WASHINGTON—Federal prosecutors charged 62 people Wednesday with smuggling more than 25 tons of the African plant khat into the United States, where it's used as an illegal stimulant.
The group is accused of smuggling bundles of the plant from Africa through Europe into immigrant communities in Minnesota, Washington state, Illinois, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah and Washington, D.C., from December 2004 to July 2006.
Federal agents are investigating allegations that the group may have links to warlords in the Horn of Africa region, which covers Somalia and Ethiopia.
"It is suspected that there are ties to some type of terrorist organization," said a federal agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The indictments don't allege any terrorism activities, but they allege that the group laundered drug proceeds in Minnesota and New York through hawalas, an informal network of money remitters commonly used by some immigrants, and wired money to bank accounts in Dubai.
FBI assistant director Mark Mershon told a news conference in New York that the investigation continues in pursuit of "the ultimate destiny of the funds," which intelligence suggests is based in "countries in East Africa which are a hotbed for Sunni (Muslim) extremism and a wellspring for terrorists associated with al-Qaida."
By late Wednesday afternoon, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI had arrested 45 people, including 10 in Minneapolis and 12 in Seattle. Agents describe the 18-month khat investigation as the largest ever of its kind.
The defendants, predominately of East African origin, are charged with shipping the plant to New York in express-mail packages or through couriers on commercial airlines.
One of the suspected ringleaders, Osman Osman, was employed at the United Nations and used the U.N.'s diplomatic pouch to smuggle the plant into the United States, authorities allege.
Other couriers then rushed the drug to the streets because khat is most potent when it's used within days of cultivation, DEA spokesman Steve Robertson said.
Exporters harvest the plant daily in Kenya and Ethiopia, authorities said. To maintain freshness, the plants are wrapped in banana leaves. Users chew the plant, experiencing euphoria and side effects that can include hallucinations and outbursts of violence, according to the DEA.
Tsehaye Teferra, the president of the Ethiopian Community Development Council in Arlington, Va., said khat could be bought and sold legally in many African countries. When immigrants come to the United States, they often don't realize that the plant is illegal, he said.
"It is regarded by some as similar to chewing tobacco," said Teferra, whose organization helps African immigrants with social services. "Certain segments of society use it widely."
The DEA regards khat as dangerous.
"We're not comparing it to methamphetamine," Robertson said. "However, it's a highly addictive drug and can destroy lives just like any other drug."
The accused leaders bragged that they wanted to become the "kings of khat" in the United States, Robertson said.
According to the DEA, the group often threatened violence against its members and customers to keep them in line. The indictment alleges that suspect Bashi Muse threatened to kill a customer whom he suspected of stealing from the group.
If convicted, Osman and Muse could face life in prison. The other defendants face up to 20 years in prison on drug trafficking charges.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map