The Moroccan government is calling for regional action in the face of growing collaboration between drug traffickers and terrorists in the Sahel.
Morocco's Interior Ministry confirmed Friday in Rabat that police had arrested 34 members of an international drug trafficking ring that had ties to the terrorist group, al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb.
Authorities said the traffickers, who also had links to South American drug cartels, were transporting cocaine and marijuana from South America to Europe, via North Africa.
Morocco Interior Minister Taieb Cherqaoui said with these arrests there is now, what he called, "an apparent coordination and confirmed collaboration" between drug traffickers and al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb in the region.
Cherqaoui says the terrorists are searching for ways to finance their terrorist activities. To make money, he says terrorist groups are using their knowledge of desert routes, their weapons and their means of transportation to protect drug dealers moving through the Sahel region.
Cherqaoui said countries in the Sahel must remain vigilant and develop shared strategies in the face of this dangerous cooperation.
Last week, experts from North African countries and their G8 counterparts met in Bamako to discuss boosting counter-terrorism cooperation in the region.
Africa security analyst J. Peter Pham of the New York-based National Committee on American Foreign Policy said al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb alliances with drug smugglers are troubling. "It means that we face an increasing security challenge that may mean greater violence, greater success, if you will, for both criminal elements and the terrorists," Pham said. "It is an increasing challenge both for governments in the region and internationally that calls for greater cooperation."
Pham says the issue is further complicated by the ongoing situation of the Polisario Front and the controversy over Western Sahara, a disputed territory bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.
For nearly 40 years, the Algerian-backed Polisario Front has sought the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco. Pham says al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb is turning to these Saharawis fighters to carry out attacks, as was seen in last year's kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers who have since been released.
"What al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has done in the last two years is actually to recruit, we have evidence from Mauritania and Mali of recruiting Saharawis who are trained fighters to carry out their operations. Not for ideological reasons, but purely the pragmatic reasons of having a trained fighter who is capable of carrying out a military operation, such as a kidnapping or protecting of a smuggling operation," Pham states.
Al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb continues to kidnap foreign nationals in the region, sometimes killing them. Most recently, on September 16, the group grabbed five French nationals, one Madagascan and one Togolese from a large French uranium mine in Niger. The terrorist group is believed to be holding the hostages in neighboring Mali.