Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 10/2012

Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region

Wolfram Lacher

September 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


For the past decade, increasing instability in the Sahel and Sahara region has been a source of growing concern in Europe and the United States. Western governments have worried that the weakness of state control in the area would allow al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM) and other jihadist organizations to expand their influence and establish safe havens in areas outside government control. Such fears appear to have been vindicated by the recent takeover of northern Mali by AQIM and organizations closely associated with it. Western governments have focused heavily on AQIM’s presence, providing technical assistance in an attempt to strengthen the capacity of the security sectors and justice systems to combat the group. But Western governments have underestimated, if not ignored, the destabilizing impact of organized crime in the region. AQIM itself is in part a criminal network, kidnapping Western nationals with the double aim of extorting ransoms and freeing the group’s imprisoned members. And up until Mali’s military coup of March 2012, state complicity with organized crime was the main factor enabling AQIM’s growth and a driver of conflict in the north of the country. Actors involved in organized crime currently wield decisive political and military influence in northern Mali.