Cocaine trade sustains al Qaeda in Mali, North Africa

Sunday Telegraph:
Like everywhere else that has fallen under Islamist rule in northern Mali, the city of Gao on the edge of the Sahara is not a place where vice is tolerated. Drinking and dancing are banned, the city's two nightclubs have been burned down, and the only thing that passes for street entertainment is watching citizens being flogged in public for smoking. 


Such all-encompassing piety, though, comes to a halt outside the high walls of the gaudy new villas on Gao's outskirts, which stand out amid the shanty towns overlooking the sand dunes.

Nicknamed "Cocainebougou" - which translates as "cocaine town" - the strip of mansions is home to the elite of the city's ancient smuggling community, which has trafficked goods across the Sahara since the 11 century, when Gao was better known than nearby Timbuktu.

Unlike their ancestors' cargoes of spices, salts and silks, the contraband that Gao's smugglers bring in today from Colombia is deemed strictly "haram", or forbidden, by Islam.

Yet the city's ever-zealous Islamist morality police have a good reason for turning a blind eye. For it is thanks to the trans-Saharan cocaine trade that Islamist groups like al-Qaeda have become a power in the region, building up formidable war chests to buy both arms and recruits.

"Cocainebougou is full of very rich traffickers, all with gleaming new SUVs," said one former resident of Gao, who asked not to be named. "But they and the Islamists have a very close relationship."

Among its most prominent beneficiaries is none other than Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed jihadist and smuggler who has claimed responsibility for the mass hostage-taking in al-Qaeda's name.

Nicknamed the Marlboro Man for his lucrative cigarette smuggling empire, Belmokhtar, who helped found Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is thought to have diversified into drugs a few years ago, earning himself the moniker of "le narco-Islamiste" on the smuggling routes between Mali and his native Algeria.

More widely, AQIM is thought to levy "taxes" on other drug smugglers in return for safe passage, earning the group a direct subsidy from the cocaine that ends up in the clubs, bars and crack dens of Britain. As the US State Department puts it, AQIM provides "protection and permissions for traffickers moving product through areas they control"

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There is much more.

Most of the dope is flown in from Venezuela into West African countries.  Chavez is believed to be either responsible or complicit in the trade.  He is probably a middle man between Colombia FARC and al Qaeda.   While the US has tried to work with West African countries as well as Mali to disrupt the trade, the efforts have not been successful and the Europeans have done little about either.  They could render a real blow to the trade and al Qaeda if they would seize the planes coming in from Venezuela.

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