Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The al Qaeda terror group has embraced heroin trafficking to such an extent that its leader, Osama bin Laden, is now a “narco-terrorist,” says a U.S. congressman just back from a fact-finding mission in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“It seems clear to me heroin is the No. 1 financial asset of Osama bin Laden,” Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican, told The Washington Times. “There is a need to update our view of how terrorism is financed.

“And the view of Osama bin Laden relying on Wahhabi donations from abroad is outdated. And the view of him as one of the world’s largest heroin dealers is the more accurate, up-to-date view.”

Mr. Kirk wants a pronounced shift in how the Bush administration tries to stop al Qaeda funding. Up to now, Washington has focused on bin Laden’s traditional sources: Islamic charities and his family fortune.

But the Bush team has choked off much of that flow, forcing bin Laden to adjust. In Afghanistan, bin Laden has the benefit of the world’s largest poppy crop, as he evades capture in Pakistan’s notorious border areas. He is reaping $24 million alone from one narcotics network in Kandahar, Afghanistan, according to Mr. Kirk’s investigation.

The congressman said it is no longer sufficient to go after only the charities and bank accounts. Washington now must fuse counterterrorism and counternarcotics into an inseparable mission.

“The most important thing here is to change the language to not describe Osama bin Laden anymore as a terrorist, but to more accurately describe him as a narco-terrorist,” said Mr. Kirk, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, state and judiciary.

Mr. Kirk and his team of House staff investigators spent five days in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose farm areas once again are sprouting thousands of acres of poppies from which opium and heroin are produced. Hundreds of illicit drug labs have sprung up to process the heroin for shipment to Pakistan.

The al Qaeda-heroin connection is becoming more clear to Washington. The first big break came last month, when Navy ships seized boats concealing large stashes of heroin and operated by crew members linked to al Qaeda.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Kirk talked to a variety of sources, including U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, U.S. troops and Afghan counternarcotics officials.

A kilogram of heroin that can fetch $2,000 in Pakistan can get $10,000 in Turkey. That is why al Qaeda has begun sending drug-laden boats into the Arabian Sea: to find more lucrative markets outside Pakistan.

“If he can expand his operation closer and closer to the retail market, he will dramatically increase his profit,” Mr. Kirk said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is reluctant to get his troops too deeply involved in the drug wars, aides say. Some Pentagon officials view counternarcotics as predominately a law enforcement duty. In Afghanistan, where the United Nations reports 264,000 poppy-growing families, the U.S. military does not want to alienate citizens whose support it needs for the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai.

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