The Justice Department today charged three alleged members of al Qaida with agreeing to help Colombia's FARC guerrillas transport cocaine through Africa, leaving the impression in the headline of its press release that al Qaida and the FARC are cooperating. But before you get overly excited about an al Qaida/FARC connection, you need to read the complaint. It would appear that no one from the FARC was ever involved in the scheme.
Instead, the charges are the result of a sting operation by a couple of DEA confidential informants who've succeeded in finding a way to get three Africa-based al Qaida operatives off the battlefield and into an American court -- and not just sent off to Guantanamo to never stand trial on criminal charges.
According to the government's complaint, here's how the sting went down:
--Confidential Source 1, posing as "a radical Lebanese committed to opposing the interests of the United States, Israel and, more broadly, the West and its ideals," contacts, at the DEA's instruction, Oumar Issa, one of the alleged al Qaida members, and arranges a meeting in Ghana. CS-1 has been a paid DEA informant since July.
--At the meeting on Sept. 14, CS-1 explains that the FARC would like to smuggle some cocaine to Spain. Issa says his network has a way to get past custom's inspection in Mali and that armed al Qaida members would guard the shipment. After a few more phone meetings, the DEA wires Issa $300 in Togo so he can travel to Mali.
--On Oct. 6, CS-1 meets with Issa and another alleged al Qaida member, Marouna Toure, who's flown to Ghana from Mali for the meeting. DEA also paid for his airline ticket. At the meeting, Toure said he and his al Qaida associates would be responsible for getting the cocaine through Morocco.
--On Nov. 17 and 18, CS-1, with another paid DEA informant posing as a FARC representative, met with Toure and a third al Qaida operative, Idriss Abelrahman, who says he's the "general" of an 11-man armed group. The DEA informants and the two alleged al Qaida men agree on a price, and the DEA informants hand over $25,000 so the al Qaida members can buy trucks to transport the cocaine. Left unsaid is whether the DEA also paid Abelrahman's travel expenses.
--In the ensuing month, there were many "consensually recorded phone calls" between the DEA informants and Issa and Abelrahman, including quite a bit of haggling over how big a down payment the DEA/FARC needed to make (it went from 10 percent to 50 percent). Then on Dec. 14, this past Monday, the DEA informants and Issa and Abelrahman set Tuesday for the final payment on the truck and the transfer of the cocaine. Instead, the three alleged al Qaida members were arrested. On Thursday, they were flown to the United States.
The Justice Department's news release quotes DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart as calling the case "further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and international drug trafficking that fuels their violent activities."
Well, at best, maybe. But what it really shows is that there are ways of getting alleged al Qaida operatives off the streets and into the U.S. court system under civilian laws. So much for Guantanamo.
The three alleged al Qaida members are charged, says the news release, "with one count of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison, and one count of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison."
Nevermind, that one of the terrorist organizations they conspired to support had nothing to do with the sting.
Interestingly, this is the second DEA-al Qaida link to surface this week. Turns out, David Headley, the American who allegedly helped plot last year's Mumbai attack, was also once a DEA informant. Here's the Philadelphia Inquirer's story on that.