CASABLANCA, Morocco — It seemed a monumental drug bust. Police captured almost three dozen Moroccans last month trying to move hundreds of pounds of cocaine through the country.
But it turned out to be much more than drug deal. Moroccan government officials now say those arrested have ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
"We are dealing with an apparent coordination and collaboration between drug traffickers and terrorists linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” said Interior Minister Taieb Cherquaoui after the arrests. Thirty-four people were detained for smuggling more than 1,300 pounds of cocaine from Algeria and Mauritania.
As the foiled Yemen bomb plot has drawn international attention to Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, there is increased interest in the activities of its North African ally, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The leader of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb drug ring has been detained in Mali, said Morocco's interior minister, who added that the international drug peddling organization is run from Colombia and Spain. The smugglers worked with Moroccan drug traffickers who were also collaborating with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as well as cartels in Latin America.
Drugs arriving from Colombia and Venezuela were shipped to Mali, where they were stored until the Islamic militant group helped to smuggle them into Morocco and from there into Europe, said Cherquaoui.
Until recently, Morocco's political stability was credited with curtailing the actions of Al Qaeda inside the country. The drug activity, however, has now revealed extremist organization's growing network and the interior minister expressed the urgent need for the Sahel countries to collaborate to secure their territories and to fight the group's expansion.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is made up of a few hundred terrorists of different nationalities hiding in the Sahel region of northern Africa, analysts said.
Their dramatically orchestrated executions and pricey ransoms have put the terror group in the spotlight this past year. On Sept. 16, the group took seven people hostage: five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan, all employees of the company Areva in a uranium mining town in Niger. They are believed to be held in the mountainous region in northeastern Mali.
The organization has been operating in a region that stretches from Mauritania to Mali to Niger and Algeria. At first, its operations were financed by the smuggling of goods. But because that was considered a violation of Islamic law, the group turned to kidnappings and negotiating ransoms with countries such as Spain and France. It has earned more than $70 million from kidnappings since 2003, according to Time magazine.
In response to the growing threat of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the United States is funding military exercises designed to combat the group's spread.
The predominantly Algerian organization emerged during that country's civil war during the 1990s when it was formed to overthrow the Algiers government. It was created by elements of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The leaders of these groups grew close to Al Qaeda in 2003 and officially joined it and renamed themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007.
In Morocco, however, the group has never succeeded in establishing a significant base, officials said.
Despite the intense media attention the group receives, it is an organization with limited potential, a few hundred militants, poor logistics and communication and no charismatic leadership, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political science professor at Duke University specializing in terrorism in North Africa.
“Moroccan militant groups’ involvement in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been rather marginal,” said Maghraoui. “Judging from the kidnapping operations and the demands Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is making, it seems that the organization is also facing serious money shortages. The organization’s potential is very limited and incapable of mounting a challenge where the state authorities are robust as in Morocco.”
He said there isn’t any indication that Morocco is a strategic priority for the terrorist group that has two minor networks in the country: the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group responsible for the 2003 Casablanca attacks and the 2004 metro bombings in Madrid; and the Salafiya al Jihadiya, which operates in medium-sized Moroccan towns. He added that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might find non-ideological support among disenchanted Sahrawi militants in Tindouf who don’t see an end to the dispute over the Saharan region.
Maghraoui added that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should be taken as a serious security challenge but that it isn’t a political threat that requires measures such as restricting personal freedoms and investing disproportionate resources in security-related projects. He also argues that at this point, there is no need for international involvement and that the Moroccan government has the necessary means to deal alone with the threat.
“I worry that the countries in the region with outside support are setting up a boogey man in the
Sahel region to advance specific political agendas,” he said, referring to the Sept. 26 meeting between heads of states to deal with the security issues in the region. “There is a lot of room for political manipulation to isolate France or Morocco.”