U.S. News

U.S. charges 3 accused of al Qaeda link in drug case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three West African men accused by U.S. law enforcement of having ties to al Qaeda were extradited to New York on Friday on drug trafficking and terrorism charges, authorities said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the arrests mark the first time U.S. authorities have established a link suggesting al Qaeda is funding its activities in part through drug trafficking in West Africa.

Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure, and Idriss Abelrahman, who are all believed to be in their 30s and nationals of Mali, were arrested in Ghana on Wednesday as part of a sting operation and taken to New York early on Friday, prosecutors said.

According to a criminal complaint unsealed on Friday, the men are accused of plotting to transport cocaine through Africa with the intent to support al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

All three groups have been designated as foreign terrorist groups by the U.S. State Department.

Government informants posed as FARC representatives and were told by the defendants their drug shipment would be protected by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat that joined Osama bin Laden’s network in 2006 and changed its name.

The men said in recorded conversations that their associates in al Qaeda could ensure safe passage through the West African country of Mali, into North Africa and onto Spain, prosecutors said.

“Al Qaeda of the Maghreb is obviously earning money from this illicit trafficking based on the statements of these individuals,” Russell Bensen, the DEA’s regional director for Europe and Africa, told Reuters in an interview from Rome.

He said the arrests are the first time the DEA has established that drug traffickers “utilize al Qaeda elements to facilitate security for drug trafficking in West Africa.”

The men are each charged with anti-terrorist conspiracy, conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. They were due to appear on Friday at U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Drug flights from South America to West African countries such as Guinea Bissau became common in the last three years and officials have seized ton-quantities of cocaine, the DEA said.

Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta