- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

The Navy has seized a boat carrying nearly 2 tons of hashish in the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials said yesterday, in what could be some of the first hard evidence of al Qaeda links to drug smuggling.

The guided missile destroyer USS Decatur intercepted the 40-foot boat on Monday. Aboard were a dozen men, four of them believed to have al Qaeda connections, and 3,780 pounds of hashish, the Navy said.

“This is the first empirical evidence I’ve seen that conclusively links al Qaeda with the drug trade,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank that often does work for the Pentagon.

The Decatur seized the boat, a wooden vessel called a dhow, near the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow part of the Persian Gulf where it opens into the Arabian Sea. The area is a known smuggling route for al Qaeda, the Navy said.

The drugs are worth between $8 million and $10 million, the Navy said.

Yesterday’s announcement came as the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq began a campaign against black marketeers who are suspected of funding attacks with proceeds from gasoline sales, drug smuggling and counterfeiting.

The campaign code-named “Operation Iron Justice,” first reported in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times, began with the arrest of 20 persons and the seizure of 28 gasoline tankers and nine propane trucks believed to be involved in a black-market operation in Baghdad, the military said.

The official price at gas stations, where it can take up to 10 hours in line to reach the pumps, is about 5 U.S. cents a gallon.

It can be as high as $1.85 a gallon on the black market, and U.S. commanders fear insurgents are benefiting from illegal sales to fund their operations.

The boat loaded with hashish remained under the Decatur’s control and it had not been determined what to do with the men on board, the Navy said.

Terrorism experts and government officials long have said they believe that al Qaeda makes money through criminal enterprises including the drug trade.

Before the September 11, 2001, attacks, Osama bin Laden had been sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime, which had clear links to the heroin trade through Afghanistan’s huge opium poppy crops. Smaller groups linked to al Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, also have been accused of involvement in the drug trade.

Mr. Hoffman said Monday’s seizure was the first indication that al Qaeda was smuggling hashish, a drug made from the resin of marijuana plants that has a history in the Middle East.

Smuggling drugs is attractive to al Qaeda because of the huge profit margins involved, said Jimmy Gurule, a former Treasury Department official involved in tracking terrorist financing.

“One of the things we learned over the past two years about al Qaeda is it’s a very adaptable organization with respect not only to its terrorist activities but also its mechanisms for raising money,” said Mr. Gurule, now a law professor at Notre Dame. “This isn’t something that is a surprise, but it’s something we should be prepared to address.”

Congressional investigators said last week that authorities at both the Treasury and Justice departments were struggling to get a grip on how terrorists may be using alternative means — such as trafficking in gold and diamonds or drugs — to raise and move financial assets.

The Decatur is part of a Navy’s effort to crack down on smuggling of drugs, weapons, oil and terrorists in the Persian Gulf.

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