For centuries, the Maghreb was a hub for traders ferrying slaves, gold, and salt across the Sahara. The arrival of modern states imposed lines that cut across these ancient transit routes, but also enabled local people to profit from the cross-border sale of government-subsidised goods. The new flows of informal trade were grafted onto the existing routes, giving them cultural and economic legitimacy, even if governments deemed them illegal.
In a speech in 1988, Qaddafi noted the importance of informal trade and praised people for establishing black markets, which he preferred to call “people’s markets”. The trade served his agenda, as his regime controlled and profited from much of the activity.
Along with the institutionalisation of regime-backed informal trade in Qaddafi’s Libya and under the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the geography of the Maghreb has also had a decisive influence on economic activity. On the roughly 1,000km Algerian-Tunisian frontier, for example, the peaks and valleys that form the easternmost reaches of the Atlas provide the backdrop for an intricate smuggling network. Some jihadists also exploit the Aurès and Chaambi ranges, using the ridges and valleys to elude security forces.
Multiple post-independence rebellions across the region, and later the rise of jihadist activity, shifted cross-border trade flows towards weapons smuggling. The smuggling networks soon branched out to other illicit goods, notably, contraband tobacco in the 1980s and cocaine in the mid-2000s.