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Tuesday, November 16, 2010     FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

Al Qaida operating fleet of 727s to ferry drugs from South America to Africa, Europe

WASHINGTON — The Al Qaida network in North Africa has gained access to Western-origin aircraft.


Officials said Al Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb has been using Western aircraft for the smuggling of drugs and perhaps weapons. They said U.S. intelligence has determined that AQIM was helping facilitate a fleet of Boeing passenger jets for flights from South America to remote areas of North Africa and Sahel.

"This is not new, but the use of aircraft by AQIM has steadily increased to the point where it is becoming a major regional threat," an official said.

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Officials said U.S. intelligence first spotted AQIM's use of Boeing 727 jets for drug smuggling as early as 2006. They acknowledged that the threat was played down in the U.S. government, particularly by the Homeland Security Department.

AQIM has significantly expanded its use of jets to fly tons of cocaine and weapons to such countries as Mali and Mauritania. Officials said the weapons were used for Al Qaida's war against Algeria and Western interests while the cocaine was meant to finance insurgency operations, Middle East Newsline reported.

"The planes have been owned by South American smugglers and terrorists, and AQIM operates flights, cargo transfer and smuggling to Europe," the official said. "AQIM could use the planes for their operations once they land in North Africa."

In 2008, the Homeland Security Department drafted a classified report on the collaboration of AQIM with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. The report, said to have been ignored, warned that both organizations were using twin-engine turboprops in what was termed "the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11."

The AQIM-aligned fleet was said to consist of about a dozen jets, including the Boeing 727. The Boeing aircraft, which could transport 10 tons of cargo, were said to have joined the fleet in 2009.

The aircraft fleet was exposed by Morocco in October 2010 when the North African kingdom announced the dismantling of an AQIM cell. Rabat said 34 suspects were accused of working with aircraft from South America for drug smuggling. Morocco said AQIM destroyed one of the Boeing 727s after fuel acquired for another flight turned out to be unsuitable.

Officials said AQIM was reaping tens of millions of dollars in profit from the drug smuggling from South America. They said this has facilitated AQIM operations, recruitment and the establishment of safe havens in such countries as Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The AQIM drug smuggling route, said to contain at least 250 people, has included Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.

Officials said one or several of the smuggling routes ended up in Spain.

"This has not only made AQIM rich, but multi-millionaires out of terrorists," the official said.

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