Washington Three accused al-Qaida associates taken to New York on Friday are charged with plotting to ferry drugs through the Sahara desert to raise money for terror attacks — evidence of what prosecutors say is a dangerous, growing alliance between terror chiefs and drug lords.
The arrests mark the first time U.S. authorities have captured and charged al-Qaida suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa, in a case officials say demonstrates the spread of the terror network into global criminal activity.
The three suspects — believed to be in their 30s and originally from Mali — were arrested by local authorities in Ghana earlier this week and turned over to U.S. agents. They arrived in the United States early Friday morning, officials said.
The head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, said the case shows a “direct link” between al-Qaida and drug traffickers.
The U.S. has long been concerned about close ties between militants and the heroin trade in Afghanistan. But the African case appears to show an expansion of both al-Qaida’s illegal activities around the globe and American efforts to curtail black market deals that funnel cash to spur terror operations.
The four-month investigation was also the third time in recent years that the U.S. has targeted transnational suspects in an elaborate sting using informants posing as South American narcoterrorism operatives.
U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said the charges show “the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al-Qaida and transnational narcotics traffickers. As terrorists diversify into drugs, however, they provide us with more opportunities to incapacitate them and cut off the funding for future acts of terror.”
The three suspects appeared Friday in federal court in New York on charges stemming from a months-long undercover investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. They face charges of narcoterrorism conspiracy, as well as conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Authorities say the men are associates of al-Qaida’s North African branch, and told DEA informants that al-Qaida could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region, driving the drugs by truck through the Sahara before eventually bringing them to Spain.
A criminal complaint unsealed Friday charges that Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman worked with al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb.
Court papers say Toure and Abelrahman at one point claimed the profits from the drug business “will go to their people to support the fight for ’the cause’.”
Court papers say the DEA infiltrated the group by using informants posing as supporters of Columbia’s rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.