Center for Strategic Communication

by Nathaniel Greenberg

Counterterrorism officials indicated this week that JSOC, in coordination with the CIA and the Pentagon, had begun to narrow its search for the culprits behind the attack on the American Consulate in Libya. From their investigations, articulated by The New York Times, the group Ansar al-Sharia has emerged as the primary suspect.

After the Consulate attack in Benghazi, 12 September. Source: AFP / EXPRESOWEB

The New York Times characterizes this group as an aspirant, if not affiliate branch of Al-Qaeda, or rather, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The description is misleading as the ideological breadth of the group is much wider and far less clandestine than AQIM (see below). Dismantling Ansar al-Shariah, whatever their affiliation, poses a number of substantial obstacles. On a communicative level, two of those obstacles are immediately apparent.

First: Ansar al-Shariah is a Salafi movement and the Salafi movement, particularly the Jihadist (opposed to quietest or scientific) tendency, is essentially a Wahhabi (Saudi style) movement. Not surprisingly, many of the top Salafi ideologues studied in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike bin Laden and his gang most Salafi do not lament Saudi hegemony, or reject Saudi financing. As France 24 and others have reported, “Saudi petrodollars are the principal source of financing for this [the Salafi] movement.” In addition to building mosques, funding hospitals, social outreach organizations, etc., millions have been spent on scholarships to train students in North Africa to proselytize the Wahhabi way.

This background to the Salafi movement (which, according to Salah al-Din al-Jourshi, did not take off until after 9/11) does not negate the possibility that some of its adherents were behind the Consulate attack. However, in justifying a strike on this group, Washington will also have to justify its ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Second, the problem with dismantling Ansar al-Sharia is that the group embodies much of what the Arab Spring accomplished. This may sound cynical, but it is also hard to deny. Many of the group’s most radical players were released from prison following the collapse of the old regimes and the principal rallying cry of its leaders has been that the revolution has yet to run its course as still too many political prisoners remain. Border regulation is a thing of the past and self-identified Jihadists have been allowed to return home from abroad (including from Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo).

More significantly, perhaps, collapsed economies have driven some young people on the margin closer to embracing the instantly gratifying and self-empowering message of the far-right.

Still, the increased influence of Salafi activists— radical and moderate alike— does not equal an increase in terrorism. For that, the U.S. might take a hard look at the circumstances surrounding other recent attacks on American officials abroad.


A month ago, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, two CIA officers driving a vehicle with diplomatic plates were killed shot and wounded by Mexican Federales firing guns used by the Zetas cartel.

In 2010, a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband were shot dead in Juarez. That was accompanied by other attacks on Americans and threats against American Consulates.

The Zetas and their rivals have used kidnappings, beheadings, and RPGs to maintain an environment conducive to the drug trade and in need of extra-official protection rackets like the kind we see today in Libya.

It is not surprising that crime in the Western Sahara has come to resemble the drug war in Latin American.

As SOAS scholar Anthony Keenan pointed out recently, the UN estimates 60% of Europe’s cocaine moves through the Western Sahara.

Main global cocaine flows, 2008. Source: UNODC

This is significant because cocaine consumption in Europe has risen dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union. Today Europe consumes a quarter of all cocaine that is sold. Together with the U.S. market, which accounts for 40% of overall consumption, the cocaine trade is worth $88 billion dollars annually, according to the UN.

According to INTERPOL, 80% of all cocaine is produced in Colombia. Traditional shipping routes to the U.S. are well understood. Most transatlantic routes lead straight to Europe, but West Africa— Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, and Sierra Leone— has emerged in recent years as a major point of transfer. The increase in traffic through this region has amplified the level of violence accompanying the subsequent battle for control of the Saharan trade routes and safe houses. INTERPOL’s “Project White Flow” was set up to study this new phenomenon.

Journalists and scholars have been following bits and pieces of it, but more needs to be done to understand who are the winners and losers of the Sahara drug trade. The DEA of course has deep expertise in these matters, but as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats, William F. Wechsler, testified at a Hearing before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in April, 2011, the agency has just one officer, in Cairo, who is responsible for 14 countries in the region, plus the Gulf. The reason, as Wechsler pointed out, is that because most of the drugs that move through the region are consumed in Europe, the U.S. does not consider that activity a national security threat. However, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to the possibility that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had been behind the Consulate attack, she acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, that indeed it is.

As The New York Times and others have reported, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the name adopted in 2006 by the Groupe Salafiste pour le Predication et le Combat (GSPC), a remnant of the notorious Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that was behind some of the worst atrocities of the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. On July 12, 2012, John Schindler, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and former US intelligence officer, described in the journal The National Interest how the GIA was “the creation of the DRS,” the Département du Renseignment et de la Sécurité, AKA Algeria’s Secret police force. More specifically, Schindler, following the lead of John Volman, Anthony Keenan and others, noted that the DRS “infiltrated” the GIA and subsequently directed some of the most atrocious crimes of the Algerian Civil War as a way of discrediting the Islamists.

Possible image of MUJAO. Source: Strategika51

The GIA has continued to provide a network of accomplices for the DRS whenever the latter needs it. Where else are such networks of ready criminals available than in the drug world? When the AQIM stronghold in the Azawad region of Northern Mali came under threat by Tuareg tribesmen seeking to establish an independent homeland in the wake of the Arab Spring, AQIM and the DRS rallied “Salafi Jihadi” groups in the region, including Ansar al-Din and MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), to help defend its territory. Timbuktu is now one center of gravity. According to Anthony Keenan, the latter of these two groups, MUJAO, comes out of the Polisario phenomenon of the Western Sahara, a defacto autonomous region of Morocco that has long been a center of the hash trade (Le Triangle de mort, The Triangle of Death, in Morocco is another such region where drugs, weapons, and stolen goods move freely).

Like the Zetas in Mexico, also the offshoot military force of a defunct military dictatorship, the DRS and AQIM, have competitors in the region. And like the Zetas, AQIM and DRS may well be vying for a piece of the lucrative drug trade. But their aspirations are not solely criminal, they are political. Libya has become yet another open market for such gamesmanship. U.S. retaliation for the attack on our Consulate will severely disrupt one party’s advantage. But it is unlikely to end the game.