Smuggling wars in the Sahara?
February 22, 2012 9 Comments
On Saturday, the last bit of proof I have sought since last year about surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) leaving Libya became public, when Reuters reported that Algerian security forces had seized a sizable cache of the weapons a little more than 60 km south of In Amenas, itself about 40 km from the border with Libya. On Monday the francophone Algerian daily El Watan provided more details on the story, noting that the stock, which had been carefully protected and buried in the desert, contained 43 missiles, including 28 SA-7 missiles as well as 15 of the significantly newer and more advanced SA-24 (oddly, the link to the original El Watan article seems to have disappeared from the website). This is of course important news, as it would seem to confirm what Algerian and Chadian leaders first warned about last March, that highly advanced missiles were being taken from Libya – though we do not know for certain when the weapons actually began disappearing into other countries.
Unsurprisingly given the concern about the threat these weapons may pose to civilian aviation, this story was reproduced by several wire services and press outlets. But for me another key part of the story that got less attention was that Algerian security forces only discovered the weapons stores after another trafficker or group of traffickers tipped them off.
The weapons seem to have been at a midway point in the delivery process; as the original article noted, after bringing in the weapons from Libya, smugglers wrap the stock in protective plastic before burying it and marking the location on a GPS. Once the prospective buyer has paid for the weapons, the article continues, they are then given the GPS coordinates for their brand new supply of missiles, guns, or whatever else might be buried in the desert.
While the article did not go into more detail, the suggestion of rivalries among weapons traffickers in southeastern Algeria raises some intriguing questions for me. The first is, well, why talk to the Algerian authorities? Did Algerian authorities arrest a group of traffickers who then squealed on another group? Was this a calculated attempt to eliminate rivals, curry favor with authorities, or perhaps drive up the price of other available weapons? And presuming this was not the only collection of such weapons that have made it across the border, how many others have gotten through? After all, Algeria’s government says that they arrested 214 weapons smugglers in 2011 – including 87 Libyans – but this is the first publicly announced seizure of SAMs that I can recall.
This leaves just one final question: Where were these weapons going? The natural choice for many would be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), though there are other militant and criminal networks in the Sahel and North or West Africa that could certainly make use of these weapons. However, it is worth noting that relatives of key Sahelian AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (Or Abid Hammadou, or Mohamed Ghdir, depending on which name you prefer) are known as prominent smugglers in this region as well as in Libya, where Abou Zeid himself reportedly operated as a smuggler before entering into militancy.
Indeed, some sources suggested that relatives of Abou Zeid may have been responsible for the brief kidnapping last month of the prefect of the Illizi province following guilty verdicts handed down by an Algerian court not just on Abou Zeid but also on several family members. Other sources indicated that the kidnappers were AQIM members under Abou Zeid’s command, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Either way, the kidnappers made quick time into Libya, where they were stopped by Libyan militia forces a day later and more than 100 km away from the Algerian border.
All of this goes to show that for all of the discussions of weapons smuggling in the post-Qaddafi Sahel, there’s been relatively less public inquiry into the extremely complicated networks of smugglers in the Sahel, groups sometimes linked by direct family ties, by tribe, by ideology, or just by the allure of cash. Yet in order to understand how weapons, drugs, cigarettes, and people circulate in the Sahel’s clandestine networks, we need to learn more about the smugglers who make these trades possible.