WASHINGTON – Three accused al-Qaida associates taken to New York on Friday are charged with plotting to ferry drugs through the Sahara desert to raise money for terrorism attacks – evidence of what prosecutors say is a dangerous, growing alliance between terrorist chiefs and drug lords.
The arrests mark the first time U.S. authorities have captured and charged al-Qaida suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa.
The three suspects – believed to be in their 30s and originally from Mali – were arrested by local authorities in Ghana earlier this week and turned over to U.S. agents.
They arrived in the United States early Friday, officials said, and were ordered held without bail after a brief court appearance in which they did not enter pleas to charges of narcoterrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the case shows a “direct link” between al-Qaida and drug traffickers.
The U.S. has long been concerned about close ties between militants and the heroin trade in Afghanistan.
But the Africa case appears to show an expansion of both al-Qaida’s illegal activities around the globe and American efforts to curtail black market deals that funnel cash to spur terrorism operations.
The four-month investigation was also the third time in recent years that the U.S. has targeted trans- national suspects in an elaborate sting using informants posing as South American narcoterrorism operatives.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the charges show “the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al-Qaida and trans- national narcotics traffickers.
“As terrorists diversify into drugs, however, they provide us with more opportunities to incapacitate them and cut off the funding for future acts of terror.”