Cocaine smuggling charges for alleged al-Qaida associates |

Cocaine smuggling charges for alleged al-Qaida associates

Sebastian Rotella
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Three alleged al-Qaida associates Friday were charged with conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Africa — the first U.S. prosecution linking the terrorist group directly to drug trafficking.

The three suspects, charged in federal court in New York, are believed to be from Mali and were arrested in Ghana during a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Although U.S. authorities have alleged that al-Qaida and the Taliban profit from Afghanistan’s heroin trade, the case is the first in which suspects linked to al-Qaida have been charged under severe narco-terrorism laws, federal officials said.

The 18-page complaint describes a convergence of mafias and terrorists in northwest Africa that has caused increasing alarm among European, African and U.S. investigators.

Cocaine traffic has spiked in West Africa in recent years. Exploiting states plagued by corruption, poverty and violence, Latin American mafias have made the region a hub for moving cocaine across the Atlantic through Africa and into Europe’s booming drug markets .

Al-Qaida in the Magreb — a North African ally of Osama bin Laden’s organization — has muscled into the cocaine smuggling routes of the Sahara, according to Western and African officials. It existed for two decades under other names before declaring allegiance to bin Laden in 2006.

Al-Qaida in the Magreb finances itself partly by protecting and moving loads along smuggling corridors that run through Morocco into Spain and through Libya and Algeria into Italy, according to the complaint and Western investigators.

“We’ve known about this for a long time, but this is the first actionable thing we’ve done in response to it,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.

The stakes are high because of the potential for al-Qaida in the Magreb to use cocaine trade profits in its war on the West.

Anti-terror investigators cite a grim harbinger: The al-Qaida-connected cell of North Africans responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 190 people financed the attack by dealing hashish and ecstasy. Moreover, officials said, conversations among informants and suspects have suggested that the lawless region around the Gulf of Guinea is a crucible for groups united by U.S. hatred — al-Qaida, Mexican gangsters, Colombian guerrillas and Lebanese militant groups.

“For the first time in that part of the world, these guys are operating in the same environment in the same place at the same time,” said Michael Braun, a former chief of DEA operations. “They are doing business and cutting deals. What’s most troubling about this is the personal relationships that these guys are making today, between drug organizations and terror organizations, will become operational alliances in the future.”

Authorities acknowledged that the three suspects charged Friday were not members of al-Qaida in the Magreb but rather alleged associates. The case against them was based largely on conversations in which the suspects described the mechanics of the smuggling trade and al-Qaida’s involvement to informants posing as representatives of the FARC guerrillas of Colombia.

In recent years, Western and African investigators have pointed to concrete signs of the convergence of drugs and terror in the region.

In 2007, two accused operatives of FARC, a major player in cocaine trafficking, were arrested in Guinea Bissau — described by many as Africa’s first “narco-state.” And last year, Morocco’s interior minister asserted that al-Qaida in the Magreb fighters were enriching themselves by taxing the cocaine smuggling routes in Mali and Mauritania to the south.

“It is a zone where there is a lot of money circulating, with cocaine traffic that is growing fast,” Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa said. “A certain number of terror networks exploit this situation because these groups guarantee, secure the routes.”

The charges unsealed Friday alleged that the conspiracy began in Ghana in September, when an accused al-Qaida associate, Omuar Issa, made contact with a DEA informant. The informant presented himself as an anti-Western “Lebanese radical” working with FARC.

That link was not far-fetched, Western investigators said, because Lebanese mafias with a presence in West Africa long have played a role in helping Latin American drug lords carve out trafficking routes.

Issa was a facilitator working for a criminal organization active in Ghana, Mali and neighboring countries, the complaint alleged. He discussed a deal to transport cocaine from Ghana through North Africa and into Spain with the protection of al-Qaida in the Magreb at a price of $4,200 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), the complaint said.

At meetings in October, Issa introduced the informant to Harouna Toure, the alleged leader of a criminal organization that works closely with al-Qaida. According to the complaint, Toure said his organization would use Land Rovers to drive the load across the desert to Morocco, and he described “two different transportation routes, one through Algeria and Libya and the other through Algeria and Morocco.” He allegedly told the informant that his group “provides protection for planes that land in their area, including planes from Colombia.”

The complaint also said Toure had described his strong relationship with the al-Qaida groups that control areas of North Africa:

“Toure stated that he has worked with al-Qaida to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia and that his organization and al-Qaida have collaborated in the human smuggling of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian subjects into Spain.”

Al-Qaida in the Magreb has carried out attacks primarily in Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, where it recently kidnapped three Spanish charity volunteers. But the Algeria-based militant group has failed to achieve its stated goal of waging holy war across North Africa and Europe.

The militants could use cocaine profits to better arm themselves, expand recruitment and buy off corrupt government allies in the region, investigators said.

“The Moroccans have been pounding on the table, warning about the involvement of al-Qaida in the Magreb in drug trafficking,” Braun said. “This shows they were right. Nobody in (Washington) has been talking about this threat. The only agency that has really gone after it is the DEA.”