The story of refugee trafficking begins with the disruptions to drug smuggling caused by the Patriot Act, says journalist Loretta Napoleoni
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. I’m joined today by Loretta Napoleoni. She’s the author of Merchants of Men: How Jihadists and ISIS Turned Kidnapping and Refugee Trafficking into a Multi-Billion Dollar Business. Much of that money is going to ISIS. I thank you so much for joining us today.
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Thank you for inviting me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Loretta, in segment one, we were talking about how kidnappings and ransom money generates resources for ISIS to continue their war. Now, combined with that activity, we have refugee smuggling that is also going on, and we have drug trafficking going on. Tell us about these two additional components that have now really created a multi-billion dollar business, as you say in the book.
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: I would say that we start with drug trafficking, because that’s really the beginning of the story. It happened after 9/11, the introduction of the Patriot Act, which disrupted completely the money-laundering activities of drug trafficking, but also because of that, it disrupted the flows. Until 9/11 you’d have cocaine from Colombia going via the US and then into Europe. But then you couldn’t do it after 9/11.
SHARMINI PERIES: What is it in the Patriot Act that disrupted it?
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, disrupted … is that the financial section of the Patriot Act allows the US monetary authorities to monitor any dollar transaction taking place anywhere in the world. So that really is the issue that mostly affected money laundering, because of course in the old days you would have had the US being a transshipment point to Europe for cocaine, but also the place where you would launder the money. That was not possible anymore.
So, they had to find another way, and that way was using the euro, which, of course, in 2001 had just come on the market. So the money laundering started to be done in Europe, but at that time also the US was not attractive anymore as a transshipment country, so why go via the US if the money laundering is done in Europe by the European organized crime — in particular the Italian ‘Ndrangheta. So they had to find another route, and that route was from Venezuela into West Africa through the Sahel. The Sahel is a region that is below the Sahara Desert, and it goes from West Africa to East Africa.
SHARMINI PERIES: Why Venezuela?
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, Venezuela… because at the time Chávez had been quite welcoming to the cartel to use Venezuela as a transshipment point. There was a certain–
SHARMINI PERIES: I’m sure that you’ve been challenged on that particular notion, that Chávez was welcoming…
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been challenged many times. But the cartel, what the cartel did was opening up — it was not Chávez that invited the cartel, it was the cartel that infiltrated, of course, the regime of Chávez. So you could see that from 2001 onwards, there’s also been a shifting of the–
SHARMINI PERIES: This assumption here, I should just air right here, that I actually worked for President Chávez in Miraflores for a number of years, so where is it… what evidence do you have that that was actually taking place?
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, the evidence that we have is that a lot of plantations were moved through the border from Colombia to Venezuela — there was also a lot of transformation of the product, so the actual production of cocaine, that moved to Venezuela. Then the small planes – so, that’s what they used. They used small planes to land in Guinea-Bissau. A small plane cannot fly from Colombia all the way to Guinea-Bissau. It had to fly from Venezuela, because that’s the distance.
The other evidence, of course, is the settling in Guinea-Bissau of the cartel headquarters for the transshipment. So it had to come from Venezuela, and the Chávez government knew that — that it was coming from Venezuela. Now, why didn’t they do anything about that?
I have no idea. I don’t think that Chávez was involved directly, but for sure his government was the government that was in power when this shift took place.
SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting. All right, let’s continue. We are now in Guinea-Bissau.
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: So, Guinea-Bissau. What the cartel did was basically buy Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau was an ideal country because it was a colony of Portugal, it had lots of small airstrips in the middle of the jungle in this sort of archipelago, and so it was easy for the small planes to land. Also, it used to be a very important fishing country, so they had massive warehouses where they could store the cocaine. Of course, the fishing had stopped because of difficulties in fishing, with this massive over-fishing in West Africa, so a lot of the industry has been completely destroyed. So it was the ideal location.
Now the key, once they got to Guinea-Bissau was how they’re going to get to Europe. So the idea was to use boats, of course, to also use planes, but when they got there, they discovered that there was a network of smuggling that went from West Africa all the way to Algeria and Libya. They used to smuggle cigarettes and other key products that were cheaper in Libya or in Algeria, and they could sell in West Africa. These networks were run by former mujahedeen. So people that came back from the anti-Soviet jihad, mostly they were Algerians, they had been kicked out of Algeria by the coup in the 1990s, so they ended up becoming smugglers in the Sahara, in the south Sahara along the Sahel.
So these people could carry the cocaine along the same smuggling route that they were using to bring cigarettes. So this is how it started.
SHARMINI PERIES: Cigarettes and designer purses and all those sorts of things that you see in the streets of Italy or Venice or so on. And so, you’re saying now we have these expanded routes that are now smuggling in cocaine.
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yes. This was a welcoming business, let’s say, for that kind of smuggler community/jihadist. These people had started their career being jihadists and mujahedeen but then you could say survived, but, you know, being criminals, smuggling.
So, a group of them in 2003 decided to branch off into another business, and this business was kidnapping. They thought, you know, “Why don’t we have a go at kidnapping foreigners? We have the network, meaning we control the territory, we have the camps where we can keep them,” and so they did. They kidnapped 32 Europeans and with the ransom money, which was about 6 million euros that they got, they founded al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. So al-Qaeda in the Maghreb was born out of the cocaine business and the kidnapping business. It has nothing to do with the traditional al-Qaeda. It didn’t get money from traditional al-Qaeda. It just took the name, because, you know, the name at that time was the best possible brand.
But this is what started a new business. Then, all of a sudden, all the jihadists — and in particular, of course, the al-Qaeda, the traditional al-Qaeda, which at that time was run still by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. They thought, wow, this is a good way to fund the group. So they encouraged other jihadists to do exactly the same thing, and this is how kidnapping–
SHARMINI PERIES: When does this really flourish into a full-fledged business at supporting ISIS?
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, ISIS… what happened was 2003 started in West Africa. It was then taken by the pirates, although the pirates in Malta is a little bit different, because you need large investments, so you have people who invest in the business of hijacking and kidnapping — and they get a big return — but the model is the same. And this took place, I would say, from 2008-9 until 2013. This is when it really flourished in piracy.
And then the same model we see in Syria. Really, it took place in Syria from 2011 onwards. This is when the civil war started, so we see kidnapping becoming a good source of revenues — not only for the government, because they started kidnapping rich Syrians in order to bankroll the war — but also by various jihadist groups. The jihadist group did not kidnap the Syrians. They kidnapped the foreigners. And there were plenty of foreigners because there were journalists, there were aid workers, and then there were all those different people that wanted to become journalists or aid workers, the freelancers, and this is when the business really started to take off. I would say that the peak of the business possibly was between 2013 and 2014.
SHARMINI PERIES: And how did the currency play into all of this? We were speaking offline that euros are available in Syria, people can transact with euros, and they can spend the money locally, as well. What does ISIS do with the money and how is it spent locally?
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, the Islamic State… we must understand one thing, that the Islamic State did not buy the hostages for money. They actually bought the hostages for political reasons. So they bought the hostages, it was a form of investment because they wanted to use them as they did politically, so the beheading.
But, of course, this applied only to the US citizens and to the American citizens. The others, they used them in order to make money. Then, all of a sudden, even the Japanese became political, and this is when the Prime Minister pledged 200 million in aid to the cause of fighting the jihadists in Syria.
So, it is important to understand that, while a group like al-Nusra did kidnap people only for the money, the Islamic State used them for political reasons — and whoever they could not use for political reasons then they exchanged for money. So the idea was not this is a form of funding…
SHARMINI PERIES: You’re saying for political reasons, it’s for…
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Well, for beheading. Basically for beheading. I mean… yeah.
SHARMINI PERIES: Which gets a lot more social media hits and people…
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Attention.
SHARMINI PERIES: Yeah, and helps their recruitment, and helps that they can stand up to … powers.
LORETTA NAPOLEONI: Yeah. So I would say that the difference between this model is that for al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, the pirates and also for al-Nusra, the kidnapping was only a business. For the Islamic State, it was an investment which could become a business. And that’s fundamental. Because that shows also how clever they are. I mean, they know that kidnapping is a short-lived business because, at the end of the day, you know that if you kidnap tourists going to Timbuktu on holiday, at a certain point people will not go there on holiday anymore.
A much better business, a long-term business, is actually trafficking in people because here we are in highly, highly destabilized areas of the world, and the number of people that want to leave these areas is increasing. Now, that is a good business. If you tax every single refugee that is brought across your borders — and that’s what the Islamic State did — then you talk about good money, steady business, long-term business.
SHARMINI PERIES: Loretta, let’s continue our discussion in the next segment about the people smuggling business. Thank you so much for joining us with Loretta Napoleoni right here in our Baltimore studios.