The charter plane that took off stealthily from Accra, Ghana on Dec. 17, 2009, heading to New York, contained three VIP passengers.
The Songhai tribesman with traditional markings on his face was among the three. Barely mid-way through the journey he began to sob. Idriss Abdelrahman wanted to know how he would ever make it back to his hometown – a small village near Timbuktu called Gao. Until now he had never been on a plane.
The more hardened-compatriot – Oumar Issa – wasn’t as terrified or at least claimed not to be. When members of the elite Drug Enforcement Administration squad took the shackled Issa away from his seat for questioning, he said, adamantly, in French: “I’m not afraid of going to United States because I have done nothing wrong.”
When he was escorted back to his seat, Issa drifted off to sleep.
COCAINE MEETS AL-QAEDA
In the last two decades, West Africa has grown in prominence as a major transit point for illegal drugs coming from South America and destined for Europe. In 2009, according to a U.S. Congressional Report, wholesale profits for cocaine traffickers in West Africa were estimated at $800 million. The United Nations’ Office of Drugs and Crime estimated that the amount of cocaine trafficked through West Africa grew from 3 tons in 2004 to 47 tons in 2007 before dropping to 21 tons in 2009.
Currently, it is estimated cocaine flowing through West Africa ranges between 60 and 250 metric tons or between $3 billion and $14 billion annually.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, as the United States broadened its clamp-down on terrorist activities around the world, investigators began to suspect that terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb were using drug trafficking in West Africa to finance their agenda. For instance, in 2010, it was reported that members of AQIM were providing security for a convoy of cocaine and marijuana. In 2011, a Lebanese drug kingpin linked to Hezbolla was indicted in the United States on charges of coordinating the sale of cocaine to Los Zetas and using West Africa to launder huge amounts of drug money, likely up to $200 million a month.
To deal with this problem of narco-terrorism, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency set up highly-trained sensitive investigative units or SIUs in different West African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria. The U.S. Congress threw its support behind the initiatives, because, as one U.S. senator put it, “The huge profits generated in the West African drug trade are not just lining the pockets of drug traffickers. Known terrorist organizations with hatred towards us use profits from drug sales to support their networks and training camps.”
NETTING THE TRANSPORTERS
Due to the classified nature of the investigation, much of the circumstances surrounding the sting operation that led to the arrests of the three men are shrouded in secrecy. What is known – based on court records and publicly available testimony reviewed by The Africonomist — is that sometime in August of 2009, DEA agents learned about a criminal organization operating within the West African countries of Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali through a confidential informant in Accra.
The informant – an individual of Lebanese descent — was tasked with infiltrating the group by posing as a representative of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC, the Columbia-based guerrilla militia that funds its operations by manufacturing and selling cocaine. The gist of the sting op was this: A FARC rep, who went by the name Mohamed, will look to transport a truck-load of cocaine across the Sahara, through North America and into Spain. He will seek to recruit facilitators who could guarantee safe passageway — someone who knew and could pay off the tribes that controlled the smuggling routes in the desert – the Tuaregs, Berabiche and other Arabs. Hopefully, that someone had al-Qaeda connections or could lead them to al-Qaeda.
Soon after the plan was put into action, a man by the name of Oumar Issa, a Malian, came on the DEA’s radar as a potential facilitator and someone “connected to terrorists, drugs and weapons.” A meeting with Mohamed was quickly arranged on September 14, 2009, at the Crown Liberty Hotel in Accra.
When Issa was briefed on the drug transport, he explained to Mohamed and another DEA informant that he had associates in Mali who had weapons and could protect “the merchandise” as it passed through the desert. In particular, Issa said he knew a well-connected individual who had the means and “balls” to get the drugs to Spain through Morocco. This individual turned out to be Harouna Toure, one of the three men eventually arrested.
Before the meeting ended, Mohamed – the informant — told Issa he wanted to purchase weapons in order to kidnap people. He also said he wanted to work with al Qaeda in the proposed drug deal because the two organizations were involved in the same cause – a fight against Americans.
Issa’s response was: “In Mali, there’s nothing that’s hard for us.”
This was the first of many such meetings that took place in various hotels across Accra, secretly recorded by Mohamed, and which formed the basis of the U.S. government’s prosecution of the three men.
THE SONGHAI MAN’S SONG
In Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, when people think of crime, they think of assault or murder or theft, not drug smuggling, says Aly Haidara, a Malian-American whose family is from Timbuktu.
Haidara was hired by the defense counsel for the Songhai tribesman following his arrest and extradition to the United States. She was asked to provide assistance with Songhai and French languages, cultural interpretation, and finding and locating witnesses and documents in Africa.
Haidara spent many hours with Idriss Abdelrahman at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, and became familiar with him on a personal level. In a letter to the court, she writes that Abdelrahman took the job because he needed the money to feed his family. She described him as a naïve, simple person who doesn’t question things that are told to him. This behavior could have something to do with the Songhai tribesman being from a slave caste known as Bellas.
Abdelrahman did not receive any formal education as a child. At age 11 or 12, he was sent to work in Tamanrasset, a Saharan town in Algeria , where he did odd jobs for truck drivers, fetching water and tea and cleaning. He saved enough money and returned to Mali when he was around 17 or 18, and opened a shop in the market selling used tires and car parts. The profits went to support two wives, four children, and his widowed mother.
Signing up for the drug transport through North Africa and potentially soliciting the help of al Qaeda affiliates along the route were things the Songhai man was uniquely incapable of doing, according to Haidara.
“I believe that almost anyone in Gao or Timbuktu who is offered tens of thousands of dollars would seize an opportunity like this. This is why I am not surprised that [Abdelrahman] said yes to this job, without really understanding what he was getting into,” she writes.
THE MAN WITH ‘BALLS’
Harouna Toure came to Accra to meet with a DEA informant, a Lebanese called Mohamed, on Oct. 6, 2009. He came highly recommended. At an earlier meeting with the informant at the Crown Liberty Hotel, Oumar Issa described Toure as his boss, a man with “balls.”
Toure was the man who would provide all the assistance needed to transport cocaine from Ghana to Morroco and then on to Spain. He had weapons and even probably helicopters. He was connected to high-ranking officials in Ghana, Togo, Mali and Morocco. In addition to drug trafficking, Toure had helped Hindus and Pakistanis enter Spain via Morocco by providing them with fake passports. These details came from Issa.
When Toure arrived in Accra, he did not disappoint. He told Mohamed he had done this work, and demonstrated on a map the various routes that he had used in the past to transport merchandise through the desert from Mali to Morocco and other North African countries. He said he would use two teams, in a convoy of four 4X4 vehicles, mounted with rocket launchers and large weapons, to transport the drugs. He would also need money to pay off Islamists, men he described as bearded guys in the bush.
When he was asked if he knew people who could help kidnap Americans, Toure responded that he knew people in Mali capable of doing just that. Recently, three Europeans were kidnapped in Mali and were returned for a large ransom, he said.
Later in the conversation, Toure also reiterated that he knew members of al Qaeda and routinely provided them fuel and food and paid charity to the mujahedin – religious warriors.
They asked him to bring along a warrior friend the next time he came to Accra. Toure said he knew just the perfect person for the job — the Songhai Tribesman was his pick and he’d return within weeks with the man he claimed had al Qaeda connections.
Perhaps, ‘the man with balls’ was boasting to promote himself as more important than he really was. After all he knew the Columbians had tons of cash. Whatever the case, the conversations were being recorded and Toure was indicting himself by re-affirming his affiliation with al Qaeda – America’s sworn enemy.
AL QAEDA WANNABES?
The three Malians who arrived in New York Dec. 17, 2009 were each named in a two-count indictment on New Year’s Eve. Count one charged them with participating in a narco-terrorism conspiracy and count two alleged a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to FARC and to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – entities the United States has designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Altogether the government’s evidence centered on nine recorded meetings and several hundred phone calls that produced 16 hours of recorded conversation. There are also many emails during which the drug transportation deal was discussed. The recorded conversations were primarily in French, Spanish, Arabic, Songhai and English.
The public defender who represented the Songhai tribesman said it was clear from the transcripts that the DEA informants sought to engage Toure and Abdelrahman in conversations about FARC and al Qaeda. Mohamed, the DEA’s confidential source, repeatedly talked excitedly that there were vast amounts of money to be made in this deal.
The confidential source frequently referred to rooms full of money in Columbia, and on one occasion referred to $500,000 that could be paid into bank accounts in Europe. “If the Columbians say they will give you money, they will.”
The defense claimed the crime was motivated by an aggressive, motivated confidential source who was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to induce the Malians to admit to improbable ties with al Qaeda.
Ultimately, all three men pled guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization in a plea deal to avoid lengthy sentences associated with the narco-terrorism charge, which has a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The Songhai tribesman was given 46 months in prison, a significant departure from the 180 months that the judge could have imposed under federal sentencing guidelines.
“I do take into account in this case, as a factor, that there was no actual involvement by the [Songhai tribesman] in a terrorist organization’s activities, and so, as a consequence, his actions at least were less harmful than they would have been had there been a substantive crime committed by a real organization,” the judge said during the sentencing.
The judge also said that he did not believe the Songhai tribesman was ideologically motivated. “This to me is very relevant to the question of whether he is likely to commit further crimes. A defendant who is committed to the goals of a terrorist organization is far more likely to recidivate and pose a greater danger to governments – our government, other governments – precisely because of his ideological commitment, compared to a defendant whose goal is money.”
Toure got 63 months and Issa, 57 months – a far cry from the 15-year sentences the government initially sought.
SPEAKING OF MONEY
The DEA agents confidential source, Mohamed, the Lebanese in Accra, was paid $265,045 for his work specifically on this case.