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Last Updated: Friday, 16 April, 2004, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Drugs and terrorism
Train wreckage from one of the blasts in Madrid, Spain
Paul Wood reported from the isolated Moroccan Rif mountains, where Spanish police suspect Islamic extremists used the cannabis trade to fund the Madrid atrocities.

This is a world closed to most outsiders. Poor, isolated, neglected, sporadically rebellious. The Rif Mountains are a North African Corsica. The people here are ethnic Bubbas, not Arabs, and for more than 100 years they have been left to go their own way by the Moroccan authorities. So the peasants of the Rif have come to depend on one cash crop: cannabis. They call it "green gold" here.

In just a few weeks' time, when the sowing season begins, this whole region will become one of the world's biggest cannabis plantations right on the edge of Europe. It's said that up to a quarter of Morocco's foreign currency earnings come from kiff, as cannabis is known around here. There are concerns now that some of that money is getting into the hands of radical Islamist terrorists.

The Spanish police say the explosives used in the Madrid bombing were paid for with Moroccan hashish. That hashish almost certainly came from here in the Rif Mountains. After Spain, a little light is now being shed on the secretive Rif cannabis trade and its relationship with Moroccan officialdom. Aboubakr Jamai is publisher of Morocco's leading investigative newspaper, Le Journal.

(Le Journal)
The Moroccan police is very much worried about the connection between Islamists and not only drug dealers, but also networks of smuggling, and all these networks basically are intertwined today. It's very hard to separate from them, and they are very worried about these connections.

If they are so worried, why is the cannabis trade tolerated here?

This is a very poor region. There are no industries over there and unemployment is very high. Politically, it has always been an explosive region, so drug dealing is a way of basically alleviating the ills of people, the social ills of people over there. So it is tolerated, as smuggling is tolerated as well. It's a part of a social contract which now has to be altered.

Back in the Rif Mountains, Hassan shows me his best field. As his grandfather and father once did, he prepares the rich soil for cannabis. Morocco's laws are being broken, but Hassan isn't worried. He says the kiff trade is run by corrupt local officials. He has fallen out with them. That's why he will talk to us.

This is forbidden. We have to grow it discreetly. If I get caught, I could get three to four years. But the government representative here sends the police to ask for money. You have to pay 100 dirham each time for each bag of cannabis, sometimes more. It is the highest official of this region who makes the most money from kiff.

Hassan's son takes us to see the family's store of marijuana seeds. They produced certainly the biggest bag I had ever seen. The Moroccan drugs business doesn't start with Al-Qaeda, but with poor farmers scraping a living through kiff, just as they have done here for generations. The European Union's trying to persuade Moroccan peasants to grow avocados instead of cannabis. It isn't working. This is how you get the cannabis resin out. What's left over are the seeds. Every year, tiny farms like this produce some 2,000 tonnes of cannabis worth billions of pounds. Not that much money ends up in the hands of the peasants.

I don't have enough money. I don't even have 100 dirhams in my pocket. I have to eat, but I am hungry. I work but I have holes in my trousers.

This is the next stage in the cannabis trail, Ketama. The whole of the local economy here is based on drugs trafficking, so cameras aren't welcome. We go to meet a small-time dealer, Mohamed, on the right. The Moroccan authorities leave this place well alone. No chance of seeing a Moroccan gendarme on the way to Mohammed's isolated farmhouse. This $1,000 stash is worth 10 times as much in Europe. No wonder terrorists like kiff. No-one here wants to admit that. A crackdown on Al-Qaeda's involvement in kiff would be very bad for business.

The Spanish police say that hashish from the Rif Mountains was used to pay for the bombs which killed people in Madrid. Do you think there is a connection?

No, my friend. This is very clear. No bomb inside of kiff, not possible.

A couple of hours' drive away Tangiers, where radical Islam and the drugs trade intersect. My guide is Nassr Amir, who lives and works in the sprawling slums here. This is home to many of the Moroccan suspects arrested in Madrid. The Imam from a local mosque once called for the assassination of the impious. He is in jail accused, among other things, of using drug money to fund the Islamist cause. Why do so many young Muslims in places like Morocco turn to Al-Qaeda?

You can sum that up in two words: identity crisis. When you are poor, as people here are, without anything, at some point you will revolt. This revolt can be a search for identity. There are different ways to do that, and one of those ways may be radical Islam.

In this same poor part of Tangiers, another glimpse of how drug money may end up funding the extremists. This is what's called the cheap market, full of smuggled goods. Drugs are exchanged for contraband from Spain, it's said, and when the goods are sold here, the theory goes, some of the cash is diverted to the Islamists. So much is common knowledge in Moroccan cafe society, but more than that, the country's leading academic expert on the Islamist movement says that, in some mosques, the message is it's OK to use drug money for jihad.

(Hassan II University, translation)
This is not the first time we have heard about Islamists using drug money. In Afghanistan the Taleban used heroin. Of course, you can't prove for absolutely certain that Moroccan Islamists use drugs to finance terrorist operations, but the militant Islamists don't just believe the end justifies the means. They believe in an Islamic rule, a religious rule, that necessity permits what is illegal.

Hashish is all part of the experience for young Europeans on the hippy trail in northern Morocco. You can smoke dope pretty openly here. The authorities won't stop you. There's too much money to be made. Only a tiny fraction of that money goes to the Islamists, it's true, but in the age of global terror that could be enough to finance the next Madrid.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2130 GMT 2230 UK, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.


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