Federal prosecutors on Friday charged three suspected al Qaeda associates with selling cocaine, in the first case that law enforcement officials say links the terrorist organization to drug trafficking.
Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested the three men Wednesday in the western African country of Ghana after a sting operation. The men were taken to the United States and appeared Friday in federal court in New York City.
Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman each face charges including one count of narcoterrorsim conspiracy and one count of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. They face up to 35 years in prison if convicted of both charges.
The DEA said the terrorist organization involved was al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb - a former regional terrorist organization in Africa that pledged to take part in al Qaeda's campaign of global terror.
Michele Leonhart, DEA's acting boss, said the case is "further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, and international drug trafficking conspiracies."
For several years, DEA officials have warned that al Qaeda could turn to drug trafficking to fund its activities, but the recent arrests mark the first time suspected al Qaeda associates have been charged with drug crimes. According to the DEA, the three men arrested all claimed to be associated with al Qaeda.
The case was built with the help of a paid informant, who has provided useful information in the past, according to the DEA. The informant posed as a representative of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). FARC is a well-known figure in the drug trade.
The informant initially made contact in September with Mr. Issa, authorities said. The informant said he needed help smuggling hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from West Africa to Spain.
Mr. Issa said his boss, Mr. Toure, could help, according to the DEA.
Authorities said Mr. Issa subsequently introduced the informant to Mr. Toure, who described himself as the leader of a criminal organization that worked with al Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa.
"During meetings with the [nformant], Toure described his strong relationship with al-Qaeda groups that controlled areas of north Africa, and discussed other instances in which he had transported drugs with al Qaeda's assistance," the DEA said in a statement. "Toure stated that al Qaeda would protect the FARC's cocaine shipment from Mali through North Africa and into Morocco en route to Spain."
The DEA said Mr. Toure also discussed the possibility of kidnapping foreigners for ransom to raise money.
Mr. Toure later introduced the informant to Mr. Abelrahman, who led a "militia" that was to protect the supposed cocaine shipment, according to the DEA. Mr. Abelrahman told the informant that he and his men shared FARC's anti-American goals.
The men were arrested soon afterward.