March 21, 2013: The fighting in northern Mali has done more than just disrupt al Qaeda plans to establish another sanctuary in that largely desert region. Defeat in Mali has cost the Islamic terrorists a lot of money. For one thing, it has caused drug smugglers to seek other routes for moving their contraband north to the lucrative markets in Europe. This is because all the military activity associated with al Qaeda in northern Mali has made life difficult for all smugglers. Moreover, al Qaeda had been raising its rates for protecting the movement of drugs north. The drug gangs were not happy with this.
For over a decade now a new drug distribution network has developed. This one goes across the Atlantic from South America to Guinea Bissau in West Africa and overland to the Mediterranean coast. More recently drugs have been flying in to Mauritania and Mali for overland shipment north.
These new routes provided al Qaeda with a lucrative opportunity to earn cash guarding the drug shipments and get close to smugglers in the region. This provided contacts and access to illegal weapons. West Africa became a new playground for the Islamic terrorists, and that enabled them to keep operations going further to the north in Algeria and west in Mali. But al Qaeda got greedy and began demanding more money from the drug gangs. In effect, the drug gangs were being extorted. In response, the drug gangs are seeking new routes that avoid greedy and unpredictable Islamic terrorists.
It isn’t just drug revenue that is drying up for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Arab term for North Africa). Kidnapping European tourists is also more difficult. Over the last decade AQIM has earned nearly $100 million in ransoms. But now more European tourists are paying attention to the warnings. So AQIM is going after any foreigners (including a growing number of Chinese) working in the area. Both the tourists and the foreign workers (usually technical specialists not available locally) are good for the local economy and the locals are making more of an effort to protect the foreigners or rescue them if al Qaeda does grab some.
Intelligence agencies are seeking to discover how al Qaeda leadership is reacting to this disastrous turn of events. Most al Qaeda leaders thought taking control of northern Mali would be very helpful. The reality was quite the opposite and losses, not just in manpower and reputation, have been enormous.