This story originally appeared in Maghreb Politics Review on December 21, 2009, as US Arrests Malians in Terror Drugs “Link”. Those arrested later confessed their crimes to a 2012 American court in return for shorter lengths of imprisonment. This should not be construed as “confirmation” of the elaborate theories behind the United States charges. Similar cases run out of the African office of the DEA resulted in 2011 and 2012 stings and arrests. They provide an interesting background to the 2012 war, the role of all sides — including the government — in a wide degree of illicit “trade” and the involvement of local and foreign Islamist groups. Wolfram Lacher’s September 2012 paper Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region should be required reading on the subject, and is a comprehensive alternative to the theories put forth by the US government in 2009 and after. This article on the Mujao groupings and older pieces by Andrew Lebovich tackle the details of smuggler/jihadist relations in the Sahara, and challenge the notion that these are either necessarily conflicting or necessarily dependent roles. This perspective from 2009, I think appropriately, puts US behavior in US government context, and West African behavior in context of local history and actors. The notion that “Al-Qaeda”, Hezbollah, and the FARC are part of a worldwide drugs for terror conspiracy remains active in American press and government, and remains a fantasy that meets the internal needs of the US, while ignoring real issues, like those that precipitated the unexpected collapse of the Malian state in 2012.
The Saharan Al Qaeda – Cocaine has finally hit the North American domestic news with the much trumpeted arrest by United States agents of three Malians who they allege “the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and international drug trafficking that fuels their violent activities”.
I have a feeling we’ll be repeatedly discussing these arrests in the future. But at first blush these men are likely not involved in the large scale West African drug trade that has recently been in the papers, nor are they any part of any recognized AQIM groups connected to Algerian militants scattered in the Malian Sahara.
Admittedly we have very little to go on at the moment. Three Malian men, said to be in their mid 30s, were arrested by the US in Ghana, and flown to New York. Here they were disposed before a judge on drug smuggling and terrorism charges. We have the New York Times and wire articles, based entirely on the press release and a copy of the actual deposition provided by the US government. I await the reaction of the Malian press especially.
The three men are Oumar Issa, Harouna Touré and Idriss Abelrahman. Oumar Issa was contacted by a Lebanese who worked for the US in Ghana. The US informant pretended to be a criminal with Hezbollah connections, seeking to ship drugs, and looking for contacts with the “Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb”. Issa said he represents a “big boss”, Harouna Touré, from somewhere in north Mali, who “has connections in government” and who while not running a smuggling operation “collects taxes for Al Qaeda from Malian politicians.” Sounds like a big deal. But Touré’s not a current holder of any local political office (according to the last election results) and hasn’t been in the news.
One identification claims that Harouna Touré is a well known Songhai smuggler from the small village of Bamba (in Bourem on the Niger River). This “Harouna Bamba” is known primarily for people smuggling into Morocco, as well as hashish and other common smuggled goods. He, like the now famed Baba Ould Sheik — Mayor and mediator between the Malian government and the AQIM hostage takers — is reputed to be a member of the local “Mouvement Citoyen” of Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré.
It is likely not accidental that Bamba is one of the historic endpoint of the Taoudenni salt trade. From here there is a well trodden route to northern Mauritania or north to Algeria and Morocco, one that people in the area have been making for at least a thousand years. It was ancient when Ibn Battuta made the caravan trek from Morocco through Taoudenni and south to the Niger in the 1350s. The Berabiche Arabs in particular have long been responsible for this salt route, and it would be little surprise that a Bamba merchant would have a business relationship with some of these semi-nomadic Arabs.
The area around Bamba in particular has a bad reputation for petty crime, smuggling, and ethnic violence. In 1994, at the height of the ethnic murders of Tuaregs, Arabs, and Songhai by Army, rebels, and Ghanda Koy militias, FIAA rebels opened fire on locals in Bamba, killing almost 50 civilians. The local Kounta Arabs, whose historic identity is linked to a tradition of Qadiriyya Sufi scholarship have long been based in Bamba. In 2004 their feuds with some Berabiche saw an attack on a Kunta religious leader and spilled over at a well near the town, leaving 13 dead.
Abelrahman (perhaps a variant of the more common Malian Arab family name “Abderrahmane”) is identified in the complaint as an AQIM leader, claims to command a group of 11 men and calls himself “King of the desert”. He claims to have been “a general” in some unidentified previous insurgency, something which is as entirely unverifiable as it is grandiloquent. Touré, claimed to be the “big man”, has been involved in the drug trade via Brasil if the US reporting of his boasts ( and his passport stamps) is to be believed. Their plan was to take cocaine via Togo to Mali or Niger, then Algeria, Morocco, the coast, and by boat to the Canary Islands. The last phase of this is described by Touré as handled by Brazilian contacts. Another description, fed by the US planners, seems to suggest an inland trip to Spain via Melilla. He also claims to have previously arranged shipments of hashish into Tunisia and South Asian migrants to Spanish territory.
I would be VERY surprised if this Idriss Abelrahman is anything more than a Arab/Maure smuggler and caravan driver, resident somewhere between Bamba and Taoudenni in the desert north of Mali. He probably knows some people who are related to members of some AQIM cells who move through the area, and so can probably pass by them on friendly terms. But is he Al Qaeda? Not bloody likely.
Further, if the US agents can pose as Lebanese Hezbollah and FARC, then logically, these men can not have had contacts with these organizations prior to this. Maybe these groups are involved with smuggling in West Africa, but the US didn’t arrest anyone they do business with.
We can say with some likelihood that these men are businessmen/smugglers, from somewhere in Gao ( from the context of routes), and Oumar Issa is probably someone’s family member working in the south (he’s the contact made in Lome). But their flight from Mali via Lome and on to Ghana is arranged for and paid by the US. Toure, the reputed “big man” claims he’s going back home from Bamako at one point to “the north” where he doesn’t have email or phone. Toure is given money in Ghana to buy a truck, but buys a car instead, and the agent has to give them more cash and explain they really do need a bigger vehicle. Toure says he needs to be paid 3000 Euro a kilo for transport with %10 up front. Then says he needs US$10000 a kilo, and %50 down. And he needs it in Euros.
Pardon me, but these business deals don’t seem designed to make money. These “drug dealers” are giving three Malians 500 kilos of cocaine, and then paying the Malians a pile of cash. Won’t the Malians then go sell the drugs for even more cash.
And the complaint is littered with attempts to illicit anti-American sentiments from the marks, who rarely return with anything more damning than a “God Willing” or two. Clearly the US government expects that everyone who hates America is on the same page, plotting across ideological lines, continents, and religions to hurt us. By selling drugs. To Europeans.
The counterpoint of blind nationalism here is blind paranoia, the thought that everyone must be scheming about you behind your back, that all “evil doers” are doing evil as part of a grand conspiracy to bring you down. If you wave several million dollars in front of three people from one of the poorest countries in the world, do you think when you say “You love Al-Qaeda, right?” they’ll launch into a subtle discussion of international terror? Or will they say “Oh yeah, you’re my brother cause we hate America too! And I’ll take that %50 up front in Euros.”
But this is par for the US government anti-terrorism law enforcement. The policing enforcement of US terrorism policy is as hamfisted as the military “war on terror”, except that the policing war is usually motivated by the desire for good domestic press. They tend to create their own terrorist plots, convince criminal idiots to accede to the plans invented by the US, and then arrest the patsies. The example of the recent Bronx terror plot in which the FBI informant took several not very bright young men recently released from jail, created a plot, bought gifts for them until they agreed to help, gave them the supplies, and then arrested them as “dangerous Al Qaeda terrorists.” Of course there are real terrorists out there, but it’s much easier to disrupt plots you invent yourself.
My concern will be that this West African variant of US anti-terrorism enforcement, while attempting to win US plaudits will forget that in trying to impress Americans, they may end up alienating West Africans. If this is seen as an entrapment operation, it will eventually do more to turn Malians — who are today very positively disposed to people from the United States — against the US than it will actually disrupt real smuggling, let alone terrorism.
Meanwhile, two Italian citizens and their Mauritanian driver were kidnapped yesterday in the Mauritanian desert, near a crossing into Mali, as the returned to their home in Burkina Faso. The Mauritanian government says they are being held by the AQIM.