US charges 3 al-Qaida suspects with African drug smuggling into Europe

By Devlin Barrett, AP
Friday, December 18, 2009

3 Al-Qaida suspects charged in African drug case

WASHINGTON — Three accused al-Qaida associates have been arrested in Africa and brought to New York on charges they conspired to support terrorism by smuggling drugs bound for Europe, authorities said Friday.

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 30’s and originally from Mali — were arrested in Ghana earlier this week and arrived in the United States early Friday morning, according to law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

The three suspects are expected to appear Friday in federal court in New York on charges stemming from a months-long undercover investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Authorities say the men are members of al-Qaida’s North African branch, and told DEA informants that al-Qaida could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region.

A criminal complaint unsealed Friday charges that Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abdelrahman worked with al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb.

The three face narcoterrorism conspiracy charges, as well as conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

Court papers say the DEA infiltrated the al-Qaida offshoot in western Africa 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.

In recent years, drug networks in South America are increasingly using Africa to funnel cocaine into Europe, according to U.S. officials.

The three suspects allegedly claimed to be associated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, and said they had been moving shipments of drugs in Africa.

During the negotiations, according to law enforcement officials, the al-Qaida suspects offered to move cocaine from west Africa to north Africa for about 3,000 euros — roughly $4,200 — per kilogram.

The criminal complaint claims that when the informant asked how their drug shipments could be protected, “Issa confirmed that the protection would come from al-Qaida and the people that would protect the load would be very well armed.”

The DEA has long seen close ties between Afghanistan terrorists and the booming drug trade there, but the African case marks an expansion of both al-Qaida’s illegal activities around the globe and U.S. efforts to stop the type of black market deals that generate money for terror operations.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb is an Algeria-based group that joined Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network in 2006 and conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month.

It operates mainly in Algeria but is suspected of crossing the country’s porous desert borders to spread violence in the rest of northwestern Africa.

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