Three men linked to al Qaeda and arrested in Africa by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents following a cocaine sting operation have been extradited to New York and are slated to appear in federal court in Manhattan today, according to federal sources.
The arrests confirm the suspicions of the DEA that al Qaeda is providing protection for narcotics traffic and using the proceeds "to facilitate terror operations," federal sources said. Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idress Abelrahman will be charged with conspiracy to commit acts of narcoterrorism and conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization after allegedly agreeing to transport cocaine shipments as large as 1,000 kilos.
According to DEA officials, the cocaine sting was orchestrated along a route through West Africa to North Africa that serves as a gateway for transshipment to Europe. The men were arrested after an investigation in which informants and agents posed as Latin American narco-terrorists who shared anti-American interests with the men.
"What this case demonstrates is that these three associates had very clear connections with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb)," Russ Benson, the DEA regional director for Europe and Africa, told The Blotter. The three men allegedly provided protection for the large loads of cocaine that had to be transshipped through the desert to Morocco with Spain as an ultimate destination, Benson said.
According to Benson, Colombian cartel bosses have imported wholesale the successful transshipment techniques they used in Latin America, and sent into West Africa prison-toughened traffickers like Jorge Salinas Cortez, who was recently expelled from the region. Linking the traffickers' greed with Al Qaeda's ability to protect shipments has presented the DEA with a challenging mission in "some tough areas," said Benson.
"But in this case we were able to infiltrate….(and) during the negotiations they indicated they were associated with Al Qaeda and could protect the shipment from West Africa to North Africa and ultimately to Spain."
Issa, Toure and Abelrahman claim to be from Mali, sources say. The operatives who conducted the sting posed as members of the Colombian revolutionary group FARC.
According to the unsealed criminal complaint, a confidential source met with Issa and Toure in Ghana in September and October. The source, using the cover of a Lebanese radical, told Issa he represented FARC and that "the Colombians were very sympathetic to 'the cause.'"
The source then met with Toure, who said he could transport cocaine from Ghana through North Africa to Spain. "Toure also described his strong relationship with the al-Qaeda groups that control areas of North Africa," said the complaint. "Toure stated that he has worked with al Qaeda to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia," and also cooperated with al Qaeda in human trafficking. He also allegedly told the source that he could work with al Qaeda to arrange kidnappings for ransom.
Toure said that "our friends, the radicals and the Muslims" would guarantee the transport of a shipment of cocaine through the desert. "Toure clarified that the 'military people' were al Qaeda," according to the complaint. Toure then produced Abdelrahman as a member of the militia that would guard the contraband on its trip.
Earlier this year DEA officials in prepared testimony noted that according to a 2007 U.S. government assessment intelligence officials estimated that between 180 and 240 metric tons of cocaine were transferred through transshipment routes in West Africa for Europe.
"The threat of narco-terrorism in Africa is a real concern, including the presence of international terrorist organizations operating or based in Africa, such as the regional threat presented by Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Maghreb (AQIM). In addition, DEA investigations have identified elements of Colombia's Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) as being involved in cocaine trafficking in West Africa."