Transnational Crime in North Africa

Organized crime as a subsidiary priority

Over the past decade, the expanding threats from global jihadism and the sudden escalation of irregular migration in the Mediterranean have galvanized international attention and prompted prioritised support to the security infrastructure and border capacity of the states in the Maghreb. These actions, in response to the dominant threats of terrorists and migrants, have broadly been assumed to also cover the requirements of the region in terms of responding to the subsidiary, yet not inconsiderable, concern of organized crime.

Yet, sandwiched between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, North Africa has long been a thoroughfare for a wide range of illicit economies, from illicit narcotics and arms, to cultural property, fuel theft, illicit trade in subsidised goods, stolen cars, counterfeit medicines and the movement of people both with and against their will. In many cases, blurring the lines between informal and illicit economies, these cross-border trades have formed an important part of national GDP and the sustainable livelihoods and resilience of their populations. For example, the illegal cultivation and production of cannabis is a major industry for Morocco, accounting for up to 10% of its GDP.

There are two key question to ask, therefore, when considering organized crime in North Africa: firstly to what extent is organized crime relevant to consider as a security threat, and secondly, to what extent are the responses to organized crime appropriate and advisable to reducing insecurity?

Trans-Saharan Trafficking and Trade Interconnections

It is of little use to assess transnational organized crime in the Maghreb without also putting in the frame the belt of countries beneath the southern borders of North African states known as the Sahel (especially Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan for the purposes of this article). The black economies of these two regions are intimately interconnected not only because the general economic interdependence of these neighbouring countries predicated on the cross-border flow of subsidised goods, worth billions annually, but also, critically, because criminal organization flourished in this broad geography on the back of the centuries old trans-Saharan trade routes. These routes started being exploited as a delivery mechanism for European MENA markets initially for the delivery of contraband cigarettes and Moroccan cannabis and later even cocaine sourced from South America.

The Libyan revolution and its spill over in Mali in particular, expanded the opportunities for criminals making use of the Saharan desert highway especially with regard to the movement of drugs and weapons. Libya’s vast arms depots plundered during the 2011 uprisings spilled far and wide across the wider MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa.

But the balance of these developments has not been exclusively positive for transnational organized criminal enterprise in the region. Indeed, the extent of the instability in Libya and northern Mali as well as the north of Niger and Chad – where the proliferation of weapons has fuelled banditry – has had a disruptive effect on the northbound movement of high value narcotics.

Uniting in the Fight against Crime and Terror

Cooperation in the fight against terrorism, but also regional criminal threats such as international drug trafficking, are not new between countries in the Maghreb or to its neighbours in Europe. Indeed, both the US and Europe had trained their focus on the region in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. However, ten years later, the destabilising effects of the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, have undermined the slow progress that had started to be made.

Similarly, the threat of international jihadism mobilised various states, including the US, France and Germany, to advance their engagement with states in the region on counterterrorism, with an eye on the convergence with organized crime as a vehicle for terrorist financing. The range of these initiatives is more correctly ascribed to the Maghreb-Sahel than North Africa alone, and with good reason.

This development at least partly explains the growing use of maritime logistics connecting Central and South American crime syndicates to Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Similarly, interceptions made in 2018 by the Italian-led international law enforcement initiative, Operation Libeccio, has established maritime shipments of cannabis and cocaine connecting Morocco and Algeria to Tobruk, in eastern Libya, Malia, Italy and Spain via a transnational criminal network involving European and North African players.

The operation, which has seen European law enforcement agencies engaged counterparts in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, and even led to some significant arrests in Morocco, is emblematic of this new impetus on the part of Western governments to engage on the front of organised crime in the region. Targeted law enforcement action such as this is important, not least because it undermines the high levels of impunity that have been a key ingredient in the development of organised crime in the Maghreb-Sahel.

In recent years a renewed momentum developed aimed primarily at ramping up security across the region. The Mediterranean migration crisis has been particularly critical. The fight against human smuggling and trafficking now acts as a prism filtering the EU’s expanded engagement with the region on political and community stabilisation, security cooperation, law enforcement cooperation, and development.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the long-term management of the elements that make the Maghreb-Sahel an attractive region for organised criminality, a far broader approach than law enforcement is needed. In general, engagement on this front has been characterised by partnerships aimed at hardening borders through a western style security approach across the region.

The securitised response approach is largely predicated on the assessment that transnational organised crime in the Maghreb-Sahel can be explained in terms of the porosity of the region’s borders, resulting from the geographic challenges posed by the vast desert borders of the Sahara and North Africa’s endless coastline, and the weakness and gaps in States that govern them.

Grey economies underpin the drivers of crime

The problem with this outlook is that it overlooks the deep-rooted, socio-economic context that underpins this region-wide border dynamic. To a large extent, in fact, the spread of organized crime in the region stems from the fact that different states have tolerated various forms of criminal activity, particularly in their borderlands as part of a deliberate strategy to pacify communities in underdeveloped border regions and/or co-opt them and in some cases significant criminal actors as a means to control them. Examples of this can be found in countries as diverse as Egypt and Morocco, at the two ends of the North African coast.

The Gaddafi regime offered perhaps the starkest example of this strategy prior to the 2011 revolution in the way it exercised control of border lands particularly, through the co-option and manipulation of various tribes and families that had direct interests in the black economy. Compliant tribes and criminal actors were given the sanction to maintain smuggling and trafficking operations involving people, contraband and illegal goods in return for their loyalty. In many cases this this loyalty also translated itself in these actors serving as assets to the Libyan security service in the fight against political dissent, arms trafficking and terrorism.

In Tunisia, where the country’s sizeable black economy is substantially dependent on informal trade at its border with Libya, the State’s complex governance stance is at odds with the recent drive to close this border. Not only do border control measures have to be calibrated against the depressed economic reality of local communities, which have very few alternative livelihood opportunities to smuggling, but a security stance that distances border officials from locals may actually run counter to the country’s security priorities.

As recently as 2016, it was border guards’ networks with local communities in Ben Gardane that Tunisian border guards relied on to bring under control the movement of jihadis to and from Libya and not a 200-km berm that had just been erected. After the terrorist attacks suffered on the Bardo Museum and on the beaches of Sousse in 2015, which were logistically supported by ISIS training camps in the Libyan coastal town of Sabratha, Tunisian border guards leveraged the kinship ties and social networks of the communities involved in the smuggling of fuel and electronic goods across this border.

These were used to send a warning to their relatives on the Libyan side, particularly in the town of Riqdaleen, that their trade would be completely shut down at the first sign that they were smuggling or harbouring suspected jihadis. The tactic had an immediate chilling effect on all forms of human smuggling along that border.

Initiatives such as the EU’s Trust Fund for Africa, which sprang from an engagement between the European bloc and the African Union at the Valletta Summit of 2015 recognise these complexities in principle at least in as far as adding a development component to a strict securitized approach to the fight against human smuggling and trafficking, in this case.

However, different initiatives in the development and security sphere are too often divorced from each other; a fact complicated by the issue that different actors are involved in the same territories often furthering competing agendas. Broadly, international actors should seek to coordinate a holistic strategy that seeks to undermine the footprint of organised crime through multi-pronged initiatives that incorporate economic development, community stabilisation along with law enforcement strategies that are sensitive to and seek to work with local community interests to ensure their buy-in.

Tuesday Reitano is Deputy Director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and a senior research advisor at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

Mark Micallef  is a Senior Fellow at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime Back and an investigative journalist and researcher specialised on human smuggling and trafficking.

Photo: CC by 2.0 by Thierry Gregorius


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