The New York Times reported Friday that the US charged three Malians with plotting to transport cocaine in support of al Qaeda. At face value, this appears to be a victory over the transnational traffickers and al Qaeda. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case. This is likely a hollow victory, and may even set us back even further in our efforts to develop the West and North African drug trafficking networks as these groups realize the actual reach of our agencies, and the emphasis being placed on the region by these same agencies. The simple counter-action by these groups will be to tighten OPSEC procedures and further scrutinize any outsiders attempting to make contact.
Unfortunately, we likely nabbed three relatively minor players in the overall process, who likely added a lot of bravado to their purported ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Unless interrogations are extremely fruitful, we won’t be any closer to understanding the full extent of transnational connections, or the full extent of the role AQIM actually plays in the South American - Africa - Europe network. Equally important to analysts and those targeting this network would be to understand the routes, staging areas, etc in West and North Africa. I doubt any of these three detainees can read a map well enough to get this information across accurately. Would it have been better if we left our informants in play and had them actually transport a shipment across Africa and into Europe? How many additional personalities, camps and safe houses could we have identified by doing this?
I think we could, and should, have done a lot more to fully develop this network through this investigation, especially considering it will be a lot harder for the DEA to gain access in the future.