West Africa: A Drug Smuggling and Terrorism Hub?

Published on 9th April 2009

With its recent history of political instability, dire economic conditions, weak justice systems, and inadequate security forces, West Africa is a prime location for terrorists who use illicit activities to finance their operations. While the region’s poor security environment is already a known haven for drug trafficking between Latin America and Europe, additional involvement by terrorist groups may decrease stability throughout West Africa, even in Senegal, the region’s bastion of strength.

A Drug Haven

Cocaine                        Photo:Courtesy

There is abundance of evidence that Latin American drugs are being transported through West Africa to Europe. An estimated 50 tons of illicit drugs, worth almost US$2 billion, pass through the region each year, according to UN reports, which approximate that some 27% of the cocaine consumed annually in Europe transits through West Africa.

In one incident in Sierra Leone in July 2008, nearly 60 people were arrested, including three Colombians, two Mexicans, a Venezuelan, and a U.S. national as well as local airport officials and five police officers in connection with a record cocaine bust, after a small white aircraft marked with a fake Red Cross emblem crash landed at Freetown's Lungi International Airport. Police searched the aircraft, which is believed to have been flying from Venezuela to Guinea, and discovered 600kg (1,322 pounds) of cocaine, along with several AK-47 and AK-48 rifles, over 300 rounds of ammunition, and gallons of fuel.

Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Guinea are noted as entry points for drug activity, while Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Guinea have also been observed as valuable conduits for drug couriers. The transport of illicit drugs through Senegal is eased by its relatively solid roads, good telecommunications system, and corrupt police forces. In the first two months of 2009 alone, some 3,210kg of cocaine was seized off the coast of Senegal. This came after cocaine seizures in Senegal grew exponentially from 33kg in 2006 to 2,450kg in 2007. Locals have claimed that a recent boom of construction activity in the capital Dakar has been financed by drug money, while recent reports suggest Muslim Senegalese are funneling drugs to their contacts in Europe and Asia.

Continuing Instability

West Africa’s unstable and corrupt governments allow for the continuation of illicit activities. At least three of these administrations were recently overthrown. Mauritania was thrown into a state of political crisis in August 2008 when presidential guardsmen staged a coup, seizing President Abdallahi after he dismissed several top military officers, including presidential guard chief Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who assumed power. Three months later, a group calling itself the National Council for Democracy (CNDD) led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, a relatively junior army officer, announced that it had dissolved Guinea's government and suspended the constitution, just hours after the death of President Lansana Conte.

In the nearby country of Guinea-Bissau, President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira was shot dead in his palace in March 2009 by a small group of soldiers, just hours after the president's longtime rival, armed forces chief of staff General Batiste Tagme na Waie, was killed in a bombing at his headquarters in Bissau. At least one of these overthrown governments was believed to be involved in the drug trade.

In confessions organized by Guinea's military junta in March 2009, a slew of former top government officials admitted to their roles in the exploding West African cocaine trade. Under the administration of former President Conte, Guinea's presidential guard reportedly secured planes that arrived in the country loaded with cocaine, while drug deals were conducted inside the first lady's private residence and the president's VIP salon at the international airport. Officials also claimed that cocaine had been sent to Europe in the country's diplomatic pouch in order to avoid detection.

Inadequate security forces and weak justice systems make it additionally difficult for West African countries to fight trafficking. Even police forces in better-developed countries, such as Senegal are under-funded, understaffed, and under-equipped. Widespread petty corruption by police forces is common in West Africa, with police often requesting money for what most Westerners would assume are routine police duties. In worst case scenarios, security forces have been known to be complicit in crimes such as drug trafficking. Even if suspects are apprehended, they are sometimes released due to lack of evidence or cronyism in the justice system. In other cases, institutions are anemic; Guinea-Bissau lacks a formal prison to detain suspects.

Terrorism in West Africa

The infrastructure of weak political systems, ineffective security forces, and inefficient justice systems, which has left West Africa vulnerable to drug cartels, has also made it susceptible to the possibility that terrorists could further infiltrate the region. While it is difficult to obtain concrete evidence that the illegal drug trade in West Africa is financing terrorism, terrorist groups are known to use smuggling as a means to fund their organizations. For example, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have a history of exploiting West Africa’s fragile diamond industry. In his U.S. Senate testimony in 1997, a Sierra Leone former Ambassador to the U.S. remarked that diamonds mined in Sierra Leone financed the activities of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. More recently, a February 2008 U.S. Embassy report said that Hezbollah is believed to have raised millions of dollars selling diamonds in Europe mined in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, Hezbollah is believed to have direct ties to the Latin American drug cartel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

There is a threat of further terrorist activity in West Africa, as Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have also been known to exploit situations in which there is a power vacuum or high level of poverty. Al-Qaeda is known to operate widely in Morocco and Algeria and has claimed responsibility for recent abductions of Westerners along the Mali/Niger border.

The group is also believed to have members in Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau. After four French tourists were killed near Nouakchott in December 2007, two of their attackers, who were tracked down in Guinea-Bissau, claimed to be Al-Qaeda members and threatened additional anti-Western attacks. Furthermore, the sophistication of the recent assassinations of Guinea-Bissau’s president and armed forces chief suggests involvement of a drug cartel or an international terrorist organization, as past disputes between the rival leaders had merely involved gunfire, whereas the armed forces chief was killed in a timed bomb attack at army headquarters and the president was assassinated in a gun and rocket attack on the palace.


The possible link between crime organizations and terrorist networks appears to be leading to an escalation of violence in West Africa, a region already heavily armed due to recent civil wars. Limited progress has been made in West Africa to stem collusion, with Guinea’s new ruling junta allegedly working to rid the country of former officials linked to the drug trade; nonetheless, illicit activities threaten to destabilize even the most steady nations in West Africa unless smuggling and terrorism can be sufficiently contained in the region.

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