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Islamic militants boosting role in drug trade

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The sea lanes of the South Atlantic have become a favored route for drug traffickers carrying narcotics from Latin America to West and North Africa, where al Qaeda-related groups are increasingly involved in transporting the drugs to Europe, intelligence officials and counternarcotics specialists say.

A Middle Eastern intelligence official said his agency has picked up "very worrisome reports" of rapidly growing cooperation between Islamic militants operating in North and West Africa and drug lords in Latin America. With U.S. attention focused on the Caribbean and Africans lacking the means to police their shores, the vast sea lanes of the South Atlantic are wide open to illegal navigation, the official said.

"The South Atlantic has become a no-man's sea," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity owing to the nature of his work.

A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) confirmed the new route.

"The Colombians have shifted their focus from sending cocaine through the Caribbean, and they saw an opportunity to sell cocaine in Europe, transshipping it through the South Atlantic from Venezuela and then to Africa, through Spain and into Europe," DEA spokesman Michael Sanders told The Washington Times. "That's what we're seeing. It's just a new location. That's the route they're taking, for the most part."

The Washington Times reported in March that Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese Shi'ite group, is deeply involved in the drug trade. Increasingly, however, Sunni groups linked to al Qaeda are also dealing in narcotics to finance their organizations, specialists say.

"It's a weapon against the infidels in the West," said Chris Brown, a senior research associate at the Potomac Institute outside Washington. "As long as the target of the drug trade is the infidels, they have no problem doing it."

Concerns center on groups such as al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which operates primarily in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. North African officials say they worry that AQIM is amassing large sums of money from the drug trade to use in financing attacks, with the object of frightening away tourists, undercutting local economies and, ultimately, secular regimes.

Much of the drug trafficking passes through Venezuela, said Jaime Daremblum, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute and a former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States.

"Caracas has become the cathedral of narco-traffickers," he said.

Colombian and Peruvian drugs pass through Venezuela en route to Africa and then are transshipped to European markets, anti-drug specialists say. The FARC guerrilla movement, which seeks to destabilize the government of Colombia, is involved and has links to the Islamists in North Africa, they say.

"Most of the drugs that are available in Spain come from Venezuela," Mr. Daremblum said.

Venezuelan Ambassador to Washington Bernardo Alvarez said the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has nothing to do with the trafficking and actively fights against it.

"Do not forget that Venezuela is between the biggest producer of drugs [Colombia] and the biggest consumer of drugs [the U.S.]," Mr. Alvarez said in an e-mail. To accuse Venezuela of responsibility "would be like saying the U.S. government is blessing the trafficking of weapons to Mexico, considering that around 90 percent of the weapons confiscated in Mexico originate in the U.S."

The ambassador added, "Venezuela has adopted a comprehensive anti-drug strategy that includes prevention, drug seizures, arrests and extraditions of criminals, destruction of clandestine airstrips, and the monitoring of possible drug routes.

"Venezuela has cooperative anti-drug agreements with 37 countries, including France, Spain and Portugal. Venezuela's fight against drugs has been recognized and lauded by the Organization of American States and even the International Criminal Police Organization."

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy of the Inter-American Dialogue, a center in Washington that focuses on Latin America, said, "Venezuela is a major transshipment point" for drugs, but he said the problem is complex.

"The drug traffickers are having a field day," he said. "The FARC is clearly involved, but there are a lot more actors."

Intelligence officials and other specialists said some of the deals between Islamist groups and narco-traffickers are negotiated in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony where corruption is rampant.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said there is "a real risk of Guinea-Bissau becoming Africa's first narco-state."

The ICG, a think tank based in Washington and Brussels that focuses on conflict prevention and amelioration, added that "in the absence of effective state and security structures, the country has become a prime transit point for drug trafficking from Latin America to Europe."

The Middle East intelligence official said the CIA tries to monitor the trafficking but cannot stop it in a country where Islamists and drug dealers buy impunity by paying hefty bribes to officials.

The official suggested that a joint tracking center be set up to coordinate data on air and plane shipments on both sides of the South Atlantic.

"If the South Americans know of a ship or plane coming to Africa, they can inform us, and we will track it from here," the official said.

Mr. Sanders of the DEA said his organization "knows there are extremist groups in West Africa, but at this point we don't know if they're playing a role in narcotics trafficking."

• Sara A. Carter contributed to this story from Washington.