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Arrests in Africa connect Al Qaeda, drug traffickers

By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / December 19, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Three accused Al Qaeda associates taken to New York yesterday are charged with plotting to ferry drugs through the Sahara desert to raise money for terror attacks - evidence of what prosecutors say is a dangerous, growing alliance between terror chiefs and drug lords.

The arrests mark the first time US authorities have captured and charged Al Qaeda suspects in a drug trafficking plot in Africa, in a case officials say demonstrates the spread of the terror network into global criminal activity.

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 US agents. They arrived in the United States early yesterday morning, officials said.

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart, said the case shows a “direct link’’ between Al Qaeda and drug traffickers.

The US 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 Al Qaeda’s illegal activities around the globe and American efforts to curtail black market deals that funnel cash to spur terror operations. The four-month investigation was the third time in recent years that the US has targeted transnational suspects in an elaborate sting using informants posing as South American narcoterrorism operatives.