FARQaeda* (FARC + Al Qaeda): A Real Threat or a Matter of Circumstantial Evidence?

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Over the past several months, a number of reports have circulated that address the subject of drug trafficking ties between South American narcotics trafficking interests and terrorist organizations, principally Al Qaeda and its smaller affiliates now known to be based in Northern Africa. These assessments have cited evidence pointing to a disturbing ring, an “unholy alliance,” which reflects alarming links between FARC exporters and Al Qaeda distributors according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s Jay Bergman. This expanding nexus involves transporting drugs from South America to Africa and, once there, smuggling them over established land routes to EU countries. The stakes are too high to ignore, especially if the charges turn out to be true, and the consequences of this operation could further destabilize impoverished and relatively lawless regions of Africa. However, upon closer examination, much of the evidence cited in these articles turns out to be circumstantial at best.

The Evidence
On January 11, 2010 the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article titled, “Lebanese drug rings active in Germany said to have funded terrorism,” in which it accused Hezbollah (which is classified as a terrorist organization by United States authorities) of using immigrant rings based in Speyer, Germany as a money-laundering conduit for the illegal sale and distribution of cocaine. Der Spiegel speculates that these same rings may have channeled at least some of their profits to support Hezbollah terrorist activities in Lebanon.

Previously, on January 4, 2010, Reuters reported that the DEA had established that a drug-trafficking alliance existed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and Al Qaeda. Details in the article were rapidly disseminated by various media channels, inspiring both shock and disbelief.

Months before, on November 29, 2009, reports documenting new links between cartels and the Colombian-based guerrilla organizations had come to light. One such report from the London-based Observer referred to the location of the charred remains of a Boeing 727 in Mali, in western Africa, at the beginning of that month. Investigators were not sure as to the cause of the plane’s destruction; however, they were certain that the cargo plane had been used to transport tons of cocaine from Latin America to Africa.

Possible Routes to Africa (and on to Europe):
News organizations and leaks originating in drug intelligence services reported that the links between South American narcotics-trafficking groups and terrorist organizations centered in the Middle East have indicated the robust existence of important drug routes extending into Europe from Africa. One prominent theory is based on the supposition that the drugs originate in Colombia and are flown to West Africa from take-off points in Venezuela. From there, the drugs are smuggled into Europe via a host of fairly established localized land routes. Essentially, this trajectory begins with South American narcotics groups and ends up in the hands of agents of militant organizations intent on funding terrorist operations to further their political goals.

Another possible route that doesn’t receive nearly as much attention — and for that reason, has more than a few likely missing links — is the purported smuggling of drugs cultivated in the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. These illicit substances are alleged to be smuggled initially onto regional flights so as not to raise suspicion before they are flown intercontinentally to Beirut, Lebanon on regular airliners or military flights from Venezuela. The drugs are then distributed throughout European markets, with Der Spiegel citing the Frankfurt airport as a major hub.

Such a scenario, particularly with regard to the initial phase of the routines, seems to be based on some fairly persuasive, although still almost entirely anecdotal, evidence. For example, it is impossible to ignore how geographically well-situated Venezuela is in terms of flight length and fuel requirements in reference to West Africa. Moreover, all of the confiscated aircraft, including the charred remains found in Mali last November, appeared to originate in Venezuela.

Another piece of evidence turned up in the recent investigation conducted by an undercover DEA agent posing as a FARC representative. The agent struck a deal with three African drug traffickers who not only claimed to have smuggled hashish to Tunisia and trafficked humans from the subcontinent to Spain, but furthermore proclaimed themselves as affiliates of Al Qaeda.

Thirdly, due to the lack of air traffic controls combined with large swaths of unpatrolled and basically empty land, the ability to land relatively large planes on abandoned or makeshift runways in portions of western Africa presents far less challenges than one might imagine. This is precisely the case in countries like Mauritania, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, the last of which doesn’t even have aviation radar installed.

Finally, over the past few years, sea interdictions by NATO naval units and others have made smuggling by water increasingly difficult. Smugglers have had to resort to flying cargo through a series of regional routes, as well as changing final destinations at the last minute to a number of off-the-radar locations in West Africa.

The Alarming Implications of FARQaeda
To begin with, the “unholy alliance,” if it indeed exists, would indicate that narcotic traffickers and terrorist groups could be aligning with one another with growing openness. Even if the current de facto alliance exists purely for economic benefit, without any merging of ideals, the possibility for further cooperation or intelligence gathering and sharing between the two groups remains. On the other hand, assuming an exchange or flow of religious ideals accompanying the drug trafficking, Al Qaeda and a few of its affiliate groups, such as the Islamic Maghreb, known to be active in parts of the region, would have the opportunity to spread their fundamentalist ideology and persuade other components of their cocaine chain to join their ranks.

Hezbollah, the terrorist organization based in Lebanon, is another organization that stands to capitalize on its South American connections. Early this decade, the group began to extend its presence into the northern part of the continent, first in Venezuela and eventually in several other Latin American countries. In 2009, the London-based intelligence journal Jane’s Intelligence Review documented the existence of a money-laundering “haven” located in the tri-border area (TBA) of South America. A report published by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division estimate that radical Islamic groups in the TBA and similar areas in Latin America are sending US $300-$500 million dollars per year to fundamentalist groups in the Middle East. The TBA is home to around 25,000 people of Arab origin, particularly of Lebanese decent, as a result of two major waves of immigration: following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and again in 1985 after the Lebanese Civil War. The Review even went as far as to state that both Hamas and Hezbollah exert considerable influence in that region.

Yet, the pairing now known as FARQaeda would represent a disturbing alliance because of the unexamined but equally important backflow, or two-way flow, in this illegal embrace of smuggling junctions. Cocaine may be shipped from Latin America destined for Europe, but little attention has been paid to the possible return of drugs, humans, or illicit goods from Africa, Europe or other parts of the world back to South America along these established, if circuitous, underground trade routes. Drug smuggling is not only an export phenomenon, but an import one as well. Similar to problems with regulation in Africa, Latin American officials face enormous challenges in determining if and where illicit cargo is entering the country and where its, ultimate destination(s) are located.

Is there any truth to the claims?
According to one U.S. State Department document issued in 2008, David Luna, the Director for Anticrime Programs of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, predicted that drug traffic to the United States and Europe would continue to grow, using established routes through Venezuela and West Africa to arrive in Europe. Furthermore, in early 2008, an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wrote a report warning of a growing fleet of rogue jet aircraft that was regularly crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean. He surmised that the planes departed from the cocaine-producing areas in the Andes (largely controlled by the FARC) and were being flown to West Africa, where their cargo was handled by groups aligned with Al Qaeda.

On the incoming end of the drug shipments, Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, maintains that it has received a number of local reports about illicit flights from South America to Guinea- Bissau. Due to a lack of resources, however, Interpol has not yet been able to seize any of the aircraft allegedly involved to confirm the validity of these claims.

Finally, these possible alliances touch upon long-existing concerns over alleged illicit activities that are occurring in the tri-border region in South America. The key aspect is the effectiveness of the local border control, which is severely limited due to surveillance difficulties and lack of communication and communications infrastructure between reporting posts. Of special concern is the porous nature of the borders, and the characteristically lax controls in place. The ease of border penetration for the immigrants who supposedly participate in such terrorist organizations poses and additional problem. Many of these individuals have passports from South American countries (as the last big wave of Arab immigration took place in 1985), speak Spanish, and purportedly may appear Hispanic, making their detection a laborious and disputative process.

What the Skeptics say
Just as some experts have written on the possibility of a link between Latin American narcotics groups and Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, others remain unconvinced. Many dispute the manifest lack of evidence, which suggests a weak or nonexistent link between the two. Specialists have called into question the allegiances of the African drug traffickers, or the extent of their implication in terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Again, no convincing evidence has demonstrated that all or even some of the African drug trafficking agents involved in this lucrative ring are actually members or affiliates of any terrorist organization. Another possible explanation is that some of these agents who do claim an affiliation are doing so in order to gain credibility and to obtain other fringe benefits associated with membership in a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda. Such a link would boost their reputations and thus, the volume and revenue of drug trafficking activities.

Finally, without having intercepted one such illicit drug flight, perhaps due to a lack of adequate resources and a paucity of cooperative measures taken by law enforcement or other government officials, it becomes next to impossible to certify any claims about the participants, the cargo, and the stakes involved in the drug trafficking industry.

U.S. Role
In recent months, the U.S. has escalated its anti-narcotics activity not only in FARC’s operating zone of Colombia, but in Mexico as well. The DEA has proposed a new, if relatively modest, program called “Bandera Negra” (Black Flag) which is designed to be essentially an intelligence-gathering operation. The main objective is to spy on Mexico’s Sinaloa and Gulf cartels through intercepting electronic messages and reports from confidential sources in order to increase narcotics confiscations along the U.S.-Mexico border. This operation has an additional objective: to systematically rule out any possible de facto alliances between Mexican narcotics trafficking groups and terrorist organizations, by means of a detailed investigation process.

In total, the Bandera Negra operation is to receive $758,000, designated to cover the costs of running the operation as well as for confidential payments to informants. Bandera Negra will join two other intelligence-gathering operations already in place in Mexico since 2008: Colmillo Blanco and Caballero Andante. If successful, it could be that programs such as these, based on the models now being employed in Mexico, may be used in the future to target other organized crime syndicates in the tri-border region and Venezuela in order to investigate the possible link with the Middle East and Africa.

Final Thoughts on FARQaeda
While a possible FARQaeda alliance could be alarming, the DEA may have exaggerated the likelihood of its existence with a largely unsubstantiated announcement of such an “unholy alliance.” In Africa, as in a number of regions in Latin America, expansive and relatively unmonitored spaces have proven fertile ground for criminal activity. Until now the correlation between these groups has been tenuous at best: a rise in drug trafficking through western Africa and an increase in the presence of Al Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist organizations in the same or neighboring areas. However, reports drawing on these two trends have not adequately established precise causality. Until actual documented evidence from organizations such as Interpol, the United Nations or the individual law enforcement agencies operating in the countries at risk has been made public or even found, the correlation amounts merely to an inconclusive pairing of interests and prejudices.

*See Joshua Keating, “How worried should we be about FARQaeda?” in Foreign Policy, 5 Jan 2010. Available online: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/01/05/how_worried_should_we_be_about_farqaeda