NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three West African men accused by U.S. prosecutors of plotting to transport cocaine through Africa with the intent to support al Qaeda pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to drug trafficking and terrorism charges.
Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman, who are all believed to be in their 30s and nationals of Mali, were arrested in Ghana in December as part of a sting operation and extradited to New York.
The men are being held without bail. They appeared at Manhattan federal court wearing orange shirts and blue prison jumpsuits and entered pleas through a French interpreter.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said at the time of the arrests the case marks 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.
According to a criminal indictment, the men are accused of plotting to transport a series of shipments of 500 to 1,000 kilograms of cocaine through Africa and onto Europe 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 changed its name after joining Osama bin Laden’s network in 2006.
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.
The men are each charged with terrorist conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
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-sized quantities of cocaine, the DEA said.
Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara
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