- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network has become deeply involved in international drug trafficking, using the money to buy arms and, possibly, radioactive material for use in a so-called “dirty” nuclear bomb, senior U.S. officials say.

The seizure earlier this month of boats carrying heroin and hashish, and operated by al Qaeda-linked persons, has brought to light an al Qaeda drug operation that has grown tremendously since the September 11 attacks, the sources say.

“Bin Laden does not mind trafficking in drugs, even though it’s against the teaching of Islam, because it’s being used to kill Westerners,” said a defense official who asked not to be named. “He has allies and associates who are not members per se, but who move products for him and take drugs and buy arms and give the arms to al Qaeda.”

This official and other sources say the intelligence community still does not have a firm grasp on the scope of the al Qaeda drug operation and how much money it raises, although estimates are in the millions of dollars. And officials say U.S. Central Command is so busy fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it does not devote large resources to stopping the drug trade.

But the Bush administration is starting to realize that to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, it must mount more aggressive counternarcotics operations. With its source of money from Islamic charities being shut down by the United States and its allies, al Qaeda has turned to the poppy fields of Afghanistan as barter to finance operations.

The poppies are converted into opium and heroin, which fetch huge sums of money as they move from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the West.

“If you’re going to get terrorism under control, we’ve got to stop their livelihood, which is money,” said the defense official. “Without money, they die.”

Said Andre Hollis, a former senior counternarcotics official under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, “The linkage between terrorists and drug trafficking are only now becoming clear and are a great concern. The methods by which terrorists and other underworld actors move drugs are the same routes that are used to move weapons, terrorists and, potentially, [weapons of mass destruction].”

Bin Laden reaps the profits in two ways: His allies regulate smuggling routes out of Afghanistan into Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and other countries, essentially placing a tax on each shipment to let it pass. Or, alternatively, al Qaeda takes the drugs as payment and uses them to buy arms.

There are unconfirmed intelligence reports that al Qaeda has bought radioactive material for use in a “dirty bomb.”

Such a device is a conventional bomb packed with radioactive material that the explosion spreads, instead of using the radioactive material for the more technically demanding task of igniting a nuclear reaction, as in an atomic bomb. A “dirty bomb” would be not nearly as destructive as a nuclear explosion, but could expose thousands of people to deadly radiation poisoning if exploded in an urban area.

The United States does know, however, that smugglers are trafficking in radioactive substances.

Last May, police in Tbilisi, Georgia, arrested a man carrying boxes labeled “Danger: Radiation.” Inside were two capsules of the radioactive metals strontium and cesium. A third vial contained a substance used to make the chemical weapon mustard gas. The man was en route to the train station to deliver the material to a still-unknown recipient in southwest Georgia for shipment to another country.

The arrest points out that smugglers are willing to traffic in any type of weapons and sell to just about anybody if the price is right.

The drug trafficking is not limited to the Persian Gulf region. Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda’s ally in Southeast Asia, also deals in narcotics.

“Al Qaeda has a presence in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, where drugs are a currency,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, a military analyst who has studied the terror-drug nexus. “It has dealings with nations in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Drugs are a currency that fuels terrorist groups everywhere.”

The model for al Qaeda is a terrorist group that has terrorized Colombia for decades. The left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has cornered the cocaine trade to finance all aspects of its war against Bogota’s democratic government.

With the coca crop and drug labs bringing in millions of dollars, FARC has no need for financial allies and has a self-contained terror army.

Al Qaeda’s drug operations rose to the surface in mid-December, when the U.S. Navy seized three al Qaeda-linked boats.

In the first operation, a Navy destroyer stopped a 40-foot boat, arrested three men and confiscated two tons of hashish worth $10 million in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz.

“This capture is indicative of the need for continuing maritime patrol of the gulf in order to stop the movement of terrorists, drugs and weapons,” said Rear Adm. Jim Stavridis, commander the carrier USS Enterprise battle group.

A day after the announcement, Navy ships on interdiction duty in the Arabian Sea captured two sailboats carrying 85 pounds of heroin valued at $3 million. Again, the crew was suspected of links to al Qaeda. The Navy also found 150 pounds of methamphetamines worth $1.5 million.

The defense official said all the drugs likely came from Afghanistan, where opium also finances Taliban fighters.

“We stopped two shipments,” said the official. “How many have gotten through? How much money are they getting from this? We don’t know. But we think it’s the tip of the iceberg.”

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