Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Qaeda affiliate al-Murabitoon, is one of the world’s most wanted terrorists and one of Africa’s most dangerous men. A former mujahedeen fighter against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Belmokhtar went on to join the Islamist insurgency in Algeria in the 1990s and later became a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He captured international headlines by ordering the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January 2013, taking hundreds hostage and leaving 38 dead. Later that same year, he masterminded suicide attacks in Niger that killed 25 more. Despite numerous attempts by the U.S. and other countries to kill him, Belmokhtar continues to menace northern and western Africa, with his group claiming responsibility for the bloody hotel Radisson attack in Bamako, Mali.
While he is most widely known for the bloodshed at In Amenas, Belmokhtar’s ascent in North Africa’s jihadist circles was financed by a $1 billion North African network in contraband tobacco he helped create. After successfully ransoming European hostages in 2003, he developed an underground trading business throughout the Sahara that was built along ancient salt roads used by Tuareg tribes. By marrying himself to the daughters of powerful Tuareg families, Belmokhtar secured the routes he needed to transport smuggled cigarettes from Ghana, Benin, and Togo all the way up to Algeria and the Mediterranean beyond. Belmokhtar’s venture was so successful that it has earned him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro” ever since. Contraband tobacco is big business throughout the continent: Africans smoke 400 billion cigarettes a year, and 60 billion of those have been smuggled.
In a new publication from the U.S. State Department titled “The Global Illicit Trade in Tobacco: A Threat to National Security,” the American government spells out how cigarette smuggling undermines security in Africa and the world over. As the State Department explains, the smuggling of cigarettes is not only a lucrative crime but also makes it easier to conduct other activities, such as human trafficking and illegal trade in weapons, drugs, and antiquities. Even if those responsible for moving and selling illegal cigarettes are caught, the penalties are far less than for those found smuggling drugs. The report encapsulates the problem as such: “The illicit trafficking of tobacco is a multibillion-dollar business today. It fuels organized crime and corruption, robs governments of needed tax money, helps expand the global illegal economy, and assists some terrorists by financing their operations.”
While Africans are most directly affected by terrorists such as Belmokhtar and attacks such as those on In Amenas, Mali, and Garissa University in Kenya, the continent also serves as a major conduit for these groups and other criminal gangs to smuggle their contraband (including illegal cigarettes) into Europe. As the European Union struggles to deal with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees through Turkey and Greece, the well-established African smuggling networks which criss-cross half the continent (from Libya and Morocco all the way south to Ghana and Kenya) continue to send people, drugs, counterfeit goods, and weapons to Italy, Spain, and beyond. While E.U. members (especially France) intervene to stem instability in various parts of Africa, Europe has seemingly yet to figure out how to stem this tide of smuggling from reaching its southern shores.
As Belmokhtar’s transcontinental smuggling routes make clear, the role that cigarettes play in financing terrorism (and the wider black market where organized crime and terrorist groups thrive) should not be understated. The Center for the Analysis of Terrorism found that over 20% of criminal financing for terrorist organizations was provided by cigarette trafficking. Given the scale of the issue, Europe’s efforts to fight smuggling seem lackluster at best. The agency charged with securing its external frontiers, Frontex, operates on only a €114 million budget; by comparison, the United States spends $10 billion USD on border security.
Despite their claimed efforts to detect money laundering and deal with illicit financial networks, the security strategy adopted by the European Union and its member states seems ill-equipped to deal with the small-scale operations fed by international smuggling networks. The attacks that took place in Paris in January and November of this year were largely financed locally by petty crime, including the sale of illegal cigarettes by at least one of the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo. France is the largest market for smuggled cigarettes in Europe, with its high taxes on legal cigarettes encouraging imports from abroad: in 2014, over 2.6 billion cigarettes entered the country from Algeria alone.
Despite this, new reports show European Union agencies have barely used some of their investigative powers to counteract cigarette smuggling, while member states must rely on reports produced for tobacco companies for data on global figures. Moreover, the EU hasn’t included tobacco smuggling in its European Agenda on Security.
While European officials claim cigarette smuggling is dropping, terrorists with backgrounds in the illegal tobacco trade have now been implicated in attacks on Europeans in Africa (by Belmokhtar) as well as in the heart of Paris. While the African countries where this trade takes place may not have the resources and structures required to stop it, Europe can at least work to make itself a less lucrative (and less easily accessible) market.