Crisis in the Sahel: Trafficking

Organized crime—especially various forms of smuggling and narco-trafficking—is the lifeblood of the vast under-governed expanse of the Sahara. It is within this largely decentralized and politically corrupt milieu that terrorists and criminals work together to access weapons and money to sustain their symbiotic operations.

Cigarette smuggling

In 2003, I traveled to Dirkou in the Eastern Niger near the Chadian border. During my visit, I witnessed a large convoy of trucks heading north towards the Libyan border. When I inquired about the cargo, my guide explained that it was black market tobacco destined for the markets in Libya and Europe. He went to say that the cargo received protection from the Nigerien military, which collected a small percentage of the revenue because the government was poor and this was a way to compensate.

The cigarette smuggling business is nothing new in this region. It began two decades ago and evolved over time into a lucrative business that has profited government officials, military personnel, smugglers and terrorists alike. Extremists like Belmokhtar (a man of many nicknames, including “Mr. Marlboro”) greatly benefitted from this business. In 2009, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) wrote an in-depth report about the black market tobacco and narco-trafficking trade in North and West Africa. In the report, investigators demonstrated how widespread and lucrative these trades were.

A separate September 2012 report by Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel Region,” referenced the UNODC report but provided further evidence and important insights concerning the complexities of cigarette smuggling networks in North Africa:

The key actors in this trade are legal cigarette importers and distributors, who import their merchandise from free trade zones such as Dubai. The trade is therefore best interpreted as a deliberate strategy by tobacco companies to circumvent tax regimes or break North African state monopolies on cigarette distribution.

This system has led to the erosion of the customs services because of corruption and collusion between smugglers and state officials. For part of its journey, the merchandise is transported in large trucks on the main roads, with the connivance of Malian and Nigerian security officials. In Libya, cigarette smuggling is controlled by networks in the security apparatus dominated by members of the Qadhadfa tribe. In the triangle between Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria, Sahrawi networks—often with the direct involvement of officials in the Polisario movement, which seeks independence for Western Sahara—trade subsidized Algerian goods and humanitarian aid southward and cigarettes northward to Algeria and Morocco. Cigarette smuggling has also contributed to the emergence of smaller gangs of smugglers charged with transporting the merchandise from Mauritania, Mali, and Niger into Algeria. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who later acquired notoriety as one of the leading figures in AQIM’s Sahelian operations, is widely reputed to have long run a cigarette smuggling racket across the Sahara.


Since 2003, the region has seen an exponential increase in smuggling of Moroccan cannabis resin, cocaine from Latin America and more recently, methamphetamine (i.e. over the last four years), which is cheap to produce and distribute locally and internationally. Licit and illicit contraband, which developed decades ago, laid the foundation for the lucrative narcotics trade. Routes through the Sahara shift regularly based on regional threats, tribal fight conflicts or wars. Wealth gained by these groups affords them the ability to buy political influence and military power. Mali is a prime example. 

In an in-depth report by the International Crisis Group, the researcher notes that the governance—if it can be called that—of northern Mali by the administration of deposed President Amadou Toumane Touré’s (ATT) was based on several corrupt agendas: collusion with local rival and opportunist elites, questionable relations with AQIM terrorists and the non-transparent and imbalanced use of international aid (especially aid provided for counter-terrorism operations) to strengthen control over the region. The profits he derived from a criminal economy, sustained by trans-border trafficking (especially of drugs) and ransoms from Western hostages lined the pockets of northern and Bamako elites and officials in the state administration and sustained the economic underdevelopment of the region. The balance in the Sahara is delicate; the international community should help the region’s people find alternatives to narco- and weapons trafficking.

In contrast to Mali, Morocco stands out as a model for reform and progress in the fight for equality, counter-terrorism and a counter-narcotics strategy, which is outlined in the 2012 report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). It has achieved significant reductions in the cannabis and cannabis resin industry over the years by outlining a comprehensive strategy combining law enforcement, crop eradication and demand reduction efforts with economic development to erode the “cannabis growing culture” in the north of the country. It continues to fight terrorism through the strengthening of the security and justice systems, and emphasizes a preventive dimension against violent extremism and organized crime through reforms in the economic, political, social, religious and educational fields, many of which were introduced in the Amazigh (Berber) language. These reforms provided a boost in cultivating a culture of democracy, pluralism and equality in Morocco—qualities that fly in the face of black market economies.

Nevertheless, like other countries in North and West Africa, Morocco is concerned with the risks of infiltration by terrorists fleeing Mali via illegal immigration channels. Indeed, drugs and human trafficking networks overlap — a cause for concern throughout the region (and Europe). For example in 2011, Moroccan authorities dismantled a large local drug-trafficking network linked to both Colombian cartels and AQIM. The movement of hash to Europe that apparently travels through Morocco also suggests that there remains room for improvement.

Rudolph Atallah is a senior fellow with the Ansari Africa Center. This piece is an excerpt of Atallah’s full testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on May 21, 2013. 

Related Experts: Rudolph Atallah

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