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Al Qaeda Linked to Rogue Aviation Network

REUTERS (1/13/2010)–In ear­ly 2008, an offi­cial at the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty sent a report to his supe­ri­ors detail­ing what he called “the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment in the crim­i­nal exploita­tion of air­craft since 9/11.”

The doc­u­ment warned that a grow­ing fleet of rogue jet air­craft was reg­u­lar­ly criss­cross­ing the Atlantic Ocean. On one end of the air route, it said, are cocaine-pro­duc­ing areas in the Andes con­trolled by the left­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia. On the oth­er are some of West Africa’s most unsta­ble coun­tries.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, was ignored, and the prob­lem has since esca­lat­ed into what secu­ri­ty offi­cials in sev­er­al coun­tries describe as a glob­al secu­ri­ty threat.

The clan­des­tine fleet has grown to include twin-engine tur­bo­props, exec­u­tive jets and retired Boe­ing 727s that are fly­ing mul­ti-ton loads of cocaine and pos­si­bly weapons to an area in Africa where fac­tions of al Qae­da are believed to be facil­i­tat­ing the smug­gling of drugs to Europe, the offi­cials say.

Al Qae­da in the Islam­ic Maghreb (AQIM) has been held respon­si­ble for car and sui­cide bomb­ings in Alge­ria and Mau­ri­ta­nia.

Gun­men and ban­dits with links to AQIM have also stepped up kid­nap­pings of Euro­peans for ran­som, who are then passed on to AQIM fac­tions seek­ing ran­som pay­ments.

The air­craft hop­scotch across South Amer­i­can coun­tries, pick­ing up tons of cocaine and jet fuel, offi­cials say. They then soar across the Atlantic to West Africa and the Sahel, where the drugs are fun­neled across the Sahara Desert and into Europe.

An exam­i­na­tion of doc­u­ments and inter­views with offi­cials in the Unit­ed States and three West African nations sug­gest that at least 10 air­craft have been dis­cov­ered using this air route since 2006. Offi­cials warn that many of these air­craft were detect­ed pure­ly by chance. They cau­tion that the real num­ber involved in the net­works is like­ly con­sid­er­ably high­er.

Alexan­dre Schmidt, region­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for West and Cen­tral Africa for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, cau­tioned in Dakar this week that the avi­a­tion net­work has expand­ed in the past 12 months and now like­ly includes sev­er­al Boe­ing 727 air­craft.

“When you have this high capac­i­ty for trans­port­ing drugs into West Africa, this means that you have the capac­i­ty to trans­port as well oth­er goods, so it is def­i­nite­ly a threat to secu­ri­ty any­where in the world,” said Schmidt.

The “oth­er goods” offi­cials are most wor­ried about are weapons that mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tions can smug­gle on the jet air­craft. A Boe­ing 727 can han­dle up to 10 tons of car­go.

The U.S. offi­cial who wrote the report for the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty said the al Qae­da con­nec­tion was unclear at the time.

The offi­cial is a counter-nar­cotics avi­a­tion expert who asked to remain anony­mous as he is not autho­rized to speak on the record. He said he was dis­mayed by the lack of atten­tion to the mat­ter since he wrote the report.

“You’ve got an estab­lished ter­ror­ist con­nec­tion on this side of the Atlantic. Now on the Africa side you have the al Qae­da con­nec­tion and it’s extreme­ly dis­turb­ing and a lit­tle bit mys­ti­fy­ing that it’s not one of the top pri­or­i­ties of the gov­ern­ment,” he said.

Since the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks, the secu­ri­ty sys­tem for pas­sen­ger air traf­fic has been ratch­eted up in the Unit­ed States and through­out much of the rest of the world, with the lat­est mea­sures imposed just weeks ago after a failed bomb attempt on a Detroit-bound plane on Decem­ber 25.

“The bad guys have respond­ed with their own avi­a­tion net­work that is out there every­day fly­ing loads and mov­ing con­tra­band,” said the offi­cial, “and the gov­ern­ment seems to be obliv­i­ous to it.”

The upshot, he said, is that mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tions — includ­ing groups like the FARC and al Qae­da — have the “pow­er to move peo­ple and mate­r­i­al and con­tra­band any­where around the world with a cou­ple of fuel stops.”

The lucra­tive drug trade is already hav­ing a dele­te­ri­ous impact on West African nations. Local author­i­ties told Reuters they are increas­ing­ly out­gunned and unable to stop the smug­glers.

And sig­nif­i­cant­ly, many experts say, the drug traf­fick­ing is bring­ing in huge rev­enues to groups that say they are part of al Qae­da. It’s swelling not just their cof­fers but also their ranks, they say, as drug mon­ey is becom­ing an effec­tive recruit­ing tool in some of the world’s most des­per­ate­ly poor regions.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma has chid­ed his intel­li­gence offi­cials for not pool­ing infor­ma­tion “to con­nect those dots” to pre­vent threats from being real­ized. But these dots, scat­tered across two con­ti­nents like flar­ing traces on a radar screen, remain large­ly uncon­nect­ed and the fleets them­selves are still fly­ing.

THE AFRICAN CONNECTION

The dead­ly cocaine trade always fol­lows the mon­ey, and its cash-flush traf­fick­ers seek out the routes that are the most­ly light­ly policed.

Beset by cor­rup­tion and pover­ty, weak coun­tries across West Africa have become stag­ing plat­forms for trans­port­ing between 30 tons and 100 tons of cocaine each year that ends up in Europe, accord­ing to U.N. esti­mates.

Drug traf­fick­ing, though on a much small­er scale, has exist­ed here and else­where on the con­ti­nent since at least the late 1990s, accord­ing to local author­i­ties and U.S. enforce­ment offi­cials.

Ear­li­er this decade, sea inter­dic­tions were stepped up. So smug­glers devel­oped an air fleet that is able to trans­port tons of cocaine from the Andes to African nations that include Mau­ri­ta­nia, Mali, Sier­ra Leone and Guinea Bissau.What these coun­tries have in com­mon are numer­ous dis­used land­ing strips and makeshift run­ways — most with­out radar or police pres­ence. Guinea Bis­sau has no avi­a­tion radar at all. As fleets grew, so, too, did the drug trade.

The DEA says all air­craft seized in West Africa had depart­ed Venezuela. That nation’s loca­tion on the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard of South Amer­i­ca makes it an ide­al take­off place for drug flights bound for Africa, they say.

A num­ber of air­craft have been retro­fit­ted with addi­tion­al fuel tanks to allow in-flight refu­el­ing — a tech­nique inno­vat­ed by Mex­i­co’s drug smug­glers. (Car­tel pilots there have been known to stretch an air­craft’s flight range by putting a water mat­tress filled with avi­a­tion fuel in the cab­in, then stack­ing car­goes of mar­i­jua­na bun­dles on top to act as an impro­vised fuel pump.)

Ploys used by the car­tel avi­a­tors to mask the flights include fraud­u­lent pilot cer­tifi­cates, false reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ments and altered tail num­bers to steer clear of law enforce­ment look­out lists, inves­ti­ga­tors say. Some air­craft have also been found with­out air-wor­thi­ness cer­tifi­cates or log books. When smug­glers are forced to aban­don them, they torch them to destroy foren­sic and oth­er evi­dence like ser­i­al num­bers.

The evi­dence sug­gests that some Africa-bound cocaine jets also file a region­al flight plan to avoid arous­ing sus­pi­cion from inves­ti­ga­tors. They then sub­se­quent­ly change them at the last minute, con­fi­dent that their switch will go unde­tect­ed.

One Gulf­stream II jet, wait­ing with its engines run­ning to take on 2.3 tons of cocaine at Mar­gari­ta Island in Venezuela, request­ed a last-minute flight plan change to war-rav­aged Sier­ra Leone in West Africa. It was nabbed moments lat­er by Venezue­lan troops, the report seen by Reuters showed.

Once air­borne, the planes soar to alti­tudes used by com­mer­cial jets. They have lit­tle fear of inter­dic­tion as there is no long-range radar cov­er­age over the Atlantic. Cur­rent detec­tion efforts by U.S. author­i­ties, using fixed radar and P3 air­craft, are lim­it­ed to tra­di­tion­al Caribbean and north Atlantic air and marine tran­sit cor­ri­dors.

The air­craft land at air­ports, dis­used run­ways or impro­vised air strips in Africa. One bear­ing a false Red Cross emblem touched down with­out autho­riza­tion onto an unlit strip at Lun­gi Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in Sier­ra Leone in 2008, accord­ing to a U.N. report.

Late last year a Boe­ing 727 land­ed on an impro­vised run­way using the hard-packed sand of a Tuareg camel car­a­van route in Mali, where local offi­cials said smug­glers offloaded between 2 and 10 tons of cocaine before dous­ing the jet with fuel and burn­ing it after it failed to take off again.

For years, traf­fick­ers in Mex­i­co have bribed offi­cials to allow them to land and offload cocaine flights at com­mer­cial air­ports. That’s now hap­pen­ing in Africa as well. In July 2008, troops in coup-prone Guinea Bis­sau secured Bis­sau inter­na­tion­al air­port to allow an unsched­uled cocaine flight to land, accord­ing to Edmun­do Mendes, a direc­tor with the Judi­cial Police.

“When we got there, the sol­diers were pro­tect­ing the air­craft,” said Mendes, who tried to nab the Gulf­stream II jet packed with an esti­mat­ed $50 mil­lion in cocaine but was blocked by the mil­i­tary.

“The sol­diers ver­bal­ly threat­ened us,” he said. The cocaine was nev­er recov­ered. Just last week, Reuters pho­tographed two air­craft at Osval­do Vieira Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in Guinea Bis­sau — one had been dis­patched by traf­fick­ers from Sene­gal to try to repair the oth­er, a Gulf­stream II jet, after it devel­oped mechan­i­cal prob­lems. Police seized the sec­ond air­craft.

FLYING BLIND

One of the clear­est indi­ca­tions of how much this avi­a­tion net­work has advanced was the dis­cov­ery, on Novem­ber 2, of the burned out fuse­lage of an aging Boe­ing 727. Local author­i­ties found it rest­ing on its side in rolling sands in Mali. In sev­er­al ways, the use of such an air­craft marks a sig­nif­i­cant advance for smug­glers.

Boe­ing jet­lin­ers, like the one dis­cov­ered in Mali, can fly a car­go of sev­er­al tons into remote areas. They also require a three-man crew — a pilot, co pilot and flight engi­neer, pri­mar­i­ly to man­age the com­plex fuel sys­tem dat­ing from an era before automa­tion.

Hun­dreds of miles to the west, in the sul­try, for­mer Por­tuguese colony of Guinea Bis­sau, nation­al Inter­pol direc­tor Cal­vario Ahukharie said sev­er­al aban­doned air­fields, includ­ing strips used at one time by the Por­tuguese mil­i­tary, had recent­ly been restored by “drug mafias” for illic­it flights.

“In the past, the planes com­ing from Latin Amer­i­ca usu­al­ly land­ed at Bis­sau air­port,” Ahukharie said as a gen­er­a­tor churned the fee­ble air-con­di­tion­ing in his office dur­ing one of the city’s fre­quent black­outs.

“But now they land at air­ports in south­ern and east­ern Bis­sau where the judi­cial police have no pres­ence.”

Ahukharie said drug flights are land­ing at Cacine, in east­ern Bis­sau, and Bubaque in the Bija­gos Arch­i­pel­ago, a chain of more than 80 islands off the Atlantic coast. Inter­pol said it hears about the flights from locals, although they have been unable to seize air­craft, cit­ing a lack of resources.

The drug trade, by both air and sea, has already had a dev­as­tat­ing impact on Guinea Bis­sau. A dis­pute over traf­fick­ing has been linked to the assas­si­na­tion of the mil­i­tary chief of staff, Gen­er­al Batista Tagme Na Wai in 2009. Hours lat­er, the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Joao Bernar­do Vieira, was hacked to death by machete in his home.

Asked how seri­ous the issue of air traf­fick­ing remained for Guinea Bis­sau, Ahukharie was unam­bigu­ous: “The prob­lem is grave.”

The sit­u­a­tion is poten­tial­ly worse in the Sahel-Sahara, where cocaine is arriv­ing by the ton. There it is fed into well-estab­lished over­land traf­fick­ing routes across the Sahara where gov­ern­ment influ­ence is lim­it­ed and where fac­tions of al Qae­da in the Islam­ic Maghreb have become increas­ing­ly active.

The group, pre­vi­ous­ly known as the Salafist Group for Preach­ing and Com­bat, is rais­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from the kid­nap of Euro­peans.

Ana­lysts say mil­i­tants strike deals of con­ve­nience with Tuareg rebels and smug­glers of arms, cig­a­rettes and drugs. Accord­ing to a grow­ing pat­tern of evi­dence, the group may now be deriv­ing hefty rev­enues from facil­i­tat­ing the smug­gling of FARC-made cocaine to the shores of Europe.

UNHOLY ALLIANCE

In Decem­ber, Anto­nio Maria Cos­ta, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a spe­cial ses­sion of the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil that drugs were being trad­ed by “ter­ror­ists and anti-gov­ern­ment forces” to fund their oper­a­tions from the Andes, to Asia and the African Sahel.

“In the past, trade across the Sahara was by car­a­vans,” he said. “Today it is larg­er in size, faster at deliv­ery and more high-tech, as evi­denced by the debris of a Boe­ing 727 found on Novem­ber 2nd in the Gao region of Mali — an area affect­ed by insur­gency and ter­ror­ism.”

Just days lat­er, U.S. Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials arrest­ed three West African men fol­low­ing a sting oper­a­tion in Ghana. The men, all from Mali, were extra­dit­ed to New York on Decem­ber 16 on drug traf­fick­ing and ter­ror­ism charges.

Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abel­rah­man are accused of plot­ting to trans­port cocaine across Africa with the intent to sup­port al Qae­da, its local affil­i­ate AQIM and the FARC. The charges pro­vid­ed evi­dence of what the DEA’s top offi­cial in Colom­bia described to a Reuters reporter as “an unholy alliance between South Amer­i­can nar­co-ter­ror­ists and Islam­ic extrem­ists.”

Some experts are skep­ti­cal, how­ev­er, that the men are any more than crim­i­nals. They ques­tioned whether the drug deal­ers over­sold their al Qae­da con­nec­tions to get their hands on the cocaine.

In its crim­i­nal com­plaint, the DEA said Toure had led an armed group affil­i­at­ed to al Qae­da that could move the cocaine from Ghana through North Africa to Spain for a fee of $2,000 per kilo for trans­porta­tion and pro­tec­tion.

Toure dis­cussed two dif­fer­ent over­land routes with an under­cov­er infor­mant. One was through Alge­ria and Moroc­co; the oth­er via Alge­ria to Libya. He told the informer that the group had worked with al Qae­da to trans­port between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia, as well as smug­gle Pak­istani, Indi­an and Bangladeshi migrants into Spain.

In any event, AQIM has been gain­ing in noto­ri­ety. Secu­ri­ty ana­lysts warn that cash stem­ming from the trans-Saha­ran coke trade could trans­form the orga­ni­za­tion — a small, agile group whose south­ern-Sahel wing is esti­mat­ed to num­ber between 100 and 200 men — into a more potent threat in the region that stretch­es from Mau­ri­ta­nia to Niger. It is an area with huge for­eign invest­ments in oil, min­ing and a pos­si­ble trans-Sahara gas pipeline.

“These groups are going to have a lot more mon­ey than they’ve had before, and I think you are going to see them with much more sophis­ti­cat­ed weapons,” said Dou­glas Farah, a senior fel­low at the Inter­na­tion­al Assess­ment Strat­e­gy Cen­ter, a Wash­ing­ton based secu­ri­ty think-tank.

NARCOTIC INDUSTRIAL DEPOT

The Tim­buk­tu region cov­ers more than a third of north­ern Mali, where the parched, scrub­by Sahel shades into the end­less, rolling dunes of the Sahara Desert. It is an area sev­er­al times the size of Switzer­land, much of it beyond state con­trol.

Moulaye Haidara, the cus­toms offi­cial, said the sharp influx of cocaine by air has trans­formed the area into an “indus­tri­al depot” for cocaine.

Sit­ting in a cool, dark, mud-brick office build­ing in the city where nomadic Tuareg min­gle with Arabs and African Song­hay, Fulani and Mande peo­ples, Haidara express­es alarm at the chal­lenge local law enforce­ment faces.

Using prof­its from the trade, the smug­glers have already bought “auto­mat­ic weapons, and they are very deter­mined,” Haidara said. He added that they “call them­selves Al Qae­da,” though he believes the group had noth­ing to do with reli­gion, but used it as “an ide­o­log­i­cal base.”

Local author­i­ties say four-wheel-dri­ve Toy­ota SUVs out­fit­ted with GPS nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment and satel­lite tele­phones are stan­dard issue for smug­glers. Res­i­dents say traf­fick­ers deflate the tires to gain bet­ter trac­tion on the loose Saha­ran sands, and can trav­el at speeds of up to 70 miles-per-hour in con­voys along routes to North Africa.

Tim­buk­tu gov­er­nor, Colonel Mamadou Man­gara, said he believes traf­fick­ers have air-con­di­tioned tents that enable them to oper­ate in areas of the Sahara where sum­mer tem­per­a­tures are so fierce that they “scorch your shoes.” He added that the army lacked such equip­ment. A grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple in the impov­er­ished region, where trans­port by don­key cart and camel are still com­mon, are being drawn to the trade. They can earn 4 to 5 mil­lion CFA Francs (rough­ly $9–11,000) on just one coke run.

“Smug­gling can be attrac­tive to peo­ple here who can make only $100 or $200 a month,” said Mohamed Ag Hamalek, a Tuareg tourist guide in Tim­buk­tu, whose fam­i­ly until recent­ly earned their keep haul­ing rock salt by camel train, using the stars to nav­i­gate the Sahara.

Haidara described north­ern Mali as a no-go area for the cus­toms ser­vice. “There is now a red line across north­ern Mali, nobody can go there,” he said, sketch­ing a map of the coun­try on a scrap of paper with a ball­point pen. “If you go there with fee­ble means ... you don’t come back.”

TWO-WAY TRADE

Speak­ing in Dakar this week, Schmidt, the U.N. offi­cial, said that grow­ing clan­des­tine air traf­fic required urgent action on the part of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty.

“This should be the high­est con­cern for gov­ern­ments ... For West African coun­tries, for West Euro­pean coun­tries, for Rus­sia and the U.S., this should be very high on the agen­da,” he said.

Stop­ping the trade, as the traf­fick­ers are undoubt­ed­ly aware, is a huge chal­lenge — diplo­mat­i­cal­ly, struc­tural­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly.

Venezuela, the take­off or refu­el­ing point for air­craft mak­ing the trip, has a con­fronta­tion­al rela­tion­ship with Colom­bia, where Pres­i­dent Alvaro Uribe has focused on crush­ing the FAR­C’s 45-year-old insur­gency. The nation’s left­ist leader, Hugo Chavez, won’t allow in the DEA to work in the coun­try.

In a mea­sure of his hos­til­i­ty to Wash­ing­ton, he scram­bled two F16 fight­er jets last week to inter­cept an Amer­i­can P3 air­craft — a plane used to seek out and track drug traf­fick­ers — which he said had twice vio­lat­ed Venezue­lan air­space. He says the Unit­ed States and Colom­bia are using anti-drug oper­a­tions as a cov­er for a planned inva­sion of his oil-rich coun­try. Wash­ing­ton and Bogo­ta dis­miss the alle­ga­tion.

In terms of curb­ing traf­fick­ing, the DEA has by far the largest over­seas pres­ence of any U.S. fed­er­al law enforce­ment, with 83 offices in 62 coun­tries. But it is spread thin in Africa where it has just four offices — in Nige­ria, Ghana, Egypt and South Africa — though there are plans to open a fifth office in Kenya.

Law enforce­ment agen­cies from Europe as well as Inter­pol are also at work to curb the trade. But local­ly, offi­cials are quick to point out that Africa is los­ing the war on drugs.

The most glar­ing prob­lem, as Mal­i’s exam­ple shows, is a lack of resources. The only arrests made in con­nec­tion with the Boe­ing came days after it was found in the desert — and those incar­cer­at­ed turned out to be desert nomads can­ni­bal­iz­ing the plane’s alu­minum skin, prob­a­bly to make cook­ing pots. They were soon released.

Police in Guinea Bis­sau, mean­while, told Reuters they have few guns, no mon­ey for gas for vehi­cles giv­en by donor gov­ern­ments and no high secu­ri­ty prison to hold crim­i­nals.

Cor­rup­tion is also a prob­lem. The army has freed sev­er­al traf­fick­ers charged or detained by author­i­ties seek­ing to tack­le the prob­lem, police and rights groups said.

Seri­ous ques­tions remain about why Malian author­i­ties took so long to report the Boe­ing’s dis­cov­ery to the inter­na­tion­al law enforce­ment com­mu­ni­ty.

What is par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ry­ing to U.S. inter­ests is that the net­works of air­craft are not just fly­ing one way — haul­ing coke to Africa from Latin Amer­i­ca — but are also fly­ing back to the Amer­i­c­as.

The inter­nal Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty mem­o­ran­dum reviewed by Reuters cit­ed one instance in which an air­craft from Africa land­ed in Mex­i­co with pas­sen­gers and unex­am­ined car­go.

The Gulf­stream II jet arrived in Can­cun, by way of Mar­gari­ta Island, Venezuela, en route from Africa. The air­craft, which was on an avi­a­tion watch list, car­ried just two pas­sen­gers. One was a U.S. nation­al with no lug­gage, the oth­er a cit­i­zen of the Repub­lic of Con­go with a diplo­mat­ic pass­port and a brief­case, which was not searched.

“The obvi­ous huge con­cern is that you have a trans­porta­tion sys­tem that is capa­ble of trans­port­ing tons of cocaine from west to east,” said the avi­a­tion spe­cial­ist who wrote the Home­land Secu­ri­ty report.

“But it’s reck­less to assume that noth­ing is com­ing back, and when there’s ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions on either side of this pipeline, it should be a high pri­or­i­ty to find out what is com­ing back on those air­planes.”


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