Small Wars Journal

Contested Terrain: The New Geography of Drug Trafficking in North Africa and the Sahel Since the Arab Spring

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 4:15am

Contested Terrain: The New Geography of Drug Trafficking in North Africa and the Sahel Since the Arab Spring

George C. Kraehe

The nature of narcotics trafficking in North Africa and the Sahel has changed in recent years in significant ways.  First, many of the region’s states have lost control of narcotics trafficking.  Second, cocaine has replaced opium and cannabis as the primary economic force driving the drug trade and has made West Africa, instead of the Levant, the primary geographic center of the trade.  Finally, the drug trade has fallen to non-state actors, who use it as a means to finance their projects, to enhance their political power, and to weaken state power.  State and regional actors have failed to respond adequately to these new realities.

State Control of the Drug Trade under the Strong States           

Narcotics trafficking under the region’s authoritarian regimes existing before the Arab Spring can be classified into three general models. The first model involved direct state participation in the trade as a means of directly benefiting the regime, as exemplified by Syria in the 1980s and 1990s.  The second model involved the indirect participation of the state in the trade as a means of benefiting state clients, as in Libya in the mid-1990s.  Finally, some states tolerated, and still tolerate, drug trafficking because of the considerable economic benefits it provides their economies, as in Morocco.  Thus, in Syria and Libya the drug trade was controlled more directly as a side-line to support the regime or the regime’s clients, while in Morocco, the drug trade constitutes a broader economic phenomenon, tolerated and tacitly supported because it benefits Moroccan society. 


In the 1990s Syria controlled Lebanon’s fertile Beqa’a Valley.  According to Melvyn Levitsky, a one-time Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters and US Representative to the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board, roughly 90 percent of the Beqa’a Valley’s arable lands were devoted to the cultivation of opium and cannabis.  The Beqa’a Valley provided half the supply of heroin consumed in Europe and accounted for more than 50 percent of Syria’s foreign income, as well as a rich source of income for Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rafat. Syria’s trade in narcotics was such that the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) designated Syria a major drug transit and illicit drug-producing country in the international heroin and cannabis trade.  The Syrian army was directly involved in the traffic, extracting monetary tribute from traffickers to allow heroin through control points and allowing the use of army trucks and helicopters to transport narcotics to transfer points on the Lebanese coast.  In addition, with Syrian government approval, the terrorist organization Hezbollah sold drugs to buy weapons and otherwise finance its terrorist operations.  For some time, the US acquiesced in the Syrian government’s support of the drug trade, at the very least to ensure the regime’s support of the US-led coalition against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.  According to Levitsky, it was more important “to build a united Arab front against Iraq” than it was to stop the Syrian army from facilitating drug trafficking partially intended as a means to finance terrorists.[i]


State support of the drug trade in Libya followed a similar, but somewhat different model.  There, cocaine trafficking had been controlled by Muamar Qadhafi’s tribe—the Qadhadfa—since the early 1990s.  Senior government officials, with help from the state security apparatus, actively managed the drug trade until the end of the Qadhafi regime, creating relationships and vested interests that still survive, (Lacher, “Organized Crime,” 65, 71).  The Libyan regime also took advantage of its connections with militant groups in Latin America, including members of Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which since the late 1960s had acquired control over half of the world’s cocaine production, (Farah, “Harvard for Tryants”). [ii]  The relationships initiated between Qadhafi’s clients and South American cocaine dealers survived, growing in strength as the regime’s power ebbed.  With the eventual fall of the Qadhafi regime and the fracturing of the Libyan state into a collection of warring factions, cocaine traffickers have found fertile ground to build on what Qadhafi started, (Shaw and Mangan, 4-6, 15-17).


In recent years, Morocco has been the world’s largest producer of cannabis, responsible for approximately twenty-one percent of world production, (2010 UNODC, 57).  Main drivers of this trade include Morocco’s domestic poverty and the country’s proximity to and relatively high rate of interaction with Europe, (2014 INCSR, 240).  The cultivation of cannabis provides an income for 800,000 Moroccans, accounts for ten percent of the country’s exports, and represents three percent of the country’s GDP, (Abderrahmane, 2).  Cannabis cultivation was encouraged by official policy in the 1960s and 1970s, effectively serving as the basis of a parallel economy, (Abderrahmane, 2).  As much as 50 percent of Morocco’s economy operates on the black market, or $3 billion, and the drug trade accounts for $2 billion of that, (Campbell, 43).   “[W]ith the help of European traffickers, the Moroccan commercial networks have, with time, managed to consolidate and transform Morocco into the main provider of cannabis to the European continent,” (Abderrahmane, 2-3).  According to UNODC, Morocco has supplied up to 60-70 percent of the cannabis seized in Europe, (2003, UNODC Country Profile for Morocco, 5).  Government officials are believed to be involved in the drug trade or complicit, notwithstanding pressure from the IMF to crack down on cannabis cultivation, (2003, UNODC Country Profile for Morocco, 17; Campbell, 43).

The Consequences of Increased European Demand for Cocaine

A New Drug Economy

Cannabis and opium have for decades if not centuries been produced and trafficked to consumers both within and outside the region, much like other licit and illicit commodities across the region’s historical network of caravan routes.  In recent years, however, increased cocaine trafficking in the region, fueled by increased demand in Europe, has increased the economic value of the region’s drug trade twenty-fold.  This is a new and sudden phenomenon.  Cocaine has the potential to radically alter the economies of North Africa and the Sahel for the simple reason that the region includes some of the poorest countries on what is the poorest continent on the planet.[iii]

Like nearly all of the world’s cocaine, cocaine bound for Europe originates in Latin America.  At least nine leading Latin American drug cartels have established bases of operations at ports in about a dozen West African nations, with Guinea-Bissau as a major hub of trade for points east and north in Mauretania, Mali, and Libya, (Brown, 1).   According to UNODC, which collects a variety of data and tracks trends in the international drug trade through its regional offices and various counternarcotics programs, cocaine seizures in Africa have increased from 0.1 percent in 2000 to 2.1 percent in 2006, a more than 2000 % increase in 6 years, (2008 UNODC, Table 2).  It reported that seizures of cocaine traceable to Africa peaked in 2008 at 33 metric tons as compared to only 1 ton in 1998, or, on a percentage basis, from 5 to 46 percent, (2008 UNODC; Baynham; Ellis).  By 2008, some estimates had the amount of cocaine trafficked to Europe from West Africa as high as 245 metric tons, or 70 percent of the European demand, (2008 UNODC).   UNODC estimated that by 2010, up to 50 percent of non-US bound cocaine was trafficked, primarily by surface vessel, to West Africa, or between 46 and 350 tons, yielding wholesale revenues of $3 to $14 billion, with amounts and values increasing substantially in more recent years, (Brown, 2).  Whatever the actual numbers, this represents a drastic increase from just a decade earlier.  In 2000, only a small fraction of the cocaine trafficked to Europe was routed through Africa, (2000 UNODC).

Virtually all the cocaine transited through North Africa is consumed outside Africa and mostly in Europe, (Lacher, “Organized Crime,” 65).  Significantly, while cocaine trafficking in Africa has increased dramatically, cocaine consumption in the region has not. [iv]  According to UNODC, consumption of cocaine in in the region has been essentially unchanged from 1998 to 2011 at approximately one metric ton, (2011, UNODC Research Paper, 4).  The region’s poverty is the reason ordinarily given for low rates of consumption there: “Cocaine has long been as a drug for the affluent,” (2013, UNODC, x, 10).  As the cocaine is trafficked primarily through Muslim-majority states, it also makes sense that Islam’s strict prohibition against the consumption of intoxicants, including cocaine, may factor into the consistently low rate of cocaine consumption in Africa over the last 20 years.

The billions of dollars the narcotics trade has infused into the African economy in recent years represents an investment in the region roughly equal to, if not greater than, the West’s legitimate investment there.   Estimates of the value of the new cocaine trade, and the possible amount of profit that it may generate for traffickers, vary.  Some put the value of the African market conservatively at $6-7 billion.  By comparison, US foreign aid to the region’s countries in 2012, except for Egypt, was approximately $2 billion.[v]  The amount of aid from other sources, including the EU and EU individual states, NGOs, and private sources, is somewhere between two and three-times this amount.  Indeed, the “wholesale value of the cocaine transiting West Africa . . . may be starting to rival that of a number of primary legal export commodities produced in the region,” (Wyler and Cook, 8).  Increased drug trafficking helps explain many economic anomalies that have occurred in recent years, “including the unexplained doubling or tripling in annual remittances from Europe to several West African countries, and relatively sudden, substantial increases in foreign direct investments in several others,” (Wyler and Cook, 8).  Clearly, the ready money that flows from the drug trade has already impacted the region’s economic and political structures and has the potential to be a prime motivator in economic and political action in those countries and elsewhere in this impoverished region, (Lacher, “Organized Crime” 79).

The Drug Trade’s Networks and Logistics

South American cocaine trafficked to West Africa is transported to Europe primarily over inland trade routes that are well-established and well-suited to illicit smuggling.    Once used to traffic gold, salt, and slaves, these caravan routes and the associated relationships formed between tribes, villages, and commercial enterprises comprised a complex and informal system of trade that brought people, cultures, and goods in continuous contact from one side of the African continent to the other and beyond to Europe, (Pouwels, 104).  These traditional routes, used to the present day, are depicted in the map below, (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston):

Twenty years ago, narcotics trafficking in North Africa, the Sahel, and the wider Middle East, was geographically focused on the countries of the Levant, relying on local production of cannabis and opium as well as opium transported west from Afghanistan.  Today, the drug trade’s geographic focal point is West Africa and the Sahel as way stations for cocaine originating in South America.  The new cocaine traffickers are attracted to West Africa and the Sahel because of (1) the region’s direct access to South American cocaine sources, (2) established smuggling routes and networks, and (3) perceived low standards of governance and law enforcement.  Past collusion between smugglers and state officials not only has the effect of eroding the rule of law and the power of central government control, but it also establishes the modus operandi and relationships which survive to facilitate the increase in narcotics trafficking more recently, (Lacher, “Organized Crime,” 63-64).  This informal network, free of formal government control, makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between licit and illicit trade.   The map below depicts the new geography of drug trafficking in the region:[vi]

Traffickers also have brought in new personnel and established new infrastructure.  As Syrian and Lebanese nationals continue to emigrate to Latin America, becoming involved in international narcotics trafficking, so have a number of “apparently wealthy” Latin Americans emigrated to West Africa, where they “claim to be investors in the local economy,”  (2007 UNODC, 12).[vii]  Traffickers also have established narcotics wholesale distribution centers in West Africa, making the region for the first time “a storage and staging area for wholesale repackaging, re-routing and sometimes (re-)sale of drugs[,]” and not just a transit point.  (Brown, 3)  Finally, to complete the network, South Americans have emigrated to Spain and Portugal and have established cocaine and processing labs that convert cocaine base into a saleable product, (2008 UNODC, 12; Wyler and Cook, 17). 

The Region’s New Drug Politics

The Arab Spring was a watershed for the region’s drug trade.  Pre-Arab Spring, the state controlled the drug trade in many of the region’s countries either by effectively managing it as a matter of criminal enforcement or by engaging in it.  However, as the authority of many of the so-called “strong states” collapsed or weakened, so has their control of the drug trade.  Once a tool of power exercised by the state, drug trafficking and the economic and political power that comes with it has been up for grabs.  The drug trade has become “contested terrain,” and potentially a tool by which non-state actors can resist, devolve from, or influence state policy.  

 To the extent that state authority in recent years has collapsed or weakened across the region, notably in Mali, Libya, and Syria, non-state actors have seized on drug trafficking as an economic and political means to enhance their power, advance their agendas, and to further weaken state power.  Non-state actors’ involvement in the drug trade has led to an increase in corruption and organized crime.  Narcotics trafficking and corruption are often wedded, because the one needs the other, while the easy profits that accompany narcotics trafficking facilitate corruption.  All these factors have the potential to destabilize regimes and states and the social fabric that underlies them, (Lacher, “Organized Crime,” 69-70).

The region’s governments, spurred by both internal domestic factors and outside international pressure (notably from the IMF), have by no means surrendered to narcotics trafficking, and some have taken action in response.  In 2013 in Algeria, the army was dispatched “to clamp down anew on the drugs trade,” with as many as 25,000 troops deployed to conduct cross-border operations, (“The Economist”).  In 2013, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia “signed a co-operation agreement to tackle trafficking, with pledges to set up joint checkpoints and work together more closely to police borders,” (“The Economist”).   Mali’s Narcotics Brigade, first launched in 1988, and the so-called “CNO,” which includes elements of the Customs, Police, and Gendarme, also have attempted interventions, (2014 INCRS, 232). 

These efforts, however, generally have not succeeded.  First, they have been severely under-resourced, (2014 INCSR, 232). [viii]  Moreover, government corruption, lack of cooperation among neighboring states, and generally indifferent law enforcement have undercut good faith efforts to bring traffickers to heel, (Lacher, “Organized Crime,” 78; “The Economist”) Accordingly, state and regional efforts to curb drug trafficking have by and large failed across the region.  (Hübschle, 88; Berry, 2; Lacher, “Challenging the Myth,” 6).  Because of the drug trade, weakened states have become weaker still, and those who oppose the state have become stronger.


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End Notes

[i] David Zucchino. “Syrian Army Involved in Drug Trade, U.S. Says.” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 1991. (accessed on November 14, 2014).  In 2008, Levitsky wrote an article about “black spots of crime and terror” in North Africa and elsewhere, enjoining policymakers to beware of “ungoverned spaces” and the “invisibility” they afford non-state actors to engage in drug trafficking and terrorism, (Melvyn Levitsky et al., “Para-States, Quasi-States, and Black Spots: Perhaps Not States, but Not ‘Ungoverned Territories’”.  International Studies Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jun. 2008), at 392). 

[ii] Examination of a computer hard drive obtained from a FARC commander in 2008 disclosed a history of communications among Qaddafi’s regime, the FARC, and the Sandinistas concerning a loan of $100 million from Libya to FARC and attempts by FARC to obtain surface-to-air missiles from Libya, (Farah, “Harvard for Tyrants”).

[iii] By way of comparison, the GDP of the United States and its approximately 330 million inhabitants is approximately $17 trillion, and Europe’s is about the same.  The GDP of the entire global north is about $65 trillion.  The GDP of the entire continent of Africa and its over 1.1 billion inhabitants is approximately $2.4 trillion. Egypt, which has about 25 percent the population of the US, has a GDP of about $260 billion, about 1.5 percent the size of the US economy, or about 6 percent per capita as the US.  Algeria, with a population about an eighth that of the US, has a GDP of about $215 billion, just over 1 percent that of the US.  Libya, with a population of just over 6 million, has a GDP of about $70 billion.  Again, by way of comparison, the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of 69 US cities with a population of 500,000 or more, has a GDP of $75 billion.    Mali, with a population of about 15 million, has a GDP of $11 billion.  Mauritania, with a population of about 4 million, has a GDP of $4 billion, (Shah). Annual revenue of McDonalds, $27.5 billion; of the Walt Disney Company, $45 billion; of the Coca-Cola Company, $46 billion; of the Wal-Mart Company, $476 billion; and Exxon Mobil, $438 billion.  The assets of Bank of America: $2.1 trillion, roughly equal to the GDP of the entire continent of Africa.

[iv] UNODC estimated that in 2006, about 40 tons of cocaine worth $1.8 billion—just over 27 percent of total European cocaine consumption of 146 tons in that year—passed through Africa, (2007 UNODC).  Wholesale profits on this 40 ton amount are estimated at $450 million, or 25 percent of the value; these profits may have been significantly higher if some of this amount was retailed, (2007 UNODC).  Potential earnings may also be far higher given that some estimates of the total amount of cocaine entering Europe are significantly higher than the 146 tons used by UNODC to compile this estimate, (2006, 2007 UNODC).  UNODC estimates also show a quickly ascending trend line.  Cocaine consumption in Europe increased from 63 metric tons in 1998 to between 144 and 350 metric tons in 2008, (2008 UNODC, 102).  By 2011 the dollar value of the European cocaine market was reported to be nearly equal to that of the US market, a four-fold increase from 1998, (2011, UNODC Research Paper, 4).

[v] Foreign aid figures are available at the World Bank’s official website,

[vi] Map from “West Africa: A New Route for Drugs Bound for Europe,” Africa Up Close, a blog of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center (Oct. 10, 2013).

[vii] Venezuela and Columbia are home to one of the world’s largest Levantine communities outside of the Middle East.  Dating to the 1880s, this community numbers almost one million in Venezuela alone, (Bruckmayer, 152-55).  A recent Venezuelan minister of the interior and justice, Tarek Al Asseimi, is of Lebanese heritage.

[viii] The Narcotics Brigade and the CNO each have only a single vehicle for each of the regions in which to conduct operations, and one region has no vehicles at all, (2014 INCSR, 232).  CNO elements present in hot-spots like Timbuktu and Gao are non-operational, and there is no CNO or Narcotics Brigade presence in much of the country, (2014 INCSR, 232).


About the Author(s)

George C. Kraehe is an Assistant U.S. Attorney and National Security prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice.  He is also an Army JAG lieutenant colonel with over twenty years’ experience in the active and reserve components.  As an International Humanitarian/International Human Rights Law instructor for the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, he has deployed to the Sahel, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Kraehe previously served combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan where he served on Provincial Reconstruction Teams to build law enforcement and judicial capacity.  He subsequently worked as a researcher for Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict.  Mr. Kraehe holds his B.A., cum laude, from Yale University, a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and a M.St. in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford.  The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Department of Justice.