Al Qaeda links to Colombian drug trade

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Tim Gaynor of Reuters News Agency and co-author of an investigative report that reveals evidence of a connection between Colombia's cocaine trade and groups tied to al Qaeda.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Two years ago an official at the Department of Homeland Security sent a report to his superiors. It warned that a growing fleet of rouge jet aircraft was crisscrossing the Atlantic ocean carrying tons of cocaine. The planes were flying out of parts of Colombia controlled by leftist FARC rebels. They were landing in some of West Africa's most unstable countries. Now there is evidence that groups with ties to Al Qaeda are involved in the drug trade. That is all according to an investigative report published by the news agency Reuters. Correspondent Tim Gaynor is the article's lead author. Tim, at this point, what is the scale of this illegal aviation network?

TIM GAYNOR: We were able to travel to three countries in West Africa with a correspondent in South America. We traced at least ten aircraft that have been linked to this route. Some of these aircraft included turbo prop, executive jets like Gulf Stream and worryingly Boeing 727 airliners. They have a capacity to move multi-ton quantities of cocaine within one or two stops right around the world.

WERMAN: We're talking about tons of cocaine. Who owns the planes?

GAYNOR: U.S. drug enforcement administration says there are nine drug cartels from South American and Mexico that do business in Africa.

WERMAN: What is the connection to Al Qaeda?

GAYNOR: Al Qaeda or particularly a local franchise of Al Qaeda has been operating for several years in the Sahara region of Africa, which stretches from Mauritania to Niger. There they've been involved in kidnapping Europeans and ransoming hostages for millions of dollars.

We were able to go right up to Timbuktu, which is a fabled city right at the ends of the earth. There we spoke to both the governor and the head of the customs service. He told us that groups he identified as Al Qaeda were involved in smuggling. They questioned whether they were really ideologically committed to some of the aims of the group but nevertheless they were using that tag. Smugglers are developing quite a sophisticated infrastructure. They now have Toyota four-wheel drive trucks, air conditioned tents, and they are able to drive right across the Sahara using GPS navigation and [INDISCERNIBLE].

WERMAN: From your investigation Tim, Al Qaeda is using the revenue from this cocaine traffic.

GAYNOR: Let's just get this straight. What we have established in our reporting on the ground is that tons of cocaine is flying into northern Mali. That cocaine is being smuggled over the desert. The revenue from that smuggling activity is pouring into the region. The concern is if Al Qaeda is really the beneficiary and is being involved in this, it will suddenly have an absolute boost to its funding. It will enable it to for instance buy more sophisticated weapons, draw and recruit more people into its network, and strike hard at interests across the region and perhaps even beyond.

WERMAN: Presumably the vast majority of the cocaine being smuggled to West Africa ultimately ends up in Europe. What are Europeans doing about this problem?

GAYNOR: Its traffic is going to Europe and then to other emerging markets beyond in East Europe, Russia, and the Middle East where cocaine fetches two and three times the price it would fetch in the United States. The Europeans are also involved. You have donor governments going into West African countries like Bissau, giving equipment to the police and so on. Interpol is also involved. At the end of the day, it's West Africa's resources and authorities that are having to

stand up and make these arrests. That's the challenge, getting these law enforcement agencies that are really struggling to even put gas in a car to go out and arrest these cash rich traffickers.

WERMAN: Why can't these planes be intercepted in the Andes from where they start?

GAYNOR: U.S. interdiction attempts and efforts are based in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic. Over the South Atlantic where these flights are going there is absolutely nothing once you leave the Cape. You are flying in a massive blind spot over to Africa. On the other side, we discovered for instance in Guinea Bissau there are no aviation radar, not even at the countries one international airport.

WERMAN: Tim Gaynor, a Reuter's reporters investigative piece about the illegal air network between South America and West Africa was published this week. Thank you very much Tim.

GAYNOR: Thank you.