Al Qaeda linked to rogue air network: U.S. official

Al Qaeda linked to rogue air network: U.S. official

In early 2008, an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a report to his superiors detailing what he called "the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11.", Reuters reported.

The document warned that a growing fleet of rogue jet aircraft was regularly crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean. On one end of the air route, it said, are cocaine-producing areas in the Andes controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. On the other are some of West Africa's most unstable countries.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, was ignored, and the problem has since escalated into what security officials in several countries describe as a global security threat.

The clandestine fleet has grown to include twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and retired Boeing 727s that are flying multi-ton loads of cocaine and possibly weapons to an area in Africa where factions of al Qaeda are believed to be facilitating the smuggling of drugs to Europe, the officials say.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been held responsible for car and suicide bombings in Algeria and Mauritania. Gunmen and bandits linked to the group have also stepped up kidnappings of Europeans, who are then passed on to AQIM factions seeking ransom payments.

The aircraft hopscotch across South American countries, picking up tons of cocaine and jet fuel, officials say. They then soar across the Atlantic to West Africa and the Sahel, where the drugs are funneled across the Sahara Desert and into Europe.

An examination of documents and interviews with officials in the United States and three West African nations suggest that at least 10 aircraft have been discovered using this air route since 2006. Officials warn that many of these aircraft were detected purely by chance. They warn that the real number involved in the networks is likely considerably higher.

Alexandre Schmidt, regional representative for West and Central Africa for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, cautioned in Dakar this week that the aviation network has expanded in the past 12 months and now likely includes several Boeing 727 aircraft.

"When you have this high capacity for transporting drugs into West Africa, this means that you have the capacity to transport as well other goods, so it is definitely a threat to security anywhere in the world," said Schmidt. The "other goods" officials are most worried about are weapons that militant organizations can smuggle on the jet aircraft. A Boeing 727 can handle up to 10 tons of cargo.

The U.S. official who wrote the report for the Department of Homeland Security said the al Qaeda connection was unclear at the time. The official is a counter-narcotics aviation expert who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak on the record. He said he was dismayed by the lack of attention to the matter since he wrote the report.

"You've got an established terrorist connection on this side of the Atlantic. Now on the Africa side you have the al Qaeda connection and it's extremely disturbing and a little bit mystifying that it's not one of the top priorities of the government," he said.

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