Op-Ed: As dynamics change, Mali’s smuggling business thrives

Op-Ed: As dynamics change, Mali’s smuggling business thrives

Despite the longstanding perception that Mali's drug trafficking infrastructure is mainly restricted to the north, several recent developments have shown that there is an emerging threat of a spillover into the centre and south of the country. New smuggling networks could soon become a Malian and regional reality. By OLGA BOGORAD.

Olga Bogorad is an Africa intelligence analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in the Middle East. The author is grateful to Jasmine Opperman (director for Africa, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium) for information on the smuggling routes in Mali.

During a United Nations (UN) meeting in New York on 1 October, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop stated that drug trafficking is a significant impediment to the country’s peace and security efforts as it remains a major source of funding for non-state armed actors. Indeed, weak government structures, porous borders and a deteriorating humanitarian situation, coupled with internal conflicts and growing extremism, facilitated by the widespread proliferation of small arms, have created a sense of fragility in Mali, transforming its northern regions into a focal point of organised crime and illicit trafficking. However, despite the longstanding perception that the trafficking infrastructure is mainly restricted to the north, several recent developments have shown that there is an emerging threat of a spillover into Mali’s centre and south.

Mali has long played a significant role as a transit point for the trafficking of drugs, including cocaine and opiates, from South America and Asia into Europe, as well as for arms and human smuggling throughout the African continent. While the roots of illegal smuggling can be traced to the 1970s, modern domestic smuggling activity has been affected by a number of factors. First, Mali is a landlocked and desperately poor country, located in the heart of West Africa and surrounded by neighbours who are also experiencing the same problems of instability, growing extremism and high levels of criminality. The inability of the Malian forces to establish effective law enforcement agencies facilitated the creation of vast ungoverned spaces and porous borders in the northern regions. This, in turn, created a situation in which domestic and regional armed elements seeking profit from illicit activities can operate with impunity and relative freedom.

Second, widespread corruption, accompanied by longstanding deprivation and the marginalisation of local ethnic communities in the north, resulted in a severe lack of opportunities. On the other hand, the policy of decentralising power has given local leaders the ability to control highly profitable activities, including illicit trafficking. Hence, the weak and corruptive nature of local institutions paved the way for their infiltration by organised trafficking networks seeking to secure their profits and the continuation of their activities. This process led to the integration of smuggling activity within political and military structures in the northern regions, creating a hub for an extensive network of smuggling routes.

Third, several domestic and regional developments contributed to political instability and the subsequent rise of criminality in Mali. The country has periodically been shaken by cycles of violence by secessionist ethnic Tuareg rebels struggling to create an independent Azawad state in the north. The return of heavily armed and well-trained Tuareg fighters after the end of the Libyan civil war, who either joined the separatists or simply engaged in other illegal activities, further worsened the security crisis and created fertile ground for militant and criminal activities.

Moreover, this flow of experienced fighters into Mali has had a tremendous impact on jihadist activity in the country. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which in the early 2000s had partially shifted its operation from southern Algeria into Mali’s north due to Algeria’s aggressive counter-insurgency campaign, was forced to share the space with several newly formed Islamist groups. One of them is Ansar Dine, established by Iyad Ag Ghali, an experienced Tuareg fighter who broke from the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in late 2011. Another prominent Islamist group is al-Mourabitoun, created as a result of a merger between notorious AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his defected Katiba Al-Mulathamin (Masked Brigade) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujwa), which split from al-Qaeda’s northern African branch in January 2012. Shared ideology and operational goals, stemming from a severe need in operational infrastructure, contributed to these groups’ ability to cooperate, thereby transforming northern Mali into a haven for militant activities.

Alongside Tuareg rebels, who have traditionally engaged in illicit trafficking, reports have been circulating regarding the involvement of the jihadist elements in the smuggling activity in the north. Drug, cigarette and human trafficking, along with kidnapping for ransom, have become the main sources of funding for their radical activities. Thus, prior to the French military intervention in 2013, traffickers were persistently forced to pay tribute to Islamist groups, which controlled vast northern regions for nearly a year, for protection and safe passage through the areas. However, their fast infiltration of local smuggling networks could hardly be surprising. During the Islamist occupation in 2012 many of local armed militias joined either jihadist groups or Tuareg rebels, thus providing them with the opportunity to rely on the existing smuggling infrastructure in the north.

In this context, it is noteworthy that an ethnic element plays a crucial role in smuggling frameworks in Sahel in general and in northern Mali in particular due to its complex social dynamic. The traditionally merchant Berabiche ethnic group of Malian Arabs (10% of the northern population) is believed to have strong cultural, linguistic and social ties with mainly Arab AQIM, including providing the latter with support in its drug-related affairs. Given AQIM’s longstanding ill treatment of non-Arab fighters in its ranks, which actually triggered the Mujwa split and significantly limited the group’s ability to establish footholds in sub-Saharan Africa, this support had a positive impact on the group’s expansion into northern Mali. Moreover, the Islamists established ties with non-Arab Malian Tuaregs, who account for roughly 50% of the northern population and whose ethnic roots in Tuareg communities in Niger, Mauritania, Libya and Algeria allowed them to develop thriving trafficking economies in northern Mali. However, these relations, which were primarily based on mutual economic gains, suffered after a coalition of Islamist groups turned on their Tuareg allies, ousting them from the strongholds in the north in 2012.

In addition, this ethnic diversity is exacerbated by inequality, which characterises Arab and Tuareg communities, as some dominant clans and tribes traditionally treat others as ‘vassals’ or ‘subservient’, fuelling tensions both within and across groups. As these armed groups are struggling to maintain the influx of cash from trafficking activities, clashes between various armed groups are a common occurrence. This is further evidenced by reports of Tuareg attacks on Islamist militants and Arab smuggling convoys in Tuareg-controlled territories, frequently accompanied by the seizure of their shipments, as demonstrated by several recorded attacks near Ber and in Khalil, two key trafficking hubs.

Belmokhtar, who was born in southern Algeria and later formed Katiba in Mali’s north, was well aware of these ethnic sensitivities and their significant impact on the smuggling business. His marriage alliances with several northern tribes provided him with exclusive access to lucrative trafficking flows, and his group, recently referred to as al-Qaeda in West Africa, with an outstanding source of weapons and funding. Moreover, al-Mourabitoun’s ethnic diversity has also contributed to its capacity to infiltrate northern criminal networks. As ethnic factors remain central, Belmokhtar’s group, which is mainly comprised of Malian and Mauritanian Arabs, Tuaregs, ethnic Songrai self-defence militias, Fulani herdsmen, and sympathisers from other Sahelian countries, has a comparative advantage over the mainly Tuareg Ansar Dine when it comes to creating alliances or arrangements with local multiethnic networks. This, in turn, contributed to Belmokhtar’s quick rise to become the most prominent figure in local smuggling economies, gaining him the nickname ‘Mister Marlboro’ due to his active engagement in cigarette trafficking.

When it comes to valuable smuggling products, such as drugs, it is important to understand that there is no local market in Mali. The country serves as a transit point for transporting drugs from western coastal hubs, such as Guinea, Nigeria, Togo and Benin, through the vast desert expanse of the northern regions into Algeria or Libya. Some drugs routes cross Mali’s southern Kayes region into Mauritania before they find their way back into northern Mali. In some cases drugs are delivered directly to Mali by air and dropped in different locations, then transported overland through the northern regions. Analysts point to two main routes in northern Mali. The ‘short trajectory’ flows usually pass through Timbuktu and the Kidal regions through Algeria into Europe, while the ‘long trajectory’ routes usually strengthen from northern Mali into neighbouring Niger and, with the fall of the Gaddafi regime, into southern Libya, until the cargo reaches the coastal ports.

While in the past major trafficking routes have been concentrated primarily in Mali’s northern regions, with Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu and their surrounding areas serving as key trafficking nodes, the smuggling dynamic has recently undergone several changes. The French intervention in 2013 shifted the balance of power in the north, thus bringing new geopolitical realities to the fore. The French-led offensive defeated the so-called ‘Islamic coalition’, which captured northern regions and established unprecedented control over smuggling routes after ousting their former Tuareg rebel allies from their major strongholds. The defeat and subsequent French-led re-establishing of Tuareg control in the north, coupled with an increased security presence, has significantly weakened the short-term yet significant Islamist grip on the lucrative trafficking flows.

In that regard, a recent increase in militant activities in central and southern Mali is likely to have a significant impact on the smuggling routes in Mali. The Ansar Dine-affiliated group the Macina Liberation Front, formed by a radical Islamist preacher Ahmad Kufa earlier this year, has established a presence in Mali’s central and southern regions beyond the militants’ traditional theatre of operation. While its core leadership is based in Mali and maintains close ties with Ag Ghali, several Macina cells were dismantled within Côte d’Ivoire territory in August. Moreover, the group is believed to be behind the assassination of a Muslim cleric in Barkerou village, in the Segou region near the border with Mauritania, and has recently claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the central Mopti region. The attack on Fakola village in Mopti on 28 June prompted intense security operations in the Sikasso region, adjacent to the border with Burkina Faso, to uproot militants from the established strongholds. Shortly afterwards, on 3 August, the US Embassy in Bamako warned of increased security threats to Westerners operating in Mali’s south. Despite these measures, the group continues to maintain a presence along the border with Burkina Faso, as demonstrated by several recent attacks on remote villages, including the attack on Dounapen village on 9 October. While Ansar Dine suffered a significant blow to his sources of revenue in the north following the French intervention, new attempts to establish smuggling activities through the group’s close ally in these areas remain plausible.

In addition, there are indications that Belmokhtar’s group has become increasingly active in the central Mopti region, with demonstrated capabilities to attack the capital. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bamako on 6 March, which left five people dead, and for the storming of the Sevare hotel, also in Mopti region, during which more than 10 people were killed, including Western citizens. Moreover, the kidnapping of a Romanian national on 4 April in Burkina Faso indicates that the group might have established footholds in, or at least close ties with, local criminal networks beyond Mali’s southern borders. In this context, the newly launched counter-insurgency Operation Seno, which is aimed at uprooting militants from Mali’s central regions, including areas along the border with Burkina Faso, provides further evidence of the increasing threat.

This is likely the result of Islamists’ severe need for new operational bases following multiple territorial losses and an increased security presence in the north. In turn, the relative freedom of movement in the southern and central border areas, both due to borders’ porosity and the scarce security presence in favour of the ongoing military efforts to secure the north, is further contributing to the Islamist spillover to the central and southern regions.

Another factor, which is likely to facilitate the precarious shift of smuggling activities into these regions is the trafficking routes’ general resilience and adaptability to a rapidly changing environment, such as frequent security operations or areas no longer being available for operations due to their recapture by rival groups. As the north has become more problematic for illegal trafficking due to the increased presence of UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) forces and the restored Tuareg influence over lucrative smuggling routes in the north, the defeated Islamists are forced to seek new informal agreements or illicit channels in regions previously unexploited by them. While the Tuareg smugglers could potentially continue to provide Islamists with support in trafficking in the north, the underlying animosity following the Tuareg defeat may significantly reduce the scope of such support.

Thus, growing competition for control of the main source of funding due to the sharp increase in the number of well-trained and armed actors will likely continue to fuel tensions, increasing the potential for re-dividing Mali into new spheres of influence, with the main focus on the poorly secured central and southern border regions. In light of the weakness and corruption of the local security apparatus and Minusma’s repeated lack of interest in counter-trafficking, reflected in the minor impact of the French intervention to curb smuggling activities in Mali, these ongoing changes are unlikely to face significant counteraction in the near term. The recent Islamist expansion to the south may signal that the groups are currently working towards creating new ‘zones of control’ to replace those lost in northern regions, while introducing new smuggling networks into the Malian and regional reality. DM

Photo: A photograph made available on 04 December 2014 and dated 21 January 2013 shows a general view of a field near Mopti, Mali. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.


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