Part Two

Judith Van Der Merwe, January 2, 2014


Horn of Africa: Terrorism and Organised Crime

Apart from West Africa and the Sahel, the Horn of Africa is also increasingly used as transshipment route for heroin from Afghanistan. The terrorist group al-Shabaab is involved in smuggling the heroin to ports in East Africa from where it is smuggled to Europe.  Al-Shabaab resells the heroin to organized crime gangs in Nigeria who smuggle it to Europe.  This has enabled al-Shabaab to augment their monetary capabilities, which in turn permit the group to get hold of sophisticated weapons, communications equipment, achieve influence in local communities, get new recruits and expand their terror campaign beyond the borders of Somalia.

Using their links with al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabaab is regularly provided with weapons, ammunition, medicine, communication equipment, grenades, surveillance equipment, mortar bombs, explosives, and other bomb-making components. In turn, al-Shabaab has identified the opportunity to establish collaboration with local crime networks in Kenya and south Sudan.  In this alliance with crime networks, the terrorist group has smuggled weapons, ammunition, hand grenades and explosives into Kenya.  In return the local crime networks use the weapons and explosives they buy from al-Shabaab to commit crimes against the government of Kenya and civilians. Correspondingly, al-Shabaab frequently sells weapons and explosives to local crime factions in South Sudan.  The finance accrued in this manner by al-Shabaab is then utilized to expand the capacities of the terror group, to recruit new members from largely impoverished communities, to infiltrate operatives into countries beyond Somalia, to gain influence among local tribal leaders and to sustain their armed conflict against AMISOM and the national armed forces of Somalia.


As with other terrorist groups in Africa, AQIM has had to look for alternate sources of funding since the 1990’s. A restrictive counterterrorism environment enforced in Algeria since 2009, paired with a limited ability to establish operational cells in the Maghreb or to conduct attacks in Western Europe, has forced AQIM to shift its focus towards the Sahel region and rely heavily on criminal activities such as drug smuggling.  Originally, the relationship between AQIM and organized drug smuggling cartels started out with AQIM offering protection to the cartels against the payment of right-of-passage taxes along the long-established smuggling routes in the vast, lightly-occupied Sahel region. Since the 1990’s cocaine trafficking has become a significant source of funding for AQIM, enabling the group to expand their operational capabilities and continue to perpetrate violence against governments in the region. The discovery of the wreckage of a Boeing 727 allegedly containing up to 10 tons of cocaine in northeastern Mali in late 2009 further suggested ties between AQIM and Latin American drug trafficking cartels. 2


The continued cooperation between AQIM and the drug smuggling cartels in Latin America has enabled AQIM to evolve into an even greater security threat in an area which is potentially strategically important to the global economy for the reason that large deposits of uranium, oil, and gas can be found in the Sahel.  The enhanced financial capacities of AQIM can enable the terrorist group to further undermine already fragile states that face widespread discontent, restive nomadic populations, extreme poverty and an influx of jihadist ideology.4

Nevertheless, the correlation between AQIM and drug trafficking syndicates rapidly expanded into supplementary forms of criminal activity, such as the smuggling of weapons, cigarettes, humans and vehicles.  AQIM cells, particularly the Belmokthar katibah (brigade), are actively involved in weapons and stolen vehicle smuggling.5 AQIM is additionally involved (either directly or through “taxation”) in the smuggling of tobacco and other commodities across the Sahara to Europe.  AQIM smuggling cells are assisted with geographical assistance and protection by some communities in the Sahel and Sahara.

The conflict in Libya has made the region even more dangerous with a growth in available weapons and material – some of which have been sold in exchange for a variety of contraband items including drugs. There are indications that AQIM, through its links with the cocaine smuggling cartels, has transferred weapons from the arsenals of Libya to some of the drug cartels in Latin America.

It is, nonetheless, in the criminal activity of Kidnap for Ransom (KFR) that AQIM accumulated the greater component of their funds since the beginning of 2000. Given the limited range of Western “soft” targets in the Sahel, KFR became the natural preference for AQIM to augment their financial resources. For the 2008-2012 periods, AQIM’s kidnappings have targeted aid workers, tourists, diplomats (Algerian diplomats), and expatriate workers in for the most part in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Tunisia. 6 Hostages have included a range of nationals from France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Togo, Madagascar, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.  In most cases the required ransom was paid and prisoners were released.  In fact, during the perios of 2008-2012, the practice of KFR by AQIM reportedly generated almost $50 million for the terrorist group.  It has been reported that the average ransom payment for the release of a hostage taken by AQIM between 2008 and 2009 was $6.5 million.7

Apart from the monetary advantage AQIM garners from KFR, it is furthermore a significant bargaining instrument for the terrorist group and its most efficient means of reaching Western targets in the Sahel.  Given that the restrictive counterterrorism environment in Algeria is likely to continue (particularly after the In Aménas incident), it is most probable that the threat posed by AQIM will continue in the form of the kidnapping for ransom of foreign nationals who are employed in the energy/mining sectors in the region.  Furthermore, AQIM delegated the assignment of kidnapping to local criminal groups when it spread the message in the Sahel that it was prepared to pay up to 70,000 Euros for each Western kidnapping victim sold to AQIM.  This has led to a state of affairs where local crime groups have established links with AQIM and even resulted in the emergence of a kidnapping industry in Mali.


The impact of increased revenue flows to terrorist groups from organized crime in some regions of Africa that are already experiencing conflict and insecurity is for the most part considerable, in that it has facilitated the pursuit of violent insurgencies and jihadist extremist movements. This has in turn worsened the socio-economic tribulations of these regions (the Sahel, West Africa, the Horn of Africa), as weakened the rule of law institutions, undermined the state-building process and destabilized fragile states.  In addition, the increasing nexus between organized crime and terrorist groups in Africa is a principal cause of human insecurity, economic disparity, lost government revenues, diminished GDP (Gross Domestic Product), prevention of human development, reduction in tourism, loss of legal business revenues, illegal trade, protracted wars, overcrowded prisons, overburdened courts and rising defense/police expenditures.

As terrorist groups increasingly take on the distinctiveness of organized crime and vice versa, a multifaceted approach will be required to deal with this escalating menace.  It will necessitate a focused, feasible, result-oriented and synchronized response from all counterterrorism institutions and agencies on the continent and the international community.  National, regional, and international responses will need to incorporate more of the effective tools used by law enforcement to combat organized crime. In addition to strengthening national capacity, regional capacities must be promoted, and international partners need to assist governments in Africa in improving their operational response to this scourge.8

On the national/domestic level,  operational capacities need to be enhanced by closer cooperation with other  police and counterterrorism agencies and financial regulatory agencies,  the expansion of internal expertise through training programs and improved access to new technologies (specifically in the area of cybercrime).  Moreover, collaboration with national foreign policy and international relations agencies needs to be expanded.  Military and intelligence expertise should be enhanced through training, technical assistance programs, bolstering of special staff capabilities and the improvement of intelligence sharing operations.  The police and legal system should also train all officials in international law, human rights and the prosecution of terrorism cases.

On a regional and international level, existing cooperative agreements with foreign police, security organizations, UN agencies and AU agencies need to be strengthened.  This can include measures such as building liaison networks, personnel exchanges, foreign training programs, joint operations, intelligence sharing operations and capacity building programs. Police, prosecutors and courts need training to successfully investigate, prosecute and incarcerate transnational criminals and terrorist organizations.  Moreover, aid programs to build capacity in countries that are potential sources of organized crime and terrorism should be expanded with increased international funding and sharing of expertise. For example, programs are necessary to increase maritime awareness and the maritime security capacity of states on the coasts of West and East Africa.

The creation of national and regional fusion centers aimed at the eradication of terrorism/organized crime need to be established.9 These centers should focus on the exchange of relevant information, resource sharing and conducting joint counterterrorism/counter-crime operations.  Embedded in these fusion centers should be financial intelligence units that can monitor financial intelligence sharing among the respective States.10 Safe havens in the financial world and in cyberspace need to be addressed by strengthening the capacity of states to stop financial flows between collaborating terror and crime groups. International legislation on money laundering and counterterrorist financing needs to be harmonized as well. As a matter of urgency, African states need to enact comprehensive cyber-infrastructure legislation to prevent terrorist and organized crime groups from illegal access to the computer networks of financial institutions.

Furthermore, increased border control capacities need to be developed, given the vast, porous and inadequately monitored borders in many areas on the continent.  Border management agencies need to be assisted by international partners in enhancing their capabilities by the provision of effective communication, word/data processing and surveillance equipment.  Mobile border control units in sensitive areas need to be financed and set up to stop terrorist groups and organized crime groups from exploiting inadequately monitored borders.  Improved training for border management officials and customs officials is required and the recruitment of more officials for border management is crucial. This need can mostly be met by new bilateral and multilateral agreements on operational cooperation, information sharing and the supply of logistics and equipment.

Conditions of poverty, economic marginalization, alienation, unresolved conflicts, ethnic and religious discrimination, violation of human rights and the lack of good governance render a large percentage of the population in Africa vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates.  Consequently, de-radicalization programs (specifically aimed at the youth and prisons) need to be developed.  The most effective long-term way to do this is to develop the economies of African countries so as to create job opportunities, move people away from poverty and subsequently build resilience in communities in order for them to resist the lure of terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates.11  To reach this goal there is an urgent need for the international community to assist by investing more resources in terms of crime prevention, peace-building processes, economic growth, development of local business infrastructure, increased investment in the continent, state-building, and enhancing access to the global economy.

In summation, it has been established, in this research, that a definitive relationship exists between terrorist groups and transnational crime syndicates with obvious negative effects on world peace and security. The symbiotic relationship between the two groups is growing and will continue to grow in future, due to the fact that both antagonists benefit from the relationship. Thus, for the sake of world peace, stability, societal development and global economic growth, the nexus between terrorist groups and organized crime syndicates can best be broken with significant investment of resources and increased national/international cooperation. However, failure to act consistently and for the long-term will only increase the costs in financial and human terms for all involved.  Thus every effort must be made to rid the continent of the scourge of terrorism and organized crime.


1      European Response to organized crime. 2013, p.2.

2      Reuters, “Al Qaeda linked to rogue aviation network”, January 13, 2010.

3      http://www.drugtraffickingroutes/

4      James M Dorsey, “West Africa: a Drug Smuggling and Terrorism Hub?” 2010.

5      INTERPOL, “GSPC Terrorist activity in southern Algeria and on the borders of   Mali, Mauritania and Niger”, Specialized Crime and Analysis Directorate, INTERPOL General Secretariat, October 2003, p7.

6     INTERPOL, “The AQ organization in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb and its activity in the Sahel region”, Specialized Crime and Analysis Directorate, INTERPOL Analytic Report, March 2011, p.13.

7     Ibid, p.14.

8     ACSRT/CAERT (African Union), “Threat of Terrorism and Linkages to Transnational Organized Crime. 2010, p.10.

9     Ibid, p.11.

10   Ibid, p.11.

11   Ibid, p.11.

Judith Van der Merwe  Is a Specialist (Alert and Prevention) at the Africa Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism in Algiers, Algeria.  Her field of study encompasses the Horn of Africa (Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea), East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda) and southern Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Madagascar).  She is primarily involved in analyzing terrorist incidents/terrorist trends in the regions mentioned.  Additionally she is also involved in research on the impact of organized crime in the region.

The preceding article is a guest contribution to the Aberfoyle International Security website and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Aberfoyle International Security.