For the past decade, increasing instability in the Sahel and Sahara region has
been a source of growing concern in Europe and the United States. Western
governments have worried that the weakness of state control in the area would
allow al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM) and other jihadist organizations
to expand their influence and establish safe havens in areas outside government
control. Such fears appear to have been vindicated by the recent takeover
of northern Mali by AQIM and organizations closely associated with it.
Western governments have focused heavily on AQIM’s presence, providing
technical assistance in an attempt to strengthen the
capacity of the security sectors and justice systems to
combat the group. But Western governments have underestimated,
if not ignored, the destabilizing impact of
organized crime in the region. AQIM itself is in part a
criminal network, kidnapping Western nationals with the
double aim of extorting ransoms and freeing the group’s
imprisoned members. And up until Mali’s military coup
of March 2012, state complicity with organized crime was the main factor
enabling AQIM’s growth and a driver of conflict in the north of the country.
Actors involved in organized crime currently wield decisive political and military
influence in northern Mali.
As they have in the past, Sahel governments will be tempted to use organized
crime as a political resource by allowing their allies to benefit from
criminal activities—which has clear implications for policy. Concentrating on
capacity building in the judicial and security sector is the right approach only
if governments stand behind efforts to combat criminal networks. Donors
should thus focus more on political engagement, encouraging strategies that
make the political accommodation of influential players contingent upon their
disengagement from the illicit economy and commitment to containing drug
and weapons smuggling. This will be especially difficult in Mali, where the
government will have to strike deals with local forces, including temporary
alliances with at least some of the north’s criminal networks, to gain back control
of the territory. The challenge is ensuring that a settlement of the conflict
there does not consolidate the power of criminal networks and expand their
ability to operate.
But with few alternative sources of income in the region and none that can
rival the gains to be made from criminal activity, taking strong steps to break up
criminal networks could do more harm than good. The best external actors can
do is to help incrementally weaken the networks in Mali’s north by developing
a coherent international approach to limiting ransom payments, one of AQIM’s
main sources of funding, and to help strengthen regional cooperation.