The Islamists that now control northern Mali built a lucrative economy on ransom payments from the West and a booming drug trade, according to a special report by David Lewis and Adama Diarra of Reuters.Their empire began in 2003 when at least one European government paid $5 million to the Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat (GSPC) for a group of 32 European tourists who kidnapped in Algeria.
“It is the Western countries that are financing terrorism and jihad through their ransom payments,” Oumar Ould Hamaha, a member of the MUJWA Islamist group, told Reuters.
The GSPC later became AQIM, al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing, which has formed alliances with various Islamist groups and criminal networks in the region.
Dubbed “gangster-jihadists” by French parliamentarians, the AQIM began offering as much as $100,000 for non-American Westerners that they could flip to governments for a higher payout. (Washington does not pay ransoms.)
The gangster-jihadists earned tens of millions of dollars this way, Western and regional security officials told Reuters. A Swiss government report in 2010 revealed that the country spent $5.9 million to free two hostages held in Mali, with only about $2.1 million going to the Swiss rescuers.
The AQIM then entered the drug game, providing protection and permission to traffickers of Afghan heroin destined for Europe in addition to hashish and Latin American cocaine.
“People came in from the desert with suitcases full of cash,” Ben Essayouti, secretary general of Timbuktu’s branch of the Malian Human Rights League, told Reuters. “Sometimes the bank opened on holidays just for them.”
Reuters notes that Mali’s north could become a free-for-all for traffickers and terrorists since Islamists control large aeroplane runways in Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit.
“In the short term, if the Malian government wants to win back the north, it will have to strike [shady] deals with some of these groups,” Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The difficult question is how you stop … their positions being strengthened.”
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