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New Threat Emerges At Intersection Of Terrorism, Syndicated Crime


This month's hostage taking at a natural gas plant in Algeria shows how international terrorism is evolving. Groups such as al-Qaida have long been motivated by radical ideology. What's happening now in North Africa is a little different. For groups there, there's also a financial motive.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on the dangerous intersection of terrorism and syndicated crime.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For years, al-Qaida's arm in North Africa, known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, was seen as the black sheep of the al-Qaida organization. Osama bin Laden told the group to stop smuggling and kidnapping. Bin Laden worried all that criminal activity would detract from al-Qaida's ideological mission. But AQIM wouldn't stop. It kept snatching Westerners in North Africa and holding them for ransom.

JUAN ZARATE: And, of course, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has made a fortune out of this practice.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Juan Zarate, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He used to track AQIM's money-making operations when he was at the Treasury Department.

ZARATE: The ransoms for the hostages they've taken is in part what has made them so lethal, has allowed them to survive, and has allowed them to take full advantage of a bit of the chaos and tumult of the post-Arab revolution environment in North Africa, and certainly in West Africa.

TEMPLE-RASTON: North Africa and West Africa, specifically he's referring to Libya and Mali and Algeria. Since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has become an arms bazaar for the world's terrorists. In testimony last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the weapons used in the attack on the gas facility in Algeria came from Libya. And the plot itself is thought to have been planned in Mali. So that's one reason Defense Department officials are focusing on the West African nation.

GENERAL CARTER HAM: We would all like to see the elimination of al-Qaida and others from Northern Mali.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command.

HAM: Realistically, probably the best you can get is containment and disruption so that al-Qaida is no longer able to control territory as they do today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: By controlling territory, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has a base from which to conduct its crime spree. Take that away and working with criminal syndicates gets harder, the thinking goes. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that the U.S. military is watching the growing intersection between terrorism and crime.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: And I think the way to think about the North Africa and West Africa as a syndicate of groups who come together episodically when it is convenient to them in order to advance their cause. Sometimes their cause is terrorism, sometimes it's criminal, sometimes it's arms trafficking.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And sometimes, in the case of al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq, it is even robbing banks. The crimes vary. For example, al-Qaida and the Taliban are kidnapping and extorting locals in Afghanistan. Al-Shabab in Somalia has been laundering money to raise funds.

CSIS' Juan Zarate says that while Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was at the forefront of the criminalization of al-Qaida, other affiliates are catching up.

ZARATE: The reality is that al-Qaida groups have determined and found that they can act a criminal enterprises and use that as a way of funding their operations, extending their influence and, frankly, melding with locals and insurgents that add weight and reach to their operations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which suggests that fighting terrorism won't be just about combating ideology going forward, it's going to be about combating local crime syndicates as well.

On one hand, it's a challenge. Terrorists can keep funding themselves through criminal networks. On the other hand, it could be an opportunity. One of the things U.S. law enforcement is good at is dismantling crime syndicates, which might give them a new way to go after terrorists.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.