Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Into Darkness? Scrutinizing Economic Explanations for African Jihad

Professor, Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Nigerian soldiers patrol on October 12, 2019, after gunmen suspected of belonging to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group raided the village of Tungushe, killing a soldier and three residents. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
Nigerian soldiers patrol on October 12, 2019, after gunmen suspected of belonging to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group raided the village of Tungushe, killing a soldier and three residents. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

It is now more than two decades since al-Qaeda launched its attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. These decades have seen a drastic growth in organizations that have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda, and subsequently the Islamic State, contributing to an explosion of research exploring these organizations. Researchers within area studies, political science, criminology, sociology, history, and other fields have engaged themselves in understanding these organizations, their dramatic growth, and their internal and external dynamics.1 A variety of approaches to understanding the jihadist phenomenon, including essentialists seeing jihadism as caused by a specific strand of Islam (either due to global trends including globalization and Saudi missionary work or through Arab resentment) and being ideologically driven.2 Some analyses has seen the phenomenon as the “Islamification of radicalism,” basically the recruiting of demographics already vulnerable to extremism because of grievances, alienation, and poverty into jihadist organizations (in this article defined as militant groups justifying their violence based on their perception of Islam). Such an approach can include work focusing on local, and in some cases global, grievances as causes of radicalization.3 Social movement theory, more traditional criminological network model-based approaches, and insurgency studies-based approaches (for example exploring rebel governance) also became common approaches to study the spread and internal dynamics of jihadist groups.4 Additionally, researchers have studied these relatively new organizations by focusing on their economic dynamics.5

This article studies a subset of such of such economic approaches, focusing on a “crime-terrorist nexus” critically and providing examples of how such articles and analysis have in many cases been inaccurate, leading to misunderstandings and policy errors. The article explores how an over focus on greed as an explanatory variable and on alleged “crime-terror” nexuses, sometimes framed as if jihadists were “for sale,” have led to confusion and securitization.6 At times, this focus also leads us to overlook profit motivations and crime connections amongst actors fighting against jihadists, leading us to neglect an important dimension of counterterrorism interventions. As argued by Philip Herbst, “labelling a group as ordinary criminals (notwithstanding that terrorism is also illegal), belittles the underlying grievances, ideologies, and motivations, attributing their actions to solely personal, often material gain. In all cases, the designated label channels a policy reaction that is anchored in the very different fields of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency (COIN), or law enforcement, each centered around its own principles, dogmas, and common practices.”7 Such approaches, and an over-emphasis on the “crime-terror” nexus, create a very unsophisticated picture of complex organizations that is nevertheless tempting to apply in its simplicity. Yet often these approaches conflate “war for profit” with “profit for war,” neglecting how other insurgencies have used crimes such as bank robberies to finance warfare.8 Moreover, the failure to put jihadists in a local context leads to a neglect of other groups’ involvement in crime, including western allies in the “War on Terror.”

The “mafia”-focused approach leaves us with the danger of underestimating both local grievances, and the role of jihadists in providing solutions to these local grievances, as well as the genuine ideological commitments of jihadists. This approach has also at times led to inappropriate policy guidelines. As will be shown later, it might also lead to issue linkages that damage policies in completely unrelated fields, as, for example, within environmental protection and nature conservation. While linkages between jihadism and other forms of crime do exist at times, they seem very often to be based on jihadist “taxing” of criminal activities rather than integration into them. The term “taxing” illustrates some ambiguity in our conceptual framework, as it in itself can be seen as an illegal activity, as in demanding “protection money.” But at times, those who pay “tax” actually get something in return from the jihadists for such payments, sometimes more than the services provided by local western allies that similarly enforce taxes on the local population.

This article does not dismiss all articles focusing on the crime-terror nexus or the “follow the money” approach, but rather appeals for nuancing concepts and more scrutiny of narratives that see jihadist actors as outright “mafias” so that we may avoid false issue linkages that result from such narratives. Importantly, such linkages have been made in the past by prominent individuals. For example, James R. Clapper, then the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI), claimed that increasing transnational organized crime and the links of such organizations to international terrorism was amongst the most pressing national security concerns of the United States.9 The U.S. National Intelligence Council similarly predicted in 2011 that:

Terrorists and insurgents increasingly will turn to crime to generate funding and will acquire logistical support from criminals, in part because of successes by U.S. agencies and partner nations in attacking other sources of their funding. In some instances, terrorists and insurgents prefer to conduct criminal activities themselves; when they cannot do so, they turn to outside individuals and facilitators. U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and military services have reported that more than 40 foreign terrorist organizations have links to the drug trade.10

Although these statements are old, the reflexive tendency to link crime and jihadism is clear and relevant today, as is the potential for policy to flow from such perceived linkages.

Into Darkness: Looking for Greed in African Civil War

“Greed” as an explanatory variable for African conflicts saw an explosion in the 1990s as Western researchers strove to understand the new wars that erupted after the Cold War. Collier and Hoeffler’s work studying the role of greed in African conflict was in many ways a “perfect” entry into a public debate that discussed the flare of conflicts in an African setting, presenting an alternative to Robert Kaplan’s approach from the early 1990s that focused on primordial hatred.11 Books and articles like Kaplan’s “The coming Anarchy” had painted a picture of irrational wars based on primitive feelings and social trends that had disappeared from the more “modern” Western world. Eizenberger, meanwhile, argued that Africa’s wars were without ideology, about “nothing at all.” Collier and Hoeffler instead focused on profit motivations driving civil wars. In this telling, conflict actors were profit maximizers inspired by “greed.” This theory to a certain extent acted as a guide for a new generation of journalists and analysts trying to make sense of multipolar conflicts. Such a view influenced many of the subsequent works on warlords, which again tended to focus on profit opportunities in a conflict landscape. The dichotomy between greed and grievance was, and remained, faulty.

To a certain extent, this approach failed to distinguish between “profit for war,” in which an organization is gathering money to wage a war, and “war for profit,” in which harnessing profit is a pragmatic attempt to cater to the greed of the involved leaders, who in many cases have no interest in peace. The two categories overlap, and, as claimed by Mary Kaldor, it is “difficult to distinguish between those who use the cover of political violence for economic reasons and those who engage in predatory economic activities to finance their political cause.”12 However, while these categories overlap within organizations, with different sub-commanders having different interests, they nevertheless are important as ideal types. It allows us to explore empirical signs for which of these ideal types are important in a given case, by, for example, looking at how much an organization spends on supposedly “unnecessary” expenses, such as for governance purposes, that could have been harnessed as profit by the leadership. Importantly, income gathering does not necessarily mean that greed drives an organization or entity. Few researchers would, for example, say that the United States was driven by the sale of war bonds and the raising of extra taxes in their efforts to fight Nazi Germany during World War II. Income should thus not be taken as outright evidence of “war for profit.”13 This is not to say that the economic-focused research of the 1990s and onwards failed to produce some insights. Collier, for his part, changed his focus over time to opportunity costs, basically examining what rebels miss out on when acting against a regime, in this sense focusing much more on the obstacles to and deterrence against war rather than outright greed as a motivating factor.14

Today, we often see a confusion between the concepts of war economy and illicit economy, the latter being an “illegal” economy—basically the trade of goods like weapons, drugs, and humans that in many cases are a major trait in state economies outside war zones. The war economy concept refers to a macro-economic situation amid war and will consist of a system of many actors adapting to wartime conditions, ranging from small farmers to major businesses. Some of these actors are conducting activities that would have been legal in a prewar setting. Yet, it is easy to focus on parts of the economy that are perceived as illegal (often from a Western perspective), including, in Somalia’s case, the study of the mild narcotic khat, which was actually legal throughout much of Somali history15 and remains legal in neighboring countries as Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen.16 More importantly, the war economy should not be confused with the political economy of a specific jihadist organization, or indeed any insurgent organization. Such organizations will often be embedded in the context of the war economy but will function differently and have different strategies than, for example, a subsistence family household that also constitutes a part of the war economy. The agency of actors outside the warring factions should not be underestimated. In cases such as Somalia, other economic actors, such as large-scale businessmen and even aid agencies, may wield considerable negotiating and even armed power vs even armed fractions.17

Although researchers such as Erik Alda and Joseph L. Sala contributed greatly to conceptual clarity around the way jihadists integrate into crime, there are often problems with understanding the different forms of interaction between crime and armed fractions. Alda and Sala distinguish between “Coexistence, Cooperation, and Convergence of Terrorism, Organized Crime, and Crime,” a conceptual separation that can be applied to insurgencies as well.18 Coexistence becomes a situation where jihadists simply exist in an area where criminal groups are present; cooperation means that there are forms of cooperation, including taxation of crime by the jihadists, while convergence means integration between criminal organizations and jihadists. This article will argue that coexistence and cooperation, usually in the form of taxation, are the most common forms of interaction.

We should remind ourselves that explanatory approaches based on “war for profit” have led to failed policies in the past. In Somalia in the 1990s, the United States believed that it could bring in “warlords” such as Mohamed Farrah Aidid (famous for his central role in the “Black Hawk Down” incident) by offering rewards. These strategies generally failed, partly because the Americans misunderstood how group identities negated such strategies. The existing and complex field of interaction between identity, ideology, and political economy was reduced to a form of Orientalism.

September 11 changed the war economy focus, as economic studies tended to focus on clandestine financing channels for the al-Qaeda network, studying at the time “profit for terror.”19 However, as the al-Qaeda network morphed and came to include affiliates fighting insurgencies (of which some, such as the Islamic State, even distanced themselves from the original organization), a wider field developed and the study of “profit for war” became more prevalent. New affiliates such as the Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and later Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) emerged and, particularly in the African context, the “war for profit” theme re-emerged as well. One of the organizations in this study, the Shabaab, was, for example, highlighted as a mafia-like racketeering group, highlighting both the protection fees paid by businessmen in Somalia to the group as well as the tactical cooperation between the Shabaab and foreign forces controlling airports and ports. The Shabaab was indeed presented as a prime example of the “Crime-Terror-Insurgency” nexus by the U.S. government.20 In West Africa, the story at times was similar. Media reports as well as researchers focused on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) facilitators reputed to have been involved in kidnappings and drug smuggling.21 We also have works that suggest that jihadists are a part of the political market, suggesting ideological flexibility on the part jihadist actors, when what we see is actually a relative consistency towards their own organizations and the West.22 We have seen opportunism and splits within jihadist organizations, yet both ideology and operational differences matter when organizations split.23 The political loyalties and services of jihadist leadership are not simply sold to the highest bidder in a competitive manner. Jihadist leaders have so far seldom been swayed away from the path of jihadism by outsiders, and they will have specific ideological demands when negotiating. It is important to understand that economic motives of the rank and file might be more parochial, at times being subsistence-based. However, motivations of the rank and file should not be equaled with the motives of the leadership without a proper examination.

As expressed so excellently by Wolfram Lacher with regards to arguments about al-Qaeda’s involvement in the West African context, profit-based arguments have often been used normatively to tarnish the reputation of jihadist actors while neglecting the fact that local regimes and clan or tribal networks are involved in similar practices.24 A thorough political economic analysis is of great value, but it can easily turn into forms of Orientalism, where “our” allies are innocent and “our” enemies are culprits. It might also turn into an analytical trap where everything is seen as “war for profit,” where “our side” is seen as clean while the others are seen as a “mafia,” and where local grievances, and the role of jihadists in providing answers to these local grievances, as well as genuine ideological commitments are underestimated. There are genuinely excellent political economy studies that do not fall into these traps, including the works of Briscoe, Bøås, Lacher, Raineri, Strazzari and Ahmad, and Andreas’ works on the Bosnian civil war.25 Such approaches have produced vital insights to better understand and respond to jihadists and other armed groups. But these only improve our understanding when applied in a way that accommodates a critical orientation toward “follow the money” and “war for profit” approaches. Indeed, the above-mentioned articles could have benefitted from more thinking around the differences between “profit for war” and “war for profit.”

This article strives to provide a set of critical lenses to avoid the problems and pitfalls often encountered in such studies. The author acknowledges that there might be individuals and organizational subgroups that straddle the line between jihadism and crime, but research has to nonetheless ensure that general organizational dynamics are represented. The article gives examples of how a “war for profit” emphasis has produced erroneous assumptions and even policy guidelines, as well as how the concepts of “income for warfare” and generating “warfare” for income have been mixed up. This has led to an underestimation of the importance of ideological dimensions and the organizational cohesion of jihadists as well as a neglect of politics and local grievances. The article also illustrates how a perceived crime-terror nexus has been used to advantage certain causes and has additionally harmed innocent third parties.

This article focuses on two African cases, since the aforementioned errors seem to be most prevalent in these contexts. It focuses on one of the most common examples used in analyses of the crime-terrorist nexus, the Sahel-based JNIM, and one of the more common examples of the alleged “war for profit” strategy, that of the Harakat al-Shabaab, which is accused of integrating into piracy. In doing this, the author employs cases that initially seem to contradict the main arguments of this article.

The Harakat al-Shabaab: Highly Successful in the Economic Field

The Harkat al-Shabaab, with its origins in a small network that coalesced in 2003-2004 (though formally founded in 2006), of which a large proportion of commanders were veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, is today perhaps al-Qaeda’s numerically strongest affiliate.26 It has gone through a golden age when it controlled large parts of southern Somalia, recruiting successfully in Kenya, Tanzania, and to a lesser extent in Uganda, and through a period of defeats from 2011 to 2016. The Harakat al-Shabaab is today a highly successful economic actor in Somalia. It manages to gather large amounts of money through “taxation”/protection money to the extent that the Hiraal Institute, a Somali think tank, claims that “all the major companies in southern Somalia pay the annual Zakat to AS; only very small-scale businesses such as street hawkers, that have not reached the Zakat requirement, are untaxed by the group.”27 The taxing is meticulous and involves taxing government officials and even officials in the Somali National Army.28 Hiraal’s 2020 assessment of Shabaab’s income suggested that the total income from “taxes” is at least $15 million per month, which would total $180 million per year, and that Mogadishu was the center of the tax collection, with more than $7.5 million coming from the city on a monthly basis.29 However, there are large discrepancies between this figure and the figure from Hiraal’s 2018 report, which assessed the Shabaab’s annual income at $27 million.30 While Shabaab’s income seemingly has increased since 2018, a more than sixfold increase in income over two years seems unlikely, and the $15 million per month number is based on a single source. What we do know is that Shabaab has a sizable income in Somalia today, and Hiraal’s impression that Shabaab is adept in harnessing taxes seem to be correct, with some sources claiming that the government of Somalia taxes less than the Shabaab.31

This seems to confirm the impression that Shabaab has turned into a “mafia” as there is a lot of profit to be made in Shabaab’s activities. However, one should tread with caution when making such assessments. Firstly, it should be noted that while Shabaab’s taxation is rather unpopular in Somalia, it at times is more transparent than that of the government. For example, Shabaab gives receipts that allow a lorry driver to pass Shabaab checkpoints after having paid an initial toll (as opposed to government checkpoints, where drivers are routinely forced to make repeat payments).32 Secondly, it should be noted that Shabaab actually provides services in return for the taxes it collects. Two local respondents in Somalia, for example, suggest that the shari’a courts covering Mogadishu are the most efficient institution for arbitration in business conflicts and property disagreements. Respondents suggest that Shabaab is also good at reducing crime. As Christopher Hockey and Michael Jones stress, there are limits to Shabaab’s “care,” with the group, for example, sometimes discriminating against minorities at a local level. However, these efforts to provide “care” are also costly.33 These functions and institutions—courts, reliable checkpoints—are less important for a purely profit-driven organization. Shabaab chooses to have these institutions regardless. Some of these institutions’ functions might provide some economic support that can resemble profit maximization, as suggested by Ahmed, who highlighted the security provision of the Islamic Courts as a major driver of private sector support for Shabaab in 2006.34 Nevertheless, as security provision is essential to both prevent crime and protect business, it becomes too simple to suggest that this is based on pure greed or the quest for profit. It is interesting that the Hiraal Institute suggests that it is the transport sector that is today most positive about the Shabaab, while local sources also suggest that this is the sector that is most dependent on Shabaab’s security provision.35

Although there is probably a financial surplus within Shabaab today, and it should be acknowledged that this might drive more opportunism on the part of Shabaab in the future, this was not always the case. The Hiraal Institute’s 2018 assessment of Shabaab’s income as $27 million (which, with estimated expenditures of around $25.6 million in the same year, meant the group roughly broke even), illustrated a time when profit was lower. We need to remember that the period from 2011 to 2016 was a time of retraction and losses for the Shabaab, including the loss of profit as taxation became harder. There was simply little profit in staying in the Shabaab at the time. The stability of the Shabaab leadership at this time has to be acknowledged. Although there was a split in the top leadership in 2012, this seems to have been ideologically driven and/or induced by differences over tactics. Furthermore, the split led to several deaths but only one senior defection, which actually did not materialize until 2017 when Shabaab was stabilizing itself economically and turning more profit.36 Thus, high-ranking defections were relatively uncommon during the troubled periods of 2007-2008 and 2011-2016 and they remain so today.37 In other words, even at moments when Shabaab was not profitable, its leaders, designing the income-gathering mechanisms, with a few exceptions kept themselves inside the organization at the risk of their own lives. It should also be noted that the two rounds of low-key dialogue between Somali authorities and the Shabaab—one in 2009 and one in 2017—never floundered over economic issues but over issues related to ideology (the Somali government in 2009 wanted Shabaab to abandon takfirism) as well as the withdrawal of foreign forces from Somalia (both in 2019 and 2017). The increased profitability of Shabaab seems to offer an interesting scenario for the future, but it seems too easy to claim today that Shabaab is a “mafia” based on “war for profit.” Today, Shabaab provides governance and puts effort into spreading its ideology by influencing local schools. All the evidence suggests that Shabaab’s aim is to create a shari’a-based government in Somalia without foreign intervention.

Shabaab has in the past been seen as being tied to a variety of illegal and illicit income generating activities, but such claims must be nuanced. At their worst, these claims are based on weak sources and are misleading, often leading to sensationalism in the press and interest groups attempting to tie into the “war on terror” discussion. Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League, told Agence France-Presse in 2013, for example, that the ivory trade “could be supplying up to 40 percent of the funds needed to keep [Shabaab] in business," though he specified that Shabaab is not involved in the actual killing of elephants or rhinos.38 Yet the work of the Elephant League drew on a very limited number of sources.39 Multi-source corroboration was not forthcoming, yet the claim was widely circulated in the press, by politicians, and among filmmakers and NGOs, eventually influencing both legislation and financial support for the involved NGOs.40 Indeed, as remarked by Tom Maguire and Cathy Haenlein, it is quite easy to ship illegal ivory from Kenya and Tanzania through those countries’ port systems due to corruption, while Shabaab’s area of operations is far away from the most important hunting grounds for elephants in East Africa. The volume of trade that would have supplied 40% of Shabaab’s income would have been sizable, yet this trade was never detected as not a single consignment of ivory shipped out of Somalia was ever detected from the Persian Gulf to East Asia.42

Yet these claims had policy outcomes, some very malign. Kristof Titeca and Patrick Edmond highlighted how the claims of Shabaab’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade impacted the global debate on poaching as the narrative was exported to other theaters, for example with regards to the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and figured frequently in the press despite being based on little evidence.43 Titeca and Edmond show how these allegations contribute to militarizing conservationism, subsequently leading to an underestimation of local grievances that cause poaching and turning the focus away from both local authorities and international enterprises’ involvement in the value chain of poaching. It cannot be fully ruled out that there were some individual Shabaab commanders involved in wildlife trafficking activities, but it can be ruled out that Shabaab was ever an important actor in poaching, and in hindsight the 40 percent estimate seems to belong in the world of fiction.44

Allegations of Shabaab’s involvement in piracy seem to have similar effects as the allegations of Shabaab’s involvement in poaching. Bruno Schiemsky suggested in 2008, for example, that we would see a major alliance between Shabaab and pirate groups and that Shabaab was preparing a fleet of pirate ships to launch assaults against international shipping. The same author also claimed that Shabaab had 2,500 men posted along the coastline of Somalia and that pirates were training a Shabaab fleet.45 Such an alliance never materialized and the fleet was never seen. Indeed, claims of a crime-terror nexus simplified the dynamics between piracy groups and elided the fact that Shabaab lacked a presence in many of the areas that hosted pirates. In the areas where Shabaab gained a presence, it taxed pirate groups until piracy dwindled from 2013 onwards, but it never integrated into these groups. Some pirates also had a role in smuggling arms to the Shabaab, yet this is a case of coexistence and loose cooperation rather than convergence. In fact, Shabaab may have even contributed to the dwindling of piracy in 2006 back when it was part of the Islamic Courts Union, although this is contested.46

Shabaab has indeed been involved in the trade of some illicit commodities. In the case of the charcoal trade, Shabaab’s involvement was crucial at very important stages of the organization’s trajectory. The organization managed to tax the trade while it controlled the port of Kismayo, and later it managed to tax the sector with checkpoints outside Kismayo.47 Shabaab was only one actor in the complex supply chain of charcoal, with some other actors being subsistence farmers and others yet being partners of the West in the war on terror, such as western-backed Somali officials and Kenyan military officers deployed as part of the African Union’s peace-enforcement mission.48 Shabaab is involved the smuggling of sugar as well, but, again, Shabaab is just one actor out of many in this logistical chain that has also included Kenyan and Ethiopian officials.49 The major problem for law enforcement interventions vis-à-vis both charcoal and sugar smuggling was and remains the other participants in these logistical chains: first the subsistence actors such as transporters and farmers who depend on the income and could be potential victims of any efforts to curtail these trades, and secondly the involvement of external forces such as Kenyan officers among the African Union forces and the Somali political elite, some of whom have close relationships with Western states.

Importantly, some Shabaab leaders have been pragmatic and seemingly profit-driven, for example Timojele ‘Rambo,” who organized kidnappings in Somalia’s Galmudug region in 2009. However, this concerns specific leaders rather than the organization as a whole, and indeed Timojele only was active during the golden age of the Shabaab. We do not know if he would have stayed with the group as he was killed before Shabaab’s period of setbacks.50 As indicated by Katharine Petrich, Shabaab’s role in the trade of illicit goods seems rather to be focused on taxing the trade rather than integrating into the value chain, and it is the taxing that is the most important source of the group’s income. Such taxing might be seen as “protection” money, but it is also essential in building up institutions, an activity that Shabaab is heavily engaged in. Shabaab is coexisting and cooperating with (by taxing) crime rather than integrating into it, as indeed it is with other Somali business sectors, and it is taxation that creates the group’s income, not a crime-terrorism nexus.

JNIM: A War for Profit?

Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) initially seems like a clear case in which a focus on “war for profit” rather than “profit for war” is justified. However, this is not the case. The organization itself is young, formed in 2017 through the merger of four older organizations, Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).51 Several of its member organizations, especially AQIM but also al-Mourabitoun, the latter a splinter group from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (the French acronym for which is MUJAO), had strong reputations for being involved in illegal trade and other illegal activities. AQIM subcommander Mokhtar Belmokhtar even held the nickname “Mr. Marlborough” for his involvement in illegal cigarette smuggling through the Sahara, and he was undoubtedly involved in kidnappings in the Sahel.52 As Ivan Brisco claims, “few countries have experienced an armed insurgency so strongly rooted in criminal networks, no more so than in the case of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which seized control of Gao in June 2012. It is likewise rare to find a crisis in which illicit revenues serve to weaken and delegitimize so many critical areas of state authority, including the armed forces, intelligence services and the offices of the presidency.”53

AQIM was originally based in northern Algeria, though parts of the group moved south and took active advantage of smuggling routes in the Sahel while employing kidnappings to gain funds. The group was alleged to have earned $91 million between 2008 and 2013 from kidnappings, while Wolfram Lacher suggests that the ransom fees from 2008 to 2012 totaled between $40 and $65 million.54 Allegations of collusion between AQIM and drug smugglers figured heavily in the press in this time, including stories of how an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent presented himself to three Malian nationals as a representative of the Colombian FARC guerrillas. The Malians in turn asserted that they could arrange protection from AQIM for a cocaine shipment across the Sahara.55 Notably, such a supposed link between AQIM and the drug trade created prominence for NGOs involved in fighting drug use and drug transportation and served to link two evils, jihadism and drug smuggling.

Nevertheless, upon closer scrutiny, AQIM’s involvement with illegal trade and smuggling has to be adjusted. Analysts tended to superimpose a link, often without an adequate basis in evidence. There was simply no evidence that individuals involved in the DEA agreement were actually representatives for AQIM. As suggested by Wolfram Lacher, these individuals could have been interested in aggrandizing themselves.56 Firstly, as claimed by Peter Tinti, estimates of the stream of cocaine are highly uncertain, often based on extrapolating from confiscations that occur rarely. Moreover, the drug enforcement organizations that make such confiscations are absent from large parts of the Sahel.57 Secondly, drug income might have been more important for more secular factions in the north, that were consequently more involved in the trade than JNIM and even AQIM.58 In the words of Lacher, “Talk of an alleged drug-terrorism nexus diverts attention from the much more profound problems that allowed drug trafficking to thrive in the region: the deep involvement of state agents and local elites.”59

Moreover, AQIM’s involvement in the drug trade might have been minimal. The group has taken little interest in drug-related conflicts, indicating that fighting over the control of the drug trade was low on their priority list. As Lacher claims, AQIM was not involved in the pre-2013 clashes over drug routes at all.60 Importantly, the initial collapse of jihadists in northern Mali after the French intervention in 2013 did not result in dwindling narcotics flows, suggesting that jihadists were not as involved in the drug trade as often perceived.

AQIM was also accused of other illicit activities. Weapons smuggling was claimed to be a major source of income for the group, with some primary sources backing up the claim.61 Yet AQIM’s involvement in weapons smuggling was limited to the northern Sahel. Some weapons dealers shunned the jihadists because of the cost of dealing with them and the related insecurity.62 As suggested by Tanya Mehra et al., we also see that for jihadists in West Africa, arms trafficking seems to be a way of building loyalty by providing arms to allies rather than a for-profit activity. In this analysis, arms are for internal use or are employed to sway groups into becoming allies. 63 Jihadists’ involvement in human trafficking seems to be of a similar, limited nature.64

JNIM’s involvement in illegal gold mining was also discussed as yet another example of a crime-terror nexus. Journalists David Lewis and Ryan McNeill produced an article with the title “Special Report: How jihadists struck gold in Africa's Sahel,” yet the article contained little evidence of JNIM’s involvement in the gold trade. Rather, it cited locals who suggested that “Armed men said residents could mine in the protected areas, but there would be conditions,” which does not, in fact, implicate a specific armed faction.65 We see that other journalists identify specific non-jihadist groups, such as the Koglweogo militias in Burkina Faso or traditional hunters such as the Dozo in Mali, taking control of mines as well. Moreover, local sources suggest that these groups tax mining, and in Burkina Faso’s Soum province, gold miners pay jihadist groups for protection.66 Jihadists thus do not integrate into gold mining but rather interact with it by either taxing the industry or through supplying services (protection) that a state would have provided in other settings. To a certain extent, the gold mining industry also undermines jihadists by providing jobs to youths that could have otherwise joined the jihadists. The seizure of mines by the government might, however, create recruits for jihadists. In Kabonga, Burkina Faso in 2018, for example, local gold miners went to a jihadist group and pressured it to reopen a mining operation closed by the government.67

As previously mentioned, we have clear evidence of AQIM’s involvement in kidnappings. These activities were a major factor driving AQIMs turn to the south.68 Nevertheless, we also see the historical influence of ideology (as well as personal rivalries) on AQIM’s kidnappings as well as a turn in which the kidnappings are handled in a less pragmatic and less profit-driven manner. Sergei Boeke, for example, suggests that Mokhtar Belmokhtar initially challenged the practice of hostage-taking on theological grounds (the hostages were generally noncombatants).69 Belmokhtar even requested arbitration from AQIM’s legal committee on the issue.70 We also see that Belmokhtar refused to tax locals, abstaining from a potential source of profit.71

Yet, Mokhtar Belmokhtar got a legal opinion from AQIM and started his highly profitable kidnapping activities, soon mirrored by the activities of another subgroup of AQIM led by veteran commander Abu Zaid. The kidnapping profits strengthened the two factions. However, when Abu Zaid kidnapped French workers from an Arlite facility in 2010, Osama bin Laden and then-AQIM leader Abdelmalik Droukdel intervened, according to Adib Bencherif, hindering Abu Zeid from negotiating a pure ransom by pressuring the latter to include political demands (though the last hostages was released for ransom after Abu Zeid had died).72 Similarly, it seems like AQIM complained about Belmokhtar’s passivity in jihad, which, according to Bencherif, might have induced attacks from Belmokhtar in order to justify his own jihadist credentials, including a massive hostage-taking incident at the In-Amanas gas facility in Algeria.73

Often the indicators of jihadi involvement in illicit activities are extrapolated. Chelin, for example, extrapolates from the existence of illegal trade in an area with a jihadi presence to suggest jihadi involvement in said trade, seemingly without empirical evidence. This is not too unsimilar to the claim of an insurgency-ivory connection in East Africa.74 Similarly, Pollichini suggests that attacks against law enforcement are a way to prepare for reasoning criminal operations, overlooking the role of the police and affiliated militias in causing local suffering, as illustrated by Benjaminsen and Ba.75 The example of the Boeing 727 carcass that was found close to the town of Tarkint in Mali’s Gao region and had been used to transport seven to 11 tons of cocaine (known as the “Air Cocaine” incident) tend to be mentioned simultaneously with the names of jihadist actors, although no link is explicitly highlighted.76

As for the more lucrative illicit activity of JNIM and (before 2017) AQIM, i.e., kidnappings, these were also implemented in collusion with government officials.77 Despite the involvement of AQIM, or at least its southern faction, in kidnappings, the organization also established shari’a courts and protected the local population. From April 2012 to January 2013, AQIM, together with its later partner in JNIM, Ansar Dine, set up a shari’a court in Timbuktu and organized a hisbah (morality police). The group organized a help line for the locals to call if they had been victims of crime and even strove to run the city’s electricity system and keep the hospital open.78 This signals a commitment by AQIM, at least in this period, to deliver governance and services to the local population, therefore incurring expenses that could have been disregarded if it was a purely profit-driven organization. Two of AQIM’s future partners in JNIM, MUJAO (an offshoot of which later joined JNIM) and Ansar Dine, engaged themselves in similar ways in northern Mali.79 During the period when MUJAO ruled Gao from June 2012 to January 2013, the group attempted to curtail crime, provided economic aid, and ensured electricity and water maintenance while also keeping prices of basic food staples low.80 In Kidal, Ansar Dine may have managed to reduce crime as well.81

It should be noted that the modus operandi of AQIM cannot necessarily be extrapolated to their partners in JNIM, some of which are today more important than AQIM in a tactical sense. The Katiba Macina is today perhaps the most important part of the umbrella organization, being behind 75% of JNIM attacks in 2019 alone.82 The focus on “war for profit” with regards to this organization has been less important in academic research, as the group’s dynamics are in general seen as strongly influenced by local conflicts and the lack of rural security.83 Importantly, the Katiba Macina have, despite never controlling areas outright, established semi-territoriality: forms of governance that are implemented because the group is allowed to control the local population due to its enemies’ lack of interest in protecting the locals. The Macina has created institutions, delivered justice with the support of qadis (Islamic judges), and attempted to curtail cattle rustling (while also taxing cattle).

The cost of extrapolating jihadist connections in specific sectors has been heavy as illicit smuggling routes are treated as being connected with the war on terror and smugglers are treated as jihadis. Paradoxically, this might, as suggested by Franklin Charles Graham in 2011, lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which low-level smugglers, gold miners, and cattle rustlers have their livelihoods removed, thus being pushed into the arms of the jihadis, who can provide income and tools to handle government repression and sanctions.84 In many ways, it seems that JNIM’s main source of income is the taxing of all sectors, regardless of whether they are illicit or not. Furthermore, as is the case with the Shabaab, there is no integration into illicit trade. Illicit trade can be taxed, but a loss of income would not be crucial for such an organization. This would also be hard to implement and, in fact, might be more detrimental to some of the West’s partners in the region. The “war for profit” narrative creates a Manichaean dichotomy for the War on Terror in which “our” side is virtuous and value-driven while the other side is craven and selfish. The reality is much more complex and morally ambiguous. It can create analytical errors when the West fails to understand the weaknesses of its own allies.


The “war for profit” narrative serves to order the world into “good” and “bad” categories where the bad, the jihadists, become dependent on “bad” activities. This narrative removes the complexities of the wider war economy, where subsistence farmers and small-scale businessmen and women might earn a livelihood that will help them survive in a difficult setting, and where the borders between what is illicit and legal are porous. It also provides a potential for issue linkage that can be exploited by activist entrepreneurs and politicians to securitize new topics. As is shown in the above discussion, this can have malign consequences. When it comes to JNIM and Shabaab, “profit for war” seems more important than “war for profit.” If profit were the main interest of these groups, they could choose to integrate more closely into illicit trade rather than just tax parts of it, and they could have long ago cut expenses—for example in their administrative efforts. Misreading these organizations has ramifications for our policies against them, as using economic incentives seems of limited use to lure leaders to defect. On the other hand, addressing grievances and political demands become viable strategies in peace negotiations, since it is doubtful that the organizations in question are waging war merely for profit, which would represent a type of war that can theoretically go on forever so long as profit is forthcoming.

Yet the results of this analysis do not mean we should avoid political economy analyses of these organizations. We need to know who their economic allies are, and it is important to understand how economic profiles might differ across organizations. However, such analyses need to avoid confusing coexistence beside criminal groups with cooperation and/or integration into such groups. Such analyses need to note that “taxing” (or protection money) is different from integration, and accusations of jihadist involvement in new and/or criminal sectors that are prominent in media coverage need to be scrutinized. The study of war economies remains important but will be improved with more critical approaches and conceptual clarity.85