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The Al-Qaeda Mafia

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


A couple days ago, Morocco said it arrested 27 people on charges of planning a terrorist attack for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  These 27 people, who were from the break-away region of Western Sahara, were allegedly going to launch suicide car attacks against Moroccan and foreign officials as well as rob banks in two Moroccan towns.

It's interesting that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb–the long underperforming AQ franchise–would choose to target western officials with suicide attacks and rob a bank.  Most people consider Al-Qaeda to be in the business of blowing up civilians, which is a lot different than Danny Ocean’s line of work, but terrorist cells need to get money from somewhere.

There has been a lot of ink spilled on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, and its actually not uncommon for terrorist organizations to turn into a one-stop shop for all sorts of general underworld hustles.  When the Taliban finally took control of (most of) Afghanistan in 2000, Mullah Omar’s set decided that poppy cultivation and opium processing was against Islamic law, and completely destroyed the country’s poppy crop.  Now, in the southern areas of the country under Taliban rule, the Taliban has made Afghanistan into a dope fiend’s paradise, helping to cultivate more opium in Afghanistan than in all other countries combined.  And they didn’t stop there—if you’re ever in the market for a gently used luxury sedan, the Taliban is more than willing to offer you low APR on any number of Audis or BMW’s freshly boosted from Europe and Russia.  Just don’t be late on your payments.

It actually makes a lot of sense that terrorists become sort of underworld barons.  Their war against the state makes anything morally justifiable, and it takes a lot of time and money to create an exploding pair of underpants.  Host Nations—the domestic government who engages the terrorists—and allies also work hard to isolate sources of terrorist funding from individuals and organizations sympathetic to the insurgency’s aim.  That means there’s a whole lot of hate and motivation built up in terrorist cells, but there just aren’t the funds to make anything happen.  So in addition to Western embassies, you get jihadists trying to blow up banks safes.

Terrorists and criminals also have a lot of similar needs in order to carry out their schemes.  When combined in the right amounts, the same hazardous—and likely restricted–chemicals can be used to refine drugs or act as powerful explosives.  Forged documents, bribes, and illicit materials come in handy to both criminals and terrorists, and so it makes sense that the lines between the two categories can get blurry.

In the end, both activities are rooted in a lack of governmental control over its territory.  If a Host Nation extends functioning rule of law to areas controlled by terrorists/mob kingpins, it’s really hard to pull off insurgency and large-scale crime.   That’s a lot easier said than done, but an overall “culture of impunity” can allow both insurgency and organized crime to flourish.  Who knows, maybe ISAF should try the “Broken Window” strategy in Afghanistan?


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