WASHINGTON – Three accused Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa.
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, and were ordered held without bail after a brief court appearance later in the day in which they did not enter pleas to charges of narcoterrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the case shows a "direct link" between Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda'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 Qaeda 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."
Authorities say the men are associates of Al Qaeda's North African branch, and told DEA informants that Al Qaeda could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region, driving the drugs by truck through the Sahara desert before eventually bringing them to Spain.
A criminal complaint unsealed Friday charges that Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman worked with Al Qaeda 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 Colombia's rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
The DEA used the FARC ruse twice before, leading to the 2007 arrest of Syrian arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar in Spain, and then again, in 2008, for a sting that netted Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman suspected in arms deals that aided the Taliban and African warlords.
The sting has had mixed success: Al-Kassar was convicted in 2008 of selling weapons to terrorists. But Bout remains in limbo in a Bangkok jail, his extradition to the U.S. blocked by a Thai judge.
In the latest case, the DEA used a French-speaking informant posing as "a Lebanese radical committed to opposing the interests of the United States, Israel, and, more broadly, the West and its ideals," according to court papers.
The informant claimed in secretly taped conversations to represent FARC, and said the group was looking for a secure means of smuggling drugs through western and northern Africa on the way to Europe.
During the negotiations, the Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda and the people that would protect the load would be very well armed."
Julia Gatto, Issa's attorney, said she spoke to her client briefly to make sure he understood the charges. All three men needed French interpreters.
"I think he understands the basics," she said. "He seems like a simple man."
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb is an Algeria-based group that joined Usama bin Laden's terrorist network in 2006 and conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month.
The group's origins trace back to militants that fought the Algerian government. In its new form, the group has spread beyond that country's porous borders, sowing violence in the rest of northwestern Africa through kidnappings, human trafficking, and other crimes.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has for several years stepped up efforts to control the drug trade through North Africa, Western and local intelligence officials say.
The importance of this trade has steeply risen in recent years as illegal goods have shifted from fake cigarettes or hashish to cocaine, after South American cartels started flying their drugs directly to weak nations in the Gulf of Guinea.
The Al Qaeda North African offshoot, known by its acronym AQIM, also controls illegal cross-border networks used for human trafficking, with migrants often paying their passage to Europe as "mules" by carrying cocaine.
Adam Raisman, a senior analyst at the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terror networks, said Al Qaeda is increasingly seeking financial support. "The group is trying every means at its disposal to fill its coffers," he said.