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US arrests three Africans in 'al-Qaeda cocaine sting'

A view of the Sahara desert in Mali (archive image)
The suspects are said to have offered to drive cocaine across the Sahara

A court in the US has for the first time charged suspected members of al-Qaeda with plotting to traffic cocaine in order to fund terrorism.

The three suspects, who are believed to be from Mali, were extradited to New York from Ghana.

They were arrested this week in an operation involving informants posing as Colombian leftist rebels.

The suspects allegedly offered al-Qaeda protection for moving cocaine from West Africa through the Sahara to Spain.

They arrived in the US on Friday and were ordered to be held without bail after a brief court appearance. They did not enter pleas to charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, US officials said.

Washington has long been concerned about close ties between militants and the heroin trade in Afghanistan but the African case appears to show an expansion of both al-Qaeda's global operations and the US response, The Associated Press news agency reports.

Lebanese cover

The US authorities say the men are associates of al-Qaeda's North African branch and had told US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants that al-Qaeda could protect major shipments of cocaine in the region, driving the drugs by lorry through the Sahara desert.

All in their 30s, the suspects were named as Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman.

Unsealed court papers say Mr Toure and Mr Abelrahman at one point claimed the profits from the drug business would "go to their people to support the fight for 'the cause'".

The DEA infiltrated the group by using informants posing as supporters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.

In particular, the DEA used a French-speaking informant posing as "a Lebanese radical committed to opposing the interests of the United States, Israel, and, more broadly, the West and its ideals", court papers say.

The informant claimed in secretly taped conversations that the Farc were looking for a secure means of smuggling drugs through western and northern Africa on the way to Europe.

During the negotiations, the al-Qaeda suspects allegedly offered to move cocaine from west Africa to north Africa for about 3,000 euros ($4,200) per kilo.



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