of a mechanical problem they could not take off again, nor could they fix the problem in the middle of the desert. To hide their identity, they torched the stranded airplane.

Some security officials are growing more concerned that there could be an al-Qaeda connection growing in the trans-Atlantic drug trade. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM for short) is becoming one of the most active al-Qaeda franchises, responsible for a series of terrorist acts across West Africa. The fear is that AQIM could follow the lead of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which gets much of its operating revenue these days from the sale of opium. Last year three men from Mali, believed to have terrorist ties, were arrested in a drug smuggling sting in Ghana, which has sparked some of the concerns of an AQIM-South America connection. And it’s worth noting that these aircraft could carry any kind of cargo – including weapons or people – on their return trips to South America, stoking further fears among terrorism analysts.

Right now the intelligence community seems to be wrestling with the seriousness of the security threat that the South American-African drug route poses and the level of AQIM’s involvement in it. But it is certainly an area to keep an eye on.
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