How closely entwined are the drug trade and global terrorism?

In December, 2009, Harouna Touré
and Idriss Abdelrahman, smugglers
from northern Mali, walked
through the doors of the Golden Tulip,
a hotel in Accra, Ghana. They were
there to meet with two men who had
offered them an opportunity to make
millions of dollars, transporting cocaine
across the Sahara. Touré wore
a dashiki, and Abdelrahman had on
tattered clothes and a turban that
hid much of his face. They tipped
the guards at the entrance and then
greeted Mohamed, a Lebanese radical,
in the lobby. Mohamed took them
up to a hotel room to see David, a
drug trafficker and a member of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
or FARC. “Hola, Colombiano,”
Touré said, as he entered the room.
Abdelrahman tried to call David “007”
in Spanish, but said “477” instead.
David, who was dressed in a shortsleeved
pullover and Bermuda shorts,
laughed and offered his guests bottles
of water.
Touré and Abdelrahman came from
Gao, a parched and remote city in
northern Mali which has long been
used as a base for smuggling of all kinds,
from immigrants to cigarettes. In recent
years, the surrounding region has
also been the scene of conflict between
violent bands of nomadic insurgents,
including members of Al Qaeda in
the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During
months of meetings and phone calls,
David and Mohamed had told Touré
that the FARC had some thirty thousand
fighters at war with the United
States, and that it wanted to work with
Al Qaeda, because the groups shared
the same enemy. “They are our brothers,”
Mohamed said. “We have the same
cause.” Touré had explained that he
had connections to the organization:
he ran a transport company, and, in return
for safe passage for his trucks, he
provided Al Qaeda with food and fuel.

Still, David remained skeptical. He
needed assurances that Touré’s organization
was up to the task. The FARC
had a lot of money riding on the deal
and was willing to pay Touré and Abdelrahman
as much as three thousand
dollars per kilo, beginning with a fiftykilo
test run to Melilla, a Spanish city
on the North African mainland. Loads
ten times that size would follow, David
said, if the first trip went well.
“If you’re done, I’m going to speak,”
Touré said. He told David and Mohamed
that he was tired of all the “blah,
blah, blah.” He had operatives along
the smuggling route, which stretched
from Ghana to Morocco. Abdelrahman,
whom Touré had introduced as
the leader of a Malian militia, said that
he had hired a driver with links to Al
Qaeda. They had also bribed a Malian
military official, who would help them
cross the border without inspection.
David was reassured. “I want us to
keep working together, because we’re
not doing this for the money—we’re
doing this for our people,” he said.
Two days later, Touré and Abdelrahman
went back to the Golden Tulip to
collect their initial payment. Oumar
Issa, a friend from Gao who was also
involved in the plan, waited at another
hotel to receive his portion. Instead, the
smugglers were met by Ghanaian police
officers. David and Mohamed, it
turned out, were not drug traffickers but
undercover informants for the United
States Drug Enforcement Administration.
Within days, Touré, Abdelrahman,
and Issa were turned over to the D.E.A.,
put on a private jet, and flown to New
York, where they were arraigned in a
federal courthouse. They were charged
under a little-known provision of the
Patriot Act, passed in 2006, which established
a new crime, known as narcoterrorism,
committed by violent offenders
who had one hand in terrorism and the
other in the drug trade.

In announcing the charges, Preet
Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the
Southern District of New York, said,
“As terrorists diversify into drugs,
they provide us more opportunities to
incapacitate them and cut off funding
for future acts of terror.” The case
marked the first time that the narcoterrorism
provision had been used
against Al Qaeda. The suspects appeared
to be precisely the kind of hybrid
whom the law, which does not require
that any of the targeted activities
take place in the U.S., had been written
to catch. Michele Leonhart, the
D.E.A. administrator at the time, said,
“Today’s arrests are further proof of the
direct link between dangerous terrorist
organizations, including Al Qaeda,
and international drug trafficking that
fuels their activities.”
As the Malians’ case proceeded,
however, its flaws became apparent.
The defendants emerged as more hapless
than hardened, childhood friends
who believed that the D.E.A.’s informants
were going to make them rich.
“They were lying to us. And we were
lying to them,” Touré told me from
prison. Judge Barbara Jones, who oversaw
the final phases of the case, said,
“There was no actual involvement by
the defendants or the undercovers . . .
in the activities of either Al Qaeda or
the FARC.” Another judge saw as many
problems with the statute as with the
merits of the case. “Congress has passed
a law that attempts to bind the world,”
he said to me.
The investigation continues to be
cited by the D.E.A. as an example of its
national-security achievements. Since
the narco-terrorism provision was
passed, the D.E.A. has pursued dozens
of cases that fit the broad description
of crimes under the statute. The
agency has claimed victories against Al
Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the
FARC and established the figure of the
narco-terrorist as a preëminent threat
to the United States.
With each purported success, the
D.E.A. has lobbied Congress to increase
its funding. In 2012, Michael
Braun, who had served as the D.E.A.’s
chief of operations, testified before
Congress about the link between terrorists
and drug traffickers: “Based
on over thirty-seven years in the lawenforcement
and security sectors, you
can mark my word that they are most
assuredly talking business and sharing
lessons learned.”
That may well be true. In a number
of regions, most notably Colombia
and Afghanistan, there is convincing
evidence that terrorists have
worked with drug traffickers. But a
close examination of the cases that the
D.E.A. has pursued reveals a disturbing
number that resemble that of the
Malians. When these cases were prosecuted,
the only links between drug
trafficking and terrorism entered into
evidence were provided by the D.E.A.,
using agents or informants who were
paid hundreds of thousands of dollars
to lure the targets into staged narcoterrorism
The D.E.A. strongly defends the
effectiveness of such sting operations,
claiming that they are a useful way to
identify criminals who pose a threat to
the United States before they act. Lou
Milione, a senior official at the agency,
told me, “One of the things the D.E.A.
is kind of in the business of is almost
all of our investigations are proactive.”
But Russell Hanks, a former senior
American diplomat, who got a firsthand
look at some of the D.E.A.’s
narco- terrorism targets during the time
he served in West Africa, told me, “The
D.E.A. provided everything these men
needed to commit a crime, then said,
‘Wow, look what they did.’ ” He added,
“This wasn’t terrorism—this was the
manipulation of weak-minded people,
in weak countries, in order to pad arrest
On September 11, 2001, when
American Airlines Flight 77
crashed into the Pentagon, D.E.A.
agents were among the first to respond,
racing from their headquarters, less
than half a mile away. A former special
agent named Edward Follis, in his
memoir, “The Dark Art,” recalls how
he and dozens of his colleagues “rushed
over . . . to pull out bodies, but there
were no bodies to pull out.” The agency
had outposts in more than sixty countries
around the world, the most of any
federal law-enforcement agency. And
it had some five thousand informants
and confidential sources. Michael Vigil,
who was the D.E.A.’s head of international
operations at the time, told
me, “We called in every source we
could find, looking for information
about what had happened, who was
responsible, and whether there were
plans for an imminent attack.” He
added, “Since the end of the Cold War,
we had seen signs that terrorist groups
had started relying on drug trafficking
for funding. After 9/11, we were sure
that trend was going to spread.”
But other intelligence agencies saw
the D.E.A.’s sources as drug traffickers—
and drug traffickers didn’t know
anything about terrorism. A former senior
money-laundering investigator at
the Justice Department told me that
there wasn’t any substantive proof to
support the D.E.A.’s assertions.
“What is going on after 9/11 is that
a lot of resources move out of drug enforcement
and into terrorism,” he said.
“The D.E.A. doesn’t want to be the
stepchild that is last in line.” Narcoterrorism,
the former investigator said,
became an “expedient way for the agency
to justify its existence.”
The White House proved more
receptive to the D.E.A.’s claims. Juan
Zarate, a former deputy nationalsecurity
adviser, in his book, “Treasury’s
War,” says that President George W.
Bush wanted “all elements of national
power” to contribute to the effort to
“prevent another attack from hitting
our shores.” A few months after 9/11,
at a gathering of community antiaddiction
organizations, Bush said, “It’s
so important for Americans to know
that the traffic in drugs finances the
work of terror. If you quit drugs, you
join the fight against terror in America.”
In February, 2002, the Office of
National Drug Control Policy turned
Bush’s message into a series of publicservice
announcements that were aired
during the Super Bowl. Departing from
the portrayal of illegal narcotics as dangerous
to those who use them—“This
is your brain on drugs”—the ads instead
warned that getting high helped
terrorists “torture someone’s dad” or
“murder a family.”
In the next seven years, the D.E.A.’s
funding for international activities increased
by seventy-five per cent. Until
then, the agency’s greatest foreign involvement
had been in Mexico and in
the Andean region of South America,
the world’s largest producer of cocaine
and home to violent Marxist guerrilla
groups, including the FARC, in Colombia,
and the Shining Path, in Peru. Both
groups began, in the nineteen-sixties
and early seventies, as peasant rebellions;
before long, they started taxing
coca growers and smugglers to finance
their expansion. The D.E.A. saw the
organizations as examples of how criminal
motivations can overlap with, and
even advance, ideological ones.
Now the agency was focussed on
Afghanistan, which had been one of
the largest opium producers in the
world until 2000, when the Taliban
declared poppy cultivation un-Islamic
and banned it. Almost as soon as the
Taliban were forced from power, the
country’s farmers began replanting their
poppy fields; the D.E.A. warned that
the new crops could become a source
of revenue to finance attacks by Al
Qaeda. “D.E.A. has received multisource
information that bin Laden has
been involved in the financing and facilitation
of heroin-trafficking activities,”
Asa Hutchinson, the D.E.A. administrator,
said during a hearing on
Capitol Hill in March, 2002. Hutchinson
cited insurgency groups in drugproducing
countries around the world,
including the FARC, the Shining Path,
and the Kurdistan Workers Party,
in Turkey, which had historically been
a significant narcotics transshipment
point. And Hutchinson mentioned evidence
collected by the D.E.A. that the
tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil, and
Argentina—home to a large and thriving
Arab business community—had
become a source of financing for Hamas
and Hezbollah.
With support from Congress, the
D.E.A. set up the Counter-Narco-
Terrorism Operations Center, a clearing
house for any terrorism-related
intelligence that its agents picked up
around the world. The agency reopened
its office in Kabul, which had been
closed since the Soviet invasion, in
1979. And it brought together law-enforcement
officials from nineteen countries
in Asia and Europe to participate
in an intelligence-sharing project
known as Operation Containment,
which was aimed at cutting off the flow
of Afghan heroin and opium.
By 2004, Al Qaeda had largely fled
Afghanistan, and the D.E.A. turned
its attention to the Taliban, which
agents believed would follow the same
guerrilla-to-drugs trajectory as the
FARC. The D.E.A. cobbled together
informant networks and undercover
operations aimed at traffickers linked
to the insurgents. The agency had never
played that role in a war zone, and it
required support from the military,
which wasn’t forthcoming. Edward
Follis, the former D.E.A. agent, told
me that most American combat commanders
showed the D.E.A. a “blatant
and willful disregard.” He said
that the Pentagon “couldn’t get beyond
the idea of capturing or killing enemy
Later that year, the D.E.A. took its
case to John Mackey, a Republican investigative
counsel for the House
International Relations Committee.
Mackey, a former F.B.I. agent, handled
counter-narcotics for the committee’s
chairman, Henry Hyde, a
prominent Republican from Illinois.
Current and former congressional
staffers recall that Hyde didn’t have a
deep interest in anti-drug matters, allowing
Mackey to take the lead. “You
know how Congress works,” one former
staffer said. “There are all these
unknown and unelected people who
wield enormous influence over obscure
topics. Mackey was
one of them.”
Under Mackey’s direction,
Republican legislators
pressured the Pentagon to
support the D.E.A.’s operations
in Afghanistan. Follis
said that the D.E.A. received
tens of millions of
dollars in additional funding,
allowing it to increase
the number of agents in the
country from two to more than forty,
and to develop its own special-forces
units, known as FAST teams, which carried
out raids on opium bazaars and
heroin labs. The agency also identified
a high-value Afghan target, Haji Bashir
Noorzai, an opium trafficker with close
ties to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah
Omar. In 2004, President Bush put
Noorzai on a list of the world’s most
wanted drug kingpins. But, because
most of Noorzai’s opium and heroin
exports went to Eastern Europe and
not to the U.S., it was difficult for the
D.E.A. to go after him. Mackey made
numerous trips with the D.E.A. to Afghanistan,
and warned Congress that
people like Noorzai “are going to fall
through the cracks unless we broaden
our thinking about them.”
In early 2005, Mackey helped to
draft a statute that would give the
D.E.A. the authority to chase drug
traffickers anywhere in the world as
long as the trafficking was connected
to terrorism. When Hyde introduced
the legislation, he made a point of drawing
his colleagues’ attention to its reach:
“This bill makes clear that, even without
direct U.S. nexus, if these drugs
help support or sustain a foreign terrorist
organization, the producers and
traffickers can, and should, be prosecuted
for material support of terrorism,
whether or not the illicit narcotics
are ever intended for, or enter, the
United States.”
The statute was passed in 2006.
But questions among Justice Department
officials about how to enforce
it delayed implementation for another
year. Some authorities worried
that overzealous prosecutors might be
tempted to use the narco-terrorism
statute against teen-age addicts caught
with Afghan heroin. Follis, half-joking,
told me, “The law was so wide
open you could indict a bologna
sandwich.” But, when
officials from the Justice
Department proposed adding
language to the statute
that would more narrowly
de fine terrorism, Mac key
balked. “There’s no need to
spell out what we mean by
terrorism,” he said. “You
know it when you see it.”
In the next few years, the
D.E.A. lured two of the most wanted
arms dealers in the world, Monzer
al-Kassar and Viktor Bout, into drug-related
conspiracies before arresting them,
in Spain and Thailand, respectively. A
former senior D.E.A. official told me
that, although Kassar and Bout were
not charged with narco-terrorism, the
agency’s expanded investigative license
gave it more tools with which to pursue
them. David Raskin, a former senior
prosecutor in the Southern District of
New York, hailed the arrests. “They
were not pure drug smugglers,” Raskin
said of Bout and Kassar. “But they were
clearly bad people. And the D.E.A.
was pushing the envelope.”
By 2008, the D.E.A. was part of the
so-called Intelligence Community, the
military and civilian agencies that are
the U.S.’s foremost espionage resources.
Michael Braun, who is widely considered
the architect of the agency’s Afghanistan
program, told reporters, “I
have briefed more three- and four-star
generals over the past eighteen months
than the agency has in the last thirtyfive
years.” He added, “We are seeing
more and more unequivocal connection
with respect to Al Qaeda being
involved in drug-trafficking activities.”
Some of the D.E.A.’s investigations
took the agency to Africa. With large
swaths of ungoverned territory, long
histories of civil conflict, and ascendant
jihadist groups, including Boko
Haram and AQIM, the continent was
viewed by the Defense Department as
the next front in the war on terror. The
D.E.A. had identified West Africa as
a major transshipment point for South
American cocaine. As in Afghanistan,
most of the drugs were flowing to
Europe. But the D.E.A. argued that
money from that trade was ending up
in the hands of terrorists. Lou Milione
told me that Colombian drug
traffickers who had been arrested in
Eastern Europe had confessed to moving
drugs through the Sahara with the
help of Arab smugglers, along routes
that overlapped with areas that had
been occupied by AQIM. “If anything
was moving through that region, AQIM
had to be involved,” Milione said. At
the end of 2008, Derek Maltz, who
led the D.E.A.’s special-operations division,
was invited to a gathering of
senior leaders of the Pentagon’s newly
established Africa Command. “I didn’t
want these guys thinking I was just
another D.E.A. agent coming to talk
to them about drugs,” Maltz told me.
“I was there to talk to them about a
matter of national security. And I
wanted them to know from the start
that it was personal.”
Maltz, who is bald and strapping,
began his presentation with a series of
photographs. The first showed the Twin
Towers in flames. The second was a
picture of his brother, Michael, a former
member of an Air Force pararescue
team, waving triumphantly. The
third showed a line of helicopters
parked on an airfield in Afghanistan.
There was a gap, where one helicopter
was missing—Michael’s. He had
been killed on duty, in 2003. “You guys
are trained to go out and drop bombs
on the enemy,” Maltz told the assembled
officers. “But sometimes you can’t
drop bombs. And that’s where the
D.E.A. comes in. We have other ways
of taking bad guys off the playing field.”
Harouna Touré was born in a small
Malian farming village called
Bamba, the youngest of nine children.
The family lived in a one-room shelter
made of wood and mud. His father
was a day laborer, who built houses and
dug wells, and raised goats. Harouna
attended school for only a few years
before he joined his father at work. As
soon as he was tall enough to drive,
Touré, who is broad-shouldered and
has dark, expressive eyes, moved to Gao.
There he began working with his eldest
brother, Almatar, who ran a small
trucking company that transported
goods and people across the Sahel, a
semi-arid region that divides southern
Mali from the north, where the Sahara
begins. The area has bustled with unregulated
trade since the fifteenth century.
Roads are minimal, and driving
forty miles can take an entire day. “And
by the time the trip is finished you will
be sore from your head to your feet,”
Touré told me. But he loved it. “For
me, it was fun, because every day was
different,” he said. “I was able to see
new people and new places.”
Gao is a seedy city of about a hundred
thousand people on the Niger
River, the region’s primary thoroughfare
during the rainy season. Running
a business in the Sahel, Touré told me,
is by definition a quasi-legal activity.
He and his brother transported food,
fuel, construction materials, cigarettes,
and Bangladeshi workers—most of
which came into the country without
proper inspection or paperwork. Drivers
travelled in armed convoys to protect
themselves and their loads from
bandits. They also paid off various military
units, tribal authorities, and ethnic
militias, who controlled the territory
along the way. Touré told me that
he never encountered Al Qaeda or its
operatives during his travels, but that
he did cross the territory of other armed
groups. “Sometimes you had to give
them money, or food, or fuel,” he said.
“If you didn’t, you were going to have
For a while, Touré thrived. He
started a construction business that
took on small projects in communities
along his truck routes. He employed
dozens of people, and made enough
money to travel to Paris and to take
his mother on the hajj. “I was moving
so fast people used to call me the
mayor,” he said. But he took on new
jobs before being paid for old ones, and
fell into debt. By the end of 2008, he
had a wife and two children. And he
was paying for treatment for Almatar,
who had developed diabetes and had
to have one of his feet amputated.
By then, the D.E.A. had begun to
plan operations in West Africa. Among
the agency’s targets was AQIM, which
had recently bombed a United Nations
office in Algiers and regularly kidnapped
foreign tourists, diplomats, and journalists
for ransom. But working on the
ground in West Africa wasn’t anything
like working in Latin America, where
the D.E.A. had employees in territory
ranging from Tijuana to Tierra del
Fuego. African operations were overseen
largely from Rome. The narcoterrorism
unit covering the region was
based in Chantilly, Virginia. And the
D.E.A. had so few agents of color who
spoke African languages that it was
forced to rely on informants, who were
paid only if their work resulted in prosecutions.
(Spokespeople for the D.E.A.
denied that informants were paid according
to whether their intelligence
led to prosecutions, and that its conduct
in Africa was substantially different
from that on other continents.) “We
had significant gaps in our knowledge,”
a former D.E.A. official who did intelligence
work said. But, he added, “after
we began putting money on the streets
we went from zero to sixty in no time.”
One of the paid informants was
Mohamed, whom agents described
to me only as a Lebanese businessman
with ties to Arab communities in
South America and West Africa. He was
eventually paid more than three hundred
thousand dollars for his work on
the Mali case.
In September, 2009, an investigation
into an unrelated plot led Mohamed
to Oumar Issa, a compact Malian
man with an easy smile and angu -
lar features, who worked as a day laborer
and a driver at the port in Lome,
Togo, another West African smuggling
center. Mohamed told Issa that he
was looking for someone who could
help a group of wealthy Colombians
move large loads of drugs from Ghana,
through Mali, to Spain.
Issa said, “I have people who have
a foothold in the bush.” He went to
Mali to fetch Touré. The two had been
friends since they were teen-agers, but
when Issa approached Touré about the
drug deal Touré initially refused. Issa
had strayed from Islam, and was known
to drink too much. Touré didn’t want
anything to do with drugs, mostly for
religious reasons. And he didn’t think
that he could pull off the kind of operation
Mohamed wanted. Touré’s contacts
did not stretch all the way across
the Sahara. As for Al Qaeda, Touré
told me, “I could never work with them.
They treat black people like slaves.”
But Touré says that Issa pleaded
with him to reconsider. “I thought if I
could just make that money everything
would be fine,” Touré told me. “I could
start fresh.” He enlisted Idriss Abdelrahman,
who sold used auto parts at
an open-air market in Gao. Together,
Touré says, the three men concocted a
scheme as elaborate as the D.E.A.’s.
While the informants pretended to be
FARC operatives, Touré, Issa, and Abdelrahman
pretended to be part of a
criminal network with links to Al
Qaeda. The plan, Touré said, was to
get the traffickers to pay them a portion
of the money up front and then
disappear into northern Mali. It was
clear that the traffickers had never been
to Mali, Touré said, so it wasn’t difficult
to fool them.
On October 6, 2009, Touré and
Mohamed met for the first time, in a
hotel room in Ghana. According to a
D.E.A. video recording of the meeting,
Mohamed, a tall man, with a belly
that hung over his belt, pulled out a
map and proposed a route. Touré took
it from him, and proposed another.
Touré told Mohamed that the trip
wasn’t going to be cheap. “There are
Islamists, bearded guys—they’re in the
bush,” Touré said. “You gotta give their
chiefs something.”
Mohamed called the Islamists “our
brothers,” and said, “Let them take as
much as they want to fuck the Americans.”
He added, “You pay Al Qaeda,
Touré nodded. “You pay all that.”
Mohamed asked for more proof. He
told Touré that he would invite a commander
from the FARC to join them in
Ghana, if Touré would bring a representative
from Al Qaeda. The D.E.A.
flew in Walter Ramirez, a convicted
drug dealer from the Detroit area who
had been working as an informant for
the agency for nearly a decade, to play
the role of the FARC commander, David.
Touré brought in Abdelrahman, who
played a militia leader with links to Al
The D.E.A. maintains that, in the
meetings that followed, the Malians
offered ample testimony of their Al
Qaeda connections. The transcripts are
hard to follow. It is clear, however, that
the subject of Al Qaeda came up repeatedly,
and that it was often raised
by the informants, in order to elicit incriminating

On one occasion, Mohamed instructed
the targets to talk in a bellicose
fashion if they wanted to persuade
David to move forward. “I have told
him you are warriors,” Mohamed said.
“Let it come from your mouth so that
I can repeat it. You understand?”
David waved a wad of cash. “You
told me you needed to buy a truck—
isn’t that right?” he asked Touré. “Hey.
Twenty-five thousand dollars so you
can buy your truck.” Mohamed suggested
that David’s show of trust deserved
one in return.
“You have to know our power,” Touré
said. “You have to know our networks.”
“That’s it,” Mohamed said. “That’s
what he wants.” Later, he asked the
Malians if they really had “power in
the desert.”
Abdelrahman chimed in: “We have
cars, the power, and the weapons.” Touré
added, “We have crews. We have bases.
We have weapons. We have everything.”
On December 18, 2009, when Touré,
Abdelrahman, and Issa arrived
in New York for their arraignment, the
city was anticipating a major snowstorm.
The three Malian men had never
been so cold, or surrounded by so much
concrete. They didn’t understand what
a cocaine deal in West Africa had to
do with the United States, much less
with terrorism. And they were skeptical
of their court-appointed lawyers, who
were employed by the same government
that had ordered their arrest.
“There were a lot of people, a lot of
cameras, a lot of papers, a lot of talking,
and no air,” Touré recalled. “I couldn’t
think. I couldn’t breathe.”
The three men were housed in the
Metropolitan Correctional Center, in
lower Manhattan. An Arabic-speaking
psychologist met with them to evaluate
their emotional state, but since
Arabic was not their first language—
they spoke Songhay—neither Touré
nor Issa understood much of what she
was saying. Abdelrahman had learned
some rudimentary Arabic as a child, as
a servant in the homes of wealthy Algerian
families, but he didn’t understand
the psychologist’s role. “She’s
asking if we want to kill ourselves,”
Abdelrahman told Touré and Issa.
“Maybe what’s coming next is so bad
that we will prefer to die.”
Later that day, the men made their
first appearance in court. Julia Gatto,
an attorney in the federal public defender’s
office, said of Abdelrahman,
“When the judge called his name, he
fell on his knees, and cried, ‘I swear. I
swear.’ ” Gatto said, “All I could think
was, What kind of terrorists are these?”
Gatto was assigned to represent Issa.
“Usually when I meet a client in his
circumstances he understands what it
is to be arrested, or who a judge is, or
what bail means,” Gatto said. “There
were basic concepts and words that he
didn’t understand, because he had never
been here. He had never been in the
system; he had never seen an episode
of ‘Law & Order.’ ”
The Malians’ lawyers warned them
that, under the terms of the narco-terrorism
statute, the government’s case
was entirely winnable, and urged them
to negotiate a plea. “When a jury hears
‘Al Qaeda,’ it stops listening to everything
else,” Gatto said.
Touré thought that his lawyers either
had given up on him or were plotting
with the prosecution. It seemed
absurd that his improvised boasts to
David and Mohamed could be enough
to convict him. He asked his relatives
in Mali to sell his home and to finish
a pending construction project, so that
he could hire a private attorney. The
relatives sent him thirty thousand dollars,
enough only for a retainer. When
the money ran out, the attorney quit.
Touré then asked the judge to reappoint
his original public defenders, and
he immersed himself in the case. He
spent nights listening to audio recordings
from the sting operation, pointing
out discrepancies in how the conversations
were translated. Because he
was illiterate, he asked his lawyers to
read him all the documents filed in
court, so that he would know what arguments
were going to be made.
In early 2012, after the Malians had
been in prison for more than two years,
prosecutors announced that they had
decided not to call Mohamed to testify.
Abdelrahman’s attorney, Zachary
Margulis-Ohnuma, saw it as a breakthrough.
“The government’s whole case
relied on Mohamed’s credibility,” he
told me. By not calling Mohamed to
testify, he believed, the prosecutors
would throw his credibility into question.
“I really believed we were going
to win,” Margulis-Ohnuma said.
On the eve of the trial, prosecutors
brought up a seemingly unrelated
piece of evidence: the story of an
American missionary named Christopher
Leggett, who had been killed by
AQIM in 2009, the year that Touré, Abdelrahman,
and Issa were arrested. Leggett,
a thirty-nine-year-old father of
four, had been shot near a school that
he ran in a poor neighborhood in Mauritania.
Prosecutors shared photographs
showing groups of dark-skinned, turbanned
men waving rocket launchers
and automatic rifles over the heads of
kidnapping victims—all of them white,
all visibly terrified. The prosecutors argued
that the murder demonstrated
why terrorist conspiracies in Africa
posed a threat to the United States. “It
shows jurisdiction,” Christian Everdell,
one of the prosecutors, said.
“If you look at the people in those
pictures, and you look at me and Idriss,
you would think we are the same,” Touré
said. Margulis-Ohnuma said that he
felt “sandbagged.” As far as Touré
was concerned, the fight was over. The
government agreed to drop the narcoterrorism
charge, and Touré, Abdelrahman,
and Issa pleaded guilty to charges
of providing material support to a terrorist
organization, the FARC.
But Abdelrahman’s allocution, the
procedure meant to assure the judge
that he understood the charges against
him and accepted his guilt, was unconvincing.
“I still continue to believe that
I am totally innocent,” Abdelrahman
said. “But I have been scared by what
I heard yesterday—yesterday people
were talking a lot about Al Qaeda and
the pictures.” Judge Jones advised Abdelrahman
that she could not accept a
plea if he did not think he was guilty,
and suggested that perhaps the case
should proceed to trial. Everdell, the
prosecutor, proposed increasingly
watered- down versions of what Abdelrahman
was pleading guilty to. “I
think what the defendant is protesting
is that he didn’t think, or in his mind
he didn’t think, that he was a terrorist,
or this word ‘terrorism’ is causing a reaction,
which I think is perfectly understandable,”
he said.
“I’m really confused about this whole
plea issue,” Abdelrahman said. “Accepting
this plea means to accept things I
did not do, which I find very difficult.”
He added, “Is that what the plea is, or
is there something else?”
Jones told Abdelrahman that he
would have to admit that he knew he
was involved in a conspiracy that would
have provided support to the FARC.
Abdelrahman shook his head. “I didn’t
know about that,” he said. “I was just
helping Harouna. I wasn’t helping anyone
Finally, Everdell allowed Abdelrahman
to avoid mentioning the FARC, or
even the word “terrorist.” “It’s not necessary
that he knows the actual name
of the organization,” he said.
The prosecution asked the court to
sentence the men to fifteen years in
prison, five years short of the twentyyear
mandatory sentence for narcoterrorism.
But Jones sentenced Abdelrahman
to slightly less than four years,
and Issa and Touré to five years. The
sentences included the three years the
men had already served. “This was a
government sting operation,” Jones
said. She added that she did not believe
Touré was a member of Al Qaeda.
He was “motivated primarily, if not entirely,
by money, not the desire to influence
a government, in this case anti-
American ideology, or for any political
A month later, despite the reduced
plea, the D.E.A.’s deputy administrator,
Thomas Harrigan, mentioned
the case to the Senate as an example
of the national-security threats that the
agency had thwarted in West Africa:
“It was the first time that members of
Al Qaeda . . . admitted members—we
had them on video and audio recording
acknowledging that they were
members of AQIM—providing services
for what they presumed were members
of the FARC to transport cocaine.” In a
speech last year, Senator Chuck Grassley,
Republican of Iowa, cited the case
in arguing against provisions that would
reduce sentences for drug-related
crimes. He said that the proposal “puts
our national security at increased risk.”
The D.E.A. continues to pursue
similar cases. In September, two Pakistani
men were extradited to the U.S.
for selling drugs and weapons to D.E.A.
informants who posed as members of
the FARC. Mark Hamlet, who succeeded
Maltz as head of the D.E.A.’s specialoperations
division, told the press that
the Pakistani defendants “illustrate once
again that drug trafficking and terror
conspiracies often intersect.”
Neither the D.E.A. nor the Justice
Department would provide me with a
complete list of alleged narco- terrorists
who have been captured since 9/11.
But last May the D.E.A.’s Counter-
Narco-Terrorism Operations Center
published a report highlighting its
achievements. The report notes that,
of the State Department’s fifty-eight
officially designated foreign terrorist
organizations, twenty-three have been
linked by the D.E.A. to “some aspect
of the global drug trade,” including Al
Qaeda, Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Pakistan’s
Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Nigeria’s
Boko Haram. It also gives brief descriptions
of more than thirty investigations
involving defendants captured
around the world. Some have been
charged under the narco-terrorism provision
of the Patriot Act. In other cases,
the D.E.A. used the expanded authority
it had been given under the law
more as an investigative license. After
the agency brought the defendants to
the United States, they were charged
with different crimes.
Most of the arrests resulted from
sting operations, in which the connection
between drug trafficking and terrorism
was established in court as a part
of conspiracies that were conceived by
the D.E.A. An Afghan named Taza
Gul Alizai sold heroin to an undercover
D.E.A. agent, and then, according to
his lawyer, was lured onto a plane to
the Maldives by the promise of a visit
to a licensed dentist. In his case, the
connection to terrorism came from the
testimony of a D.E.A. informant, who
arranged the deal and pretended to represent
the Taliban.
Among those caught in the narcoterrorism
stings are government officials
such as Bubo NaTchuto, a former
head of Guinea Bissau’s Navy, who was
arrested for drug smuggling in 2013,
after an operation led by two D.E.A.
informants posing as members of the
FARC. The same year, Dino Bouterse,
the son of the President of Suriname,
was arrested for conspiring to import
drugs. The investigation involved a
group of D.E.A. informants who posed
as Mexican drug traffickers with connections
to Hezbollah.
In a New York courtroom last year,
Bouterse pleaded guilty to participating
in a conspiracy to support Hezbollah.
Not long afterward, however, Judge
Shira Scheindlin said that the plea did
not make the defendant a terrorist,
much less a threat to the United States.
“There’s no evidence that this defendant
was actively looking for an opportunity
to become involved with any
terrorist organization,” she said, during
sentencing. “Nor is there any evidence
that he had any interest in attacking
Americans, prior to the approach of
these agents.”
Most of those accused under the
narco-terrorism statute negotiated
plea deals, but the three defendants
who chose jury trials were convicted.
Among them were an alleged Taliban
sympathizer named Khan Mohammed,
who was found guilty of plotting
to fire rockets at an American
airfield, and an Afghan opium dealer,
known as Haji Bagcho, convicted of
selling drugs and using the proceeds
to pay the Taliban. Both men were
given life sentences.
The case that may come the closest
to representing the vision that gave
rise to the narco-terrorism statute involved
a Colombian trafficker allied
with the FARC named José María Corredor
Ibague, who was arrested in 2006
and convicted under the Patriot Act
provision. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s
Defense Minister at the time,
applauded the arrest, which did not
occur as part of a sting operation. But,
when asked whether he considered
Corredor Ibague a terrorist, Santos told
reporters that he was “more of a drug
trafficker than a guerrilla.”
Referring to the D.E.A., Margulis-
Ohnuma, the lawyer who represented
Abdelrahman, said, “What’s happening
is that they’re using techniques
they’ve used to fight organized crime,
because they’re familiar with them.
Those techniques might work to infiltrate
money-making groups. But they
don’t work with terrorists. That’s not
how we caught bin Laden. That’s not
how we caught Awlaki.”
The D.E.A. argues that there is much
more to its narco-terrorism cases than
what is presented in court. Before every
sting, the agency uses wiretaps and its
network of sources to investigate targets
for links to drugs and terrorism.
Once the connections are established,
it stages a sting to capture
the targets before they can
do more harm. In order to
protect the secrecy of its investigative
methods, the
D.E.A. says, it withholds
much of the evidence collected
previously, unless it’s
necessary to make a case.
Most of the time, officials
say, it’s not. Under U.S. law,
the statements and activities
recorded during stings are usually
sufficient for prosecutors to file some
combination of federal charges.
But the fact that the narco- terrorism
cases, when brought to court, rely almost
entirely on evidence gleaned from
sting operations has fuelled debate
among some security experts about the
degree to which the alliances that they
target pose a threat to the U.S. Benjamin
Bahney, of the RAND Corporation,
who is a leading expert on the financing
of Al Qaeda and ISIS, told me, “The
national-security community has had
a laser focus on this question for a long
time, and the fact that there are no
clear examples of it that have bubbled
to the surface says to me that there’s
no there there.”
ISIS, currently the foremost terrorist
threat, is funded by oil revenues,
taxes, and extortion but not by drug
trafficking. Though Al Qaeda is listed
by the D.E.A. as a drug-trafficking organization,
the 9/11 Commission found
“no substantial evidence” to support
that characterization. Its report said,
“Although there is some fragmentary
reporting alleging that Bin Ladin may
have been an investor, or even had an
operational role, in drug trafficking before
9/11, this intelligence cannot be
substantiated and the sourcing is probably
suspect.” The Senate Foreign Relations
Committee came to the same
conclusion in August, 2009. “A lot of
people have been looking for an Al
Qaeda role in drug trafficking, and it’s
not really there,” one State Department
official told committee members.
In the Afghan drug trade, the Taliban
may be the least of the culprits.
In 2009, the United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime reported that the
Taliban earned an estimated hundred
and twenty-five million dollars from
narcotics each year, about four per cent
of the estimated $3.4 billion
generated in Afghan
opium sales. The bigger
problem, according to Barnett
R. Rubin, who served
as an adviser to the late
Richard Holbrooke, the
U.N. Ambassador, might be
America’s allies. “The empowerment
and enrichment
of the warlords who allied
with the United States in
the anti-Taliban efforts, and whose
weapons and authority now enabled
them to tax and protect opium traffickers,
provided the trade with powerful
new protectors,” he has written.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism
expert at RAND, recently wrote
that alliances between drug traffickers
and terrorists “create dangers for both.”
Terrorists understand that criminal activities
can “turn religious zeal into greed,
transform political causes into for-profit
enterprises, corrupt individuals and tarnish
the group’s reputation.” For the
drug traffickers, “When law enforcement
problems morph into national security
threats, the rules of engagement
change,” Jenkins wrote. “Drone strikes
could replace arrests and prosecutions.”
Skepticism about the extent to which
terrorists engage in the drug trade also
runs deep among numerous counterterrorism
and national-security officials
I spoke to at the F.B.I., the Pentagon,
the White House, and the State
and Treasury Departments. “In all these
years, there’s never been a smoking gun
in any of the cases I’ve seen,” Rudy
Atallah, a former counterterrorism adviser
at the Pentagon, told me.
A former official at the Treasury
Department who has investigated terrorist
financing in Africa said that
D.E.A. agents posted there often
scolded the intelligence community for
not taking seriously the links between
drug trafficking and terrorism. But,
when pressed for proof, the agents said
that the information was privileged or
part of an ongoing investigation. “There
was no corroborating evidence that
senior terrorist leaders of Hezbollah,
AQIM, or any other African groups had
decided to get involved in the drug
trade,” the former official said.
Lou Milione, who oversaw many of
the investigations listed in the D.E.A.’s
narco-terrorism report, and Mark Hamlet,
the head of the D.E.A.’s specialoperations
division, acknowledged that
other national-security agencies, including
the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., didn’t
necessarily see a link between drugs
and terror. “I have lunch with those
guys all the time,” Hamlet said. “They
look at our cases and say, ‘Interesting
work, but I wouldn’t put it in my terrorism
box.’ And I say that’s fine.”
Milione strongly defended the agency’s
operation against the Malians. He
said that while there may not have been
evidence to corroborate Touré’s links
to Al Qaeda, nothing indicated that
those links didn’t exist. He said that
the D.E.A. could have spent more time
conducting surveillance against Touré
in the hope of obtaining evidence to
corroborate his statements about being
affiliated with Al Qaeda. But agents
worried that an opportunity to infiltrate
Al Qaeda could have slipped away, with
potentially disastrous consequences. “I
was in New York when the towers were
hit,” Milione said. “I often wonder
would we be better off if we had used
a sting to try to get inside that group
before the attack.”
Last October, about a month after
Touré was released and returned
to Mali, I went to see him. He suggested
that we meet in Bamako, the
capital, since Gao has become dangerous.
In 2012, Mali’s President, Abdoulaye
Toumani Touré, resigned as a result
of a military coup, and left the
country. Gao, along with all of northern
Mali, was attacked by a loose coalition
of Tuareg tribesmen, extremists,
and AQIM. Touré’s wife and sons fled
the city to live with relatives in Bamako.
The new President, Ibrahim
Boubacar Keïta, who was elected after
he promised that he would have “zero
tolerance” for corruption, promptly used
forty million dollars in public funds to
buy an airplane. Poor harvests have
caused serial food crises, and increasing
poverty has pushed Mali close to
the bottom of the U.N.’s Human Development
The north, which covers two-thirds
of the country but contains less than
ten per cent of the population, has been
hit the hardest. When Touré returned,
tourism and trade, the most significant
sources of income for people in
the region, had dried up. Hotels, restaurants,
and night clubs were either closed
down or protected by armed guards
who imposed strict curfews on the
guests, mostly journalists and diplomats.
Rocket attacks and gun battles
have killed dozens in recent months.
Touré said that his homecoming was
less than joyous. There was nothing
left of his business. He found his wife
distant. His sons, who were six and
eight, were undernourished and were
uncomfortable around him. The boys,
he said, are so frightened of anything
related to terrorists that he can’t tell
them that he was accused of being one.
“I’ll wait until they are a little older,”
he said. “First, I need to find a job.”
Abdelrahman, after getting out of
prison, moved with his mother and four
children to Bamako. He had lost both
of his wives; one had left him for another
man after his arrest, and the other
died shortly after he returned home.
“She got sick when I was in America,”
Abdelrahman said. “It was very hard
for her. A woman with children and no
husband in Mali—sometimes she had
to beg for food.” He added, “She stayed
strong, I think, because of the children,
and because she wanted to see me one
more time. Then she died.”
Touré told me that he was thinking
about leaving Gao, too. He even admitted
that there were things he missed
about the United States, or, at least, the
version he had seen in prison. He remembered
working out in the gym
every day, and the English classes he
took in the afternoon. Most nights, he
said, he and other inmates would gather
around a television set to watch basketball.
He recalled that, after the
Miami Heat lost the 2014 N.B.A.
championship series to San Antonio,
he didn’t sleep for several nights.
Since returning to Mali, he had felt
himself sliding back into the same uncertainty
that had landed him in trouble.
Starting over with a terrorist charge
on his record wasn’t easy. “The name
Touré has respect in Mali,” he told me.
“Just to say that I have been involved
in this is a big shame for my family.
People ask am I really Muslim, or am
I just playing with God.”

The more time I spent in Mali, the
less I saw of Touré. But one day he
showed up at my hotel neatly shaved,
wearing a charcoal-colored pin-striped
suit, a magenta shirt, and polished,
square-toed alligator shoes. We sat in
the restaurant of my hotel on the Niger
River, drinking tall glasses of water.
Touré explained that a friend from
prison had bought him the suit for the
trip back to Mali. He was about to
meet with a member of parliament who
had previously helped him get work
with international aid organizations
that needed goods transported across
the Sahel.
“I know it’s going to happen,” he
said, about securing employment. “I
just wish I knew when.” When asked
about the gap in his work history, Touré
had begun telling people that he had
gone to the United States to work for
a few years. “There are many people
with the name Harouna Touré in Mali,”
he said. “Even if people know what
happened, I can say that wasn’t me.”
I asked whether he saw the irony in
his plan—lying about his identity was
what had got him into trouble. “If I’m
lying to find a job, God won’t punish
me,” he said. Then he looked up with
a smile, and said, “If I don’t find a job,
maybe I’m going to have to join Al
Qaeda for real.”


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