Posted: 19 May 2008 01:28 AM CDT
By David Nordell
The Terror Finance Blog
Two news items today serve to remind us that an increasing amount of high-value crime today is not necessarily motivated by personal greed, but is connected to terrorism, most often to the financing of future terrorist activities. Equally, they serve to remind us that however much the world media tend to focus on the threats to the USA, Europe and various parts of the Middle East, terrorism is a global problem, and that in fact Africa is probably its worst-suffering victim.
The first piece, published by South African news site News24 and entitled ’Kidnappers gets $19mn ransom’ quoted Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni as telling government newspaper El Moudjahid that families of Algerian kidnap victims paid $18.7mn in ransom during 2007; of the 375 kidnap cases, 115 were terrorism-related, Zerhouni said. The publication of detailed crime figures in Algeria is rare, so Zerhouni’s statement must be seen as an indication of the seriousness with which his government takes the phenomenon, as is the government’s plan to increase the police force from 140,000 to 200,000.
In the other piece, the BBC reported that a Jordanian cargo ship carrying 4,000 tons of sugar in food aid to Somalia had been hijacked off the Somalian coast. There’s nothing very new in the hijacking: piracy in the Horn of Africa region is by now a non-event, with 12 ships hijacked since the beginning of 2008 alone. But, as the London Daily Telegraph reported last year, the hijackings in this region are mainly directed at raising money for terrorist groups, rather than the common criminal motive of personal gain.
It’s not the first time I’ve referred to this phenomenon, of crime funding terrorism, and almost certainly won’t be the last: I already described it in Çrime does pay — for terrorism’ three months ago, in the context of large-scale robberies conducted by Moroccan immigrants in Belgium paying for subsequent terror attacks in Morocco. And indeed, news reports and other articles are increasingly focussing attention on this problem: credit card and overdraft fraud, for example, are now recognised by British financial crime experts as one of the main ways in which radicalised young Muslims in the UK are financing terrorist activity.
Nevertheless, there seem to be specific patterns relevant to Africa. One is the prevalence of piracy, whether on the high seas or on the highways: with so much of the continent embroiled in civil wars, famines and natural disasters, there is an unrivalled opportunity to hijack desperately needed food and medical supplies, usually contributed by the taxpayers of more affluent countries, and then sell the swag on the black market in order to buy more weapons with which to worsen the vicious circle of human suffering. Another is the sheer scale of the crimes, whether burgling armoured trucks in Europe (one escapade in Luxemburg netted in $26.5mn), kidnapping in Algeria, or piracy all over Africa. Nobody, as far as I am aware, has estimated the scale of the so-called Nigerian 419 fraud phenomenon, although in private conversation a few years ago a senior Swiss intelligence official told me that Nigerian-run fraud, drug smuggling and other crime in his country alone amounted to many millions. But there are certainly estimates that the amount of money being made from piracy against Nigeria’s oil industry, including the illegal siphoning off of oil from pipelines, can already be measured in the billions. And this piracy is run mainly by large, well-organised gangs of outlaws, private armies to all intents and purposes, whose main motivation isn’t even political ideology but pillage and personal power.
This points to another distinction from the terrorism of the Western world, which for the purpose of this article I’d like to call the ’African Problem.’ Whereas terrorist activity in the USA and Europe has mainly been carried out by small jihadi cells against iconic targets, in order to panic and demoralise public and politicians alike, and with a long-term apocalyptic goal, terrorism in African is certainly not restricted to Islam-against-the-rest (in spite of the janjaweed in Sudan); it’s very much about immediate power; and it mainly follows a pattern of larger-scale tribal and ethnic violence, carried out by larger groups in order to intimidate, or sometimes exterminate, rival populations. If the Robin Hood could have been said to rob the rich to give to the poor, African terrorists seem on the whole to rob both rich and poor indiscriminately, in order to torment the poor even further. In fact, terrorism seems to be endemic to Africa.
The corrupt rulers, on the other hand, don’t seem to suffer too often. On the contrary, they are among the most cynical promoters of terrorism against their own peoples, in some cases using state revenues from mineral wealth or other sources not just to enrich themselves (Mobuto Sese Seko was a prime example) but to torture and murder any dissenters. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is a particularly horrible example of this kind of top-down terrorism, although he is merely the most currently newsworthy of a fairly large group.
Since this blog is devoted to the analysis of terror finance and how to prevent it, the question needs to be asked, what’s special about this African problem and how should terror financing be fought there. I can’t pretend there are any easy solutions. Most of the techniques discussed at professional conferences in London and New York, of yet more sophisticated software for monitoring and analysing suspicious transactions and identifying the financial system’s customers, simply don’t apply in Africa, at least not very well. For all that most of Africa now does have modern banking, including SWIFT transfers and all the rest, a lot of the financial transactions simply bypass the official institutions that can be monitored. Gold, diamonds and simple cash dollars are moved around in large quantities; most of the borders are porous; officials are easily bribed or intimidated. The Jordanian freighter just hijacked near Mogadishu can end up with its cargo offloaded and sold in a small port just down the coast; the cash proceeds may end up being taken by truck to Darfur, or Chad, to pay for weapons or terror gangs’ wages without anyone being able to track them.
What, then, can be done? On the one hand, crime-fighting, whether in Brussels or Birmingham, needs to be more aggressive and determined, and needs to be supported by more effective intelligence against members of African crime gangs. This doesn’t mean racial discrimination, and doesn’t have to be seen as such: if political and police leaders get the message across successfully (especially to immigrant communities in Europe) that they are trying to protect the innocent majority, both locally and in Africa itself, they will be rewarded by better intelligence. Anti-money laundering techniques developed for sophisticated banking systems need to be adapted for the mixture of hawala, money transfer networks and 21st-century mobile-telephony payments that is used all over Africa. The Western democratic countries need to be willing to use much more force in combatting piracy, on sea or land: the situation where the British government is unwilling to let the Royal Navy use overwhelming force against pirates, because of the fear of violating their human rights, is nauseatingly hypocritical, to say nothing of disgraceful. UN troops that sit in their camps and refuse to use force unless fired upon first are worse than useless: their inaction simply encourages the murderers. Not least, Western democracies must find ways to freeze the assets, and thereby restrict the freedom of action, of the most barbaric African leaders, starting with Mugabe — with or without the consensus support of the African Union and the United Nations.
The more radical African leaders like to blame European colonialist policies for everything that is wrong with the continent, especially for the millions of lives lost in the past. On the whole, they’re wrong, and simply looking for an excuse not to take responsibility for their own futures, starting with the rule of law. But in one respect, they are right in spite of themselves: if European and American political leaders don’t do more to impose law and order in Africa, whether by direct intervention there or even by action outside Africa’s borders, the blood of millions of Africans will continue to cry up from the earth.