- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

Osama bin Laden is using cash from the Afghanistan heroin market to finance his life on the run, paying bodyguards and buying off warlords in Pakistan, says a congressman who has visited the region.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, said in an interview that bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror organization is reaping $28 million a year in illicit heroin sales. Some of the money is funding bin Laden’s fugitive status as he pops back and forth between Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas and Afghanistan’s eastern mountain regions.

Mr. Kirk, who won passage of legislation in November to overhaul the U.S. terrorist rewards program, said post-September 11 initiatives have cut off the terror leader’s traditional sources of money — a family fortune and Islamic charities.

“We now know al Qaeda’s dominant source of funding is the illegal sale of narcotics,” said Mr. Kirk, a member of the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.

The congressman made an extensive fact-finding trip to Afghanistan last January, where he met with military-intelligence officials.

Mr. Kirk said that, while bin Laden has lots of allies in the Waziristan tribal lands east of Kabul, Afghanistan, he does not speak the native tongues and cannot trust everyone as his entourage moves from place to place.

“He is a foreigner in a strange land,” Mr. Kirk said. “He must have money to buy off the local warlords. Operating a clandestine, heavily armed organization takes money and running narcotics is the natural way.”

A Pentagon adviser on drug policy said Mr. Kirk is “on target.”

“We know of individuals in Afghanistan who continue to fund al Qaeda with drug proceeds,” the Pentagon adviser said.

The congressman believes the way to catch bin Laden is to cut off his money. “We have to nail the drug-lord financing first,” he said. “Once you hit his income, you head off his ability to pay local warlords.”

This is where Mr. Kirk’s legislation comes in. The Counter-Terrorist and Narco-Terrorist Rewards Program Act authorizes the State Department for the first time to make rewards to people who inform on drug lords.

Bin Laden’s major supplier, U.S. authorities say, is Haji Bashir Noorzai, a former Taliban financier who smuggles heroin from the Kandahar area to al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The Pentagon adviser said Noorzai helped finance al Qaeda when it operated with the Taliban. The alliance continues to this day. In return for money, Noorzai gets al Qaeda operatives who move his drugs offshore.

The legislation, which Mr. Bush will sign once Congress finishes work on the fiscal 2005 spending bill later this month, also authorizes the payment of goods, such as tractors or trucks instead of cash to informants. The idea is that illiterate rural Afghans or Pakistanis will find more value in farm equipment than in huge sums of money. News of the new rewards will be broadcast on radio stations in Afghanistan.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, and Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, also lets Mr. Bush raise the reward on bin Laden and other terror fugitives from $25 million to $50 million.

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