Terrorists as West Africa’s new drug lords?

This article was written by Colombe de Grandmaison, an MA International Peace and Security student whose research interests focus on Insurgency Movements and Human Rights in West Africa and Latin America. Her Article focuses on the Interrelationship between Terrorism and Narcotics Trafficking in West Africa’s ‘Jihadist Belt’.

As much as any other type of trade, illegal trafficking is now a global affair. Drug trafficking is not an exception to this phenomenon. While most of the illegal drugs are produced in South America and Southeast Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’, and consumed in majority in Western Europe and North America, in recent years the African continent has come to play a central role in this transnational trafficking. Africa’s strategic location, as well as a range of internal issues that make it a ‘permissive work environment’ for traffickers serve to explain why the continent has become integrated into these major drug-trafficking routes. Meanwhile, terrorist groups represent a growing threat in the region, and have been increasingly interwoven in various kinds of illegal trafficking networks, including drugs, as an alternative source of funding. Drug smuggling has indeed become one of the most lucrative forms of trafficking in the world.[1] This article focuses on West Africa, which includes seventeen countries located along the Gulf of Guinea, the Niger River Basin, as well as inland Sahelian countries. It aims at analysing the relationship between drug-trafficking and terrorism, which initially seem entirely opposed in terms of ideology and motivation, and the risks it entails.

What are the conditions favouring trafficking in West Africa?

The main illegal substance passing through West Africa is cocaine from South America, whilst heroine is mostly smuggled from Southeast Asia through East Africa.[1] According to the 2017 UN World Drug Report, 2/3 of the cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe transits through West Africa.[2] Today, Africa counts among the three main routes described by Europol as an entry point of cocaine in Europe.[3] The region has indeed become a hub to transfer illegal substances from producing to consuming countries. Both internal and external factors explain this proliferation of illicit trafficking.

First of all, there is a growing demand for drugs in Europe. This has caused an increasing police and judicial pressure on transnational drug trafficking networks, hence a need for alternative routes. Thus, local criminal organisations have exploited the opportunity to get involved in such a lucrative activity. West Africa is indeed ideally located at a crossroads between South America and Western Europe. Since the northern Atlantic route (from South America to Europe) has been increasingly monitored by the authorities, drug traffickers have started using West Africa as an alternative transit route.[4] The region’s internal geography also favours illicit activity: many sub-Saharan States are unable to control large parts of their territories, mainly in the desert area, where there are active terrorist groups and few inhabitants. This lack of control over the desert leads to a porosity of borders, further facilitating trafficking. Other internal factors make West Africa vulnerable to illicit trade. The region is indeed prone to instability and internal conflicts, because of limited resources for law enforcement, corrupt elite and a lack of overall organisation. This creates a context in which law enforcement is deeply weakened, and with authorities sometimes closing their eyes or even participating in drug trafficking, allowing drug traffickers to operate with quasi-impunity.[5] This leads to a vicious circle, with each of these issues reinforcing each other: trafficking is facilitated by corruption and instability, and in turn leads to growing corruption and instability in a vicious circle. Illicit drugs trafficking indeed threatens the sovereignty and security of states and undermines the economic, social and cultural structures of societies. A more recent factor of instability is climate change, which has an increasing impact on the stability of West Africa and the Sahel region as environmental issues, particularly famine and desertification exacerbate existing tensions.

Terrorist groups and drug trafficking

The UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) “has been warning for some time that West Africa is at risk of becoming an epicentre for drug trafficking and the crime and corruption associated with it”.[1]

There are five main jihadi groups currently operating in the Sahel region: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Mourabitoun, Islamic State in Greater Sahara, and Boko Haram.[2] While historically the Sahel had long been the epicentre of jihadism in Africa, this phenomenon is increasingly spilling over into nearby countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal etc.[3]

Most of these groups are involved in drug-trafficking to a greater or lesser degree. However, this kind of activity is strongly condemned by the sharia (Islamic law). How then do jihadists justify drug-trafficking with regards to the ideology they are technically defending? Is Islamist terrorism moving towards a form of narco-terrorism?

Kidnapping and hostage-taking remain a primary source of funding for these terrorist groups,[4] but drug-trafficking is an increasingly lucrative, hence attractive, activity. Indeed, because of the fight against terrorism in Algeria, terrorist groups affiliated to nationalists were forced to strategically “de-territorialise” and pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda. In doing so, they had to find new ways to fund their activities, and even though Salafism is strongly opposed to drug-trafficking, Emirs were able to convince their followers to impose taxes on traffickers in order to increase their revenue.[5] Furthermore, terrorist groups and traffickers are competing criminal groups, and making the ‘drug community’ dependent on their protection helps terrorist groups survive and strive.

The routes vary, but Guinea-Bissau remains a key trans-shipment point from where terrorist groups ‘take on’ drug shipments, with AQIM being mostly involved in cannabis and cocaine trafficking in the Sahel, and Boko Haram in cocaine and heroin smuggling across West Africa.[6] In response to this worrying development, Interpol set up the West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI) to support the implementation of the “ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Regional Action Plan to Address the Growing Problem of Illicit Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime, and Drug Abuse in West Africa”.[7] However, the situation has worsened, with cocaine seizures doubling every year for the past three years.[8]

Impact on West Africa

This implies a wide range of risks for the development of West Africa. While it is complicated to adequately evaluate the causes and consequences of drug-trafficking and terrorism, as these issues are precisely both causes and consequences of the region’s instability, we cannot deny their role in fuelling the instability.


Drug-trafficking indeed usually complicates and fuels armed conflict, as it provides the revenues needed to purchase weapons, corrupt law enforcement and military officers, and divert resources from efforts to defuse conflict.[1] It makes conflicts more lethal, and, when terrorist groups are involved, perpetuates crime and by channelling funding for these groups. In the long run, drug-trafficking has a dramatically destabilizing impact on security and development in West Africa. This was well illustrated by UNODC director Mr. Yuri Fedotov who declared that “drug cartels buy more than real estate, banks and businesses, they buy election, candidates and parties. In a word, they buy power”.[2] The wealth and power of some drug-trafficking groups can indeed sometimes exceed that of local governments. This allows drug lords to buy protection, compromise justice institutions, and corrupt security sector professionals, further weakening the rule of law by “subverting State institutions.”[3] As a result, governments are weakened and lack credibility, especially when the authorities are involved in some aspects of the trafficking.


The case of Mali is a clear example of the way international drug-trafficking worsens a crisis. The parts of the country’s territory controlled by the central government has indeed been severely reduced throughout the years by the Tuareg rebellion and the presence of several terrorist groups in the region, such as JNIM, a fusion of AQIM in Sahel, Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and Al-Mourabitoune elements, which emerged in March 2017. This, added to the fact that the desert is a trafficking ‘boulevard’, has facilitated the involvement of terrorist in the lucrative business of drug smuggling. The case of AQIM is a clear example of the synergy of the two phenomenon: criminal activity being a way to finance terrorist activity.[4]

While the attention given to this issue has drastically increased in the past few years, the implication of AQIM in trafficking dates back from earlier than 2017. Intelligence officers were already claiming about ten years ago that AQIM were “earning their living” from taxes on trans-Saharan smuggling routes.[5] In November 2009, a burnt Boeing 727 was found in a remote north-eastern area of Mali controlled by AQIM. It was reported to have carried up to ten tons of cocaine,[6] which already suggested a direct link between drug-trafficking and the terrorist group. In 2012, the UN Secretary General at the time, Ban Ki Moon, was already expressing concern over links between terrorism and organised crime in West Africa and the Sahel.[7]

These two issues combined also lead to deeper inequalities, and the development of an underground economy as a result of unemployment. As a result of instability, new patterns of migration emerge, caused by people fleeing the violence associated to it. Other forms of violence linked to organised crime develop, such as assassinations and hostage-taking. Moreover, although there is limited data on drug use in Africa, the number of deaths linked to it are estimated to be between 13,000 and 41,000 a year, which is close to the world average.[8]

Therefore, while West Africa already is already weakened by terrorism and insurgency, its integration within global drug-trafficking serves to exacerbate the already severe burden on the region’s development. Terrorist groups are made stronger by their association to traffickers, as it helps finance their activities and strengthen their influence on the public sphere. Whilst action has already been taken to mitigate these processes, it seems likely that further action or legislation to eliminate a route will just risk ‘transferring’ it to another region. Furthermore, an intervention would unlikely fix the structural issues that facilitated the development of transnational organised crime and terrorism in the region in the first place, as shown by the difficulties met by the interventions in Mali and Nigeria.

[1] https://africacenter.org/spotlight/interdiction-efforts-adapt-drug-trafficking-africa-modernizes/

[2] http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/west-africa-under-attack.html

[3] https://africacenter.org/spotlight/interdiction-efforts-adapt-drug-trafficking-africa-modernizes/

[4] http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_trabajo/2013/DIEEET01-2013_IEEE-IMDEP_VersionFRANCES.pdf


[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/16/islamist-groups-african-drug-smuggling-operation

[7] http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_trabajo/2013/DIEEET01-2013_IEEE-IMDEP_VersionFRANCES.pdf

[8] Ibid

[1] http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/west-africa-under-attack.html

[2] https://www.newsweek.com/isis-africa-al-qaeda-africa-boko-haram-621443

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/03/islamist-terrorist-groups-are-turning-their-attention-to-west-africa/?utm_term=.21d3f645b222

[4] http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_trabajo/2013/DIEEET01-2013_IEEE-IMDEP_VersionFRANCES.pdf

[5] Ibid

[6] https://africacenter.org/spotlight/interdiction-efforts-adapt-drug-trafficking-africa-modernizes/

[7] https://unowa.unmissions.org/drug-trafficking-and-organised-crime

[8] http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/west-africa-under-attack.html

[1] Ibid

[2] https://www.unodc.org/wdr2017/field/Booklet_5_NEXUS.pdf

[3] http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/cocaine-trafficking-europe_en

[4] http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_trabajo/2013/DIEEET01-2013_IEEE-IMDEP_VersionFRANCES.pdf

[5] Ibid

[1] http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_trabajo/2013/DIEEET01-2013_IEEE-IMDEP_VersionFRANCES.pdf

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