Organized criminal networks and drug trafficking are key drivers of conflict in Mali. The rise of “gangster-jihadism” was critical in hollowing out Mali’s democracy and helped enable the Islamist takeover of the north. The drug trade also constitutes a challenge in the diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis in Mali, as many of the actors who will be called upon to put Mali back together have ties to criminal networks and are complicit in the drug trade.
Going forward, the international community will inevitably find itself in the unenviable position of turning a blind eye to the extracurricular activities of its non-Islamist allies in northern Mali, thus allowing for the drug trade and its deleterious effects to continue, or it can shut-out those associated with the drug trade and risk alienating or driving away actors whose cooperation will be essential in retaking northern Mali. The limits of co-option are front and center, but the (alleged) depth and breadth of the trade make it nearly impossible for anyone in Mali to get too righteous on this issue.
For analysts, the paucity of credible information is particularly problematic. As Andrew Lebovich writes:
While much ink has been spilled about the spread of the drug trade in the Sahel, precious little direct evidence has been publicly provided with regards to the actual size and profitability of this trade. This is due largely to the incredible difficulty of researching the trade, as well as efforts by traders to launder or otherwise hide money behind businesses in multiple regional countries, though I suspect part of it is also lazy writing and analysis. Within this lack of data is another frustrating problem, that of identifying accurately those involved in the trade. This creates the paradoxical problem in which anyone looking into this trade can quickly “know” the key players, but the evidence linking them to the trade (and groups like AQIM or MUJWA) is, again, largely circumstantial or speculative, and heavily dependent on vague reports and local rumor.
To that end, here are three pieces that I recommend for those who want to better understand the role of organized crime in driving conflict in the Sahel-Sahara.
David Lewis and Adama Diarra,”In the land of the ‘gangster-jihadists’: How the Islamist takeover in northern mali was fueled by criminals – and partly funded by the west” Reuters 24 October 2012.
Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2012.
Andrew Lebovich, “Trying to Understand MUJWA” al-Wasat, 22 August 2012.
More broadly, African Arguments has an ongoing series/debate titled, “Africa And The War On Drugs.” This is first-rate stuff written by people who were following the subject long before it was in vogue.