Three men alleged to be Al Qaeda associates were charged Friday with conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Africa -- the first U.S. prosecution linking the terrorist group directly to drug trafficking.
The three suspects, who were 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 Qaeda and the Taliban profit from Afghanistan's heroin trade, the case is the first in which suspects linked to Al Qaeda 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 risen sharply in West Africa in recent years. Exploiting states that are weakened by corruption, poverty and violence, Latin American mafias have made the region a hub for moving cocaine across the Atlantic and into the booming drug markets of Europe.
Al Qaeda in the Maghreb -- a North African ally of Osama bin Laden's organization -- has muscled into the lucrative 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 Qaeda in the Maghreb 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 Qaeda in the Maghreb to use cocaine profits in attacks on the West.
Anti-terrorism investigators cite a harbinger: An Al Qaeda-connected cell of North Africans financed their 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 190 people, 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 crossroads for groups united by hatred of the United States -- Al Qaeda, 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 say the three suspects charged Friday are not members of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb but allege that they are associates. The case against them is based largely on conversations in which, authorities say, the suspects described the smuggling trade and Al Qaeda'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 terrorism in the region.
In 2007, two accused operatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or 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 Qaeda in the Maghreb 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 allege that the conspiracy began in Ghana in September, when one of the suspects, Omuar Issa, made contact with a DEA informant. The informant presented himself as an anti-Western "Lebanese radical" working with the FARC. That link was not farfetched, Western investigators said, because Lebanese mafias with a presence in West Africa have long 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 alleges. He discussed a deal to transport cocaine from Ghana through North Africa and into Spain with the protection of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb 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, another of the suspects, who authorities say is the leader of a criminal organization that works closely with Al Qaeda.
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 told the informant that his group "provides protection for planes that land in their area, including planes from Colombia," the document said.
The complaint also said Toure had described his strong relationship with the Al Qaeda groups that control areas of North Africa: "Toure stated that he has worked with Al Qaeda to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia and that his organization and Al Qaeda have collaborated in the human smuggling of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian subjects into Spain."
Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has carried out attacks primarily in Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. The Algeria-based militant group's stated goal is to wage 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.
And the case that was detailed Friday, Braun said, reveals the dimensions of a threat that has not gotten enough attention in the West.
"The Moroccans have been pounding on the table, warning about the involvement of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb in drug trafficking," he 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."