Terror groups are becoming more deeply involved in international criminal networks to obtain financing for their operations, U.S. and European officials said Tuesday.
Officials from the United States and Europe are co-hosting a three-day conference in Lisbon with African and Latin American countries to improve cooperation on cross-border crime, especially trans-Atlantic drug smuggling. Delegates from more than 60 nations attended the meeting which ends Thursday.
President Barack Obama said in a written message to the conference that "terrorists increasingly turn to crime and criminal networks for funding."
Troels Oerting, assistant director of European law enforcement agency Europol, told The Associated Press authorities are "relatively sure" that an al-Qaida offshoot in North Africa is involved in smuggling South American cocaine into Europe.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, is believed to be active in an area spanning 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), from Niger to Mauritania. Experts estimate it has several hundred members.
Law enforcement agencies have identified West Africa as a key transit region for cocaine shipments from Latin America to Europe.
Oerting said authorities "do not know fully about the connection" between African terror groups and criminal activities because reliable information is hard to find in the region.
"North Africa and West Africa is a huge problem area for us because it's weak states ... failed states or states that aren't easy to work with," he told the AP.
Europol is making renewed efforts to locate the proceeds of crimes when suspects are captured, Oerting said. He said the Lisbon conference aims to improve collaboration with the West African countries, some of which sent delegates to Portugal.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said terror groups' involvement in the drug trade is "a troubling combination."
Brownfield, a senior anti-narcotics official, told reporters that "drug trafficking is becoming intermingled with organizations that are dedicated either to terrorism or more political, ideological or religious agendas."
He wouldn't be drawn on details about suspected links between AQIM and drug smuggling routes to Europe. Asked whether there was evidence of that, he said, "I have not made that assertion. I would not question anyone else who does."
Brownfield, accompanied by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart, was due to travel later Tuesday to Ghana and Liberia to discuss law enforcement.
Portuguese Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Joao Cravinho said in his opening speech that al-Qaida's presence in northern Africa is "burgeoning." He did not elaborate.
Apart from the opening session, the conference took place behind closed doors.