Melinda Beck, special to ProPublica

The Narco-terror Trap

The DEA warns that drugs are funding terror. An examination of cases raises questions about whether the agency is stopping threats or staging them.

This story was co-published with the New Yorker.

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 short-sleeved 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-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). During months of meetings and phone calls, David and Mohamed had told Touré that the FARC had some 30,000 fighters at war with the United States, and that it wanted to work with al-Qaida, 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-Qaida 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 $3,000 per kilo, beginning with a 50-kilo 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-Qaida. 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 DEA, 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 narco-terrorism, 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 narco-terrorism provision had been used against al-Qaida. 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 DEA administrator at the time, said, “Today’s arrests are further proof of the direct link between dangerous terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, and international drug trafficking that fuels their activities.”

Idriss Abdelrahman, seated on the right, lost both wives after returning to Mali. One left him for another man while he was in prison in the United States. The other died shortly after his return. “She wanted to see me one more time,” he said. “Then she died.” (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

As the Malians’ case proceeded, however, its flaws became apparent. The defendants emerged as more hapless than hardened, childhood friends who believed that the DEA’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-Qaida 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 DEA as an example of its national-security achievements. Since the narco-terrorism provision was passed, the DEA has pursued dozens of cases that fit the broad description of crimes under the statute. The agency has claimed victories against al-Qaida, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the FARC and established the figure of the narco-terrorist as a preeminent threat to the United States.

With each purported success, the DEA has lobbied Congress to increase its funding. In 2012, Michael Braun, who had served as the DEA’s chief of operations, testified before Congress about the link between terrorists and drug traffickers: “Based on over 37 years in the law-enforcement 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 DEA 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 DEA, using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-terrorism conspiracies.

The DEA 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 DEA 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 DEA’s narco-terrorism targets during the time he served in West Africa, told me, “The DEA 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 records.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, DEA 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 60 countries around the world, the most of any federal law-enforcement agency. And it had some 5,000 informants and confidential sources. Michael Vigil, who was the DEA’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.”

Melinda Beck, special to ProPublica

But other intelligence agencies saw the DEA’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 DEA’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 DEA doesn’t want to be the stepchild that is last in line.” Narco-terrorism, the former investigator said, became an “expedient way for the agency to justify its existence.”

The White House proved more receptive to the DEA’s claims. Juan Zarate, a former deputy national-security 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 anti-addiction 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 DEA’s funding for international activities increased by 75 percent. 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 1960s and early ‘70s, as peasant rebellions; before long, they started taxing coca growers and smugglers to finance their expansion. The DEA saw the organizations as examples of how criminal motivations can overlap with, and even advance, ideological ones.

Months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration reframed the drug war to make it a part of the global war on terror. It spent some $4 million to produce these public service announcements that aired during the 2002 Super Bowl.

Now the agency was focused 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 DEA warned that the new crops could become a source of revenue to finance attacks by al-Qaida. “DEA has received multi-source information that bin Laden has been involved in the financing and facilitation of heroin-trafficking activities,” Asa Hutchinson, the DEA administrator, said during a hearing on Capitol Hill in March 2002. Hutchinson cited insurgency groups in drug-producing 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 DEA 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 DEA set up the Counter-Narco-Terrorism Operations Center, a clearinghouse 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 19 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-Qaida had largely fled Afghanistan, and the DEA turned its attention to the Taliban, which agents believed would follow the same guerrilla-to-drugs trajectory as the FARC. The DEA 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 DEA agent, told me that most American combat commanders showed the DEA a “blatant and willful disregard.” He said that the Pentagon “couldn’t get beyond the idea of capturing or killing enemy combatants.”

Later that year, the DEA took its case to John Mackey, a Republican investigative counsel for the House International Relations Committee. Mackey, a former FBI 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 DEA’s operations in Afghanistan. Follis said that the DEA 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 40, 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 DEA to go after him. Mackey made numerous trips with the DEA to Afghanistan, and warned Congress that people like Noorzai “are going to fall through the cracks unless we broaden our thinking about them.”

Melinda Beck, special to ProPublica

In early 2005, Mackey helped to draft a statute that would give the DEA 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 enforceit delayed implementation for another year. Some authorities worried that overzealous prosecutors might be tempted to use the narco-terrorism statute against teenage 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 JusticeDepartment proposed adding language to the statute that would more narrowly define terrorism, Mackey 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 DEA 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 DEA 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 DEA was pushing the envelope.”

By 2008, the DEA 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 18 months than the agency has in the last 35 years.” He added, “We are seeing more and more unequivocal connection with respect to al-Qaida being involved in drug-trafficking activities.”

Some of the DEA’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 DEA 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 DEA 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 DEA’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 DEA 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 DEA comes in. We have other ways of taking bad guys off the playing field.”

Harouna Touré arrived back in Mali in September 2014, after spending five years in prison in the United States. He and his childhood friend, Idriss Abdelrahman, seated in back, had been accused of being al-Qaida operatives. A federal judge rejected that accusation. (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

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 15th century. Roads are minimal, and driving 40 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 100,000 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-Qaida 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 problems.”

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.

Poor harvests have caused serial food crises, and increasing poverty has pushed Mali close to the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

By then, the DEA 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 DEA had employees in territory ranging from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego. African operations were overseen largely from Rome. The narco-terrorism unit covering the region was based in Chantilly, Virginia. And the DEA 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 DEA 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 DEA official who did intelligence work said. But, he added, “after we began putting money on the streets we went from zero to 60 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 $300,000 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 angular 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 hewas 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 teenagers, 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-Qaida, 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 DEA’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-Qaida. 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 Oct. 6, 2009, Touré andMohamed met for the first time, in a hotel room in Ghana. According to a DEA 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-Qaida, right?”

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-Qaida. The DEA 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-Qaida.

As a child, Idriss Abdelrahman worked as a servant in the homes of wealthy Arab families. He learned to speak some Arabic, to fix cars and to serve tea. (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

The DEA maintains that, in the meetings that followed, the Malians offered ample testimony of their al-Qaida connections. The transcripts are hard to follow. It is clear, however, that the subject of al-Qaida came up repeatedly, and that it was often raised by the informants, in order to elicit incriminating statements.

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. $25,000 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 Dec. 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-Qaida,’ it stops listening to everything else,” Gatto said.

Oumar Issa served five years in prison on charges that he was trafficking drugs to support al-Qaida. He has since returned home to his daughter, and his daughter’s mother in Mali. (Justin Clemons/AP for ProPublica)

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 $30,000, 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 39-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 narco-terrorism 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-Qaida 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.

Idriss Abdelrahman holds his youngest daughter, Safiatou. She was born shortly after the DEA had him arrested and took him to the United States. Her mother died after Abdelrahman returned home. (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

“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 else.”

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 15 years in prison, five years short of the 20-year mandatory sentence for narco-terrorism. 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-Qaida. 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 reasons.”

A month later, despite the reduced plea, the DEA’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-Qaida … 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, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-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 DEA continues to pursue similar cases. In September, two Pakistani men were extradited to the U.S. for selling drugs and weapons to DEA informants who posed as members of the FARC. Mark Hamlet, who succeeded Maltz as head of the DEA’s special-operations division, told the press that the Pakistani defendants “illustrate once again that drug trafficking and terror conspiracies often intersect.”

Neither the DEA 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 DEA’s Counter-Narco-Terrorism Operations Center published a report highlighting its achievements. The report notes that, of the State Department’s 58 officially designated foreign terrorist organizations, 23 have been linked by the DEA to “some aspect of the global drug trade,” including al-Qaida, Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. It also gives brief descriptions of more than 30 investigations involving defendants captured around the world. Some have been charged under the narco-terrorism provision of the Patriot Act. In other cases, the DEA 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.

Melinda Beck, special to ProPublica

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 DEA. An Afghan named Taza Gul Alizai sold heroin to an undercover DEA 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 DEA informant, who arranged the deal and pretended to represent the Taliban.

Among those caught in the narco-terrorism 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 DEA 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 DEA 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 DEA, 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 DEA 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 DEA 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-Qaida 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-Qaida is listed by the DEA 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-Qaida 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 $125 million from narcotics each year, about four percent 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 FBI, 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 DEA 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 thatsenior 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 DEA’s narco-terrorism report, and Mark Hamlet, the head of the DEA’s special-operations division, acknowledged that other national-security agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, 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-Qaida, nothing indicated that those links didn’t exist. He said that the DEA could have spent more time conducting surveillance against Touré in the hope of obtaining evidence to corroborate his statements about being affiliated with al-Qaida. But agents worried that an opportunity to infiltrate al-Qaida 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.”

Bamako, the capital of Mali, has recently been the scene of attacks by Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida. (Jane Hahn for ProPublica)

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 $40 million 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 Index.

The north, which covers two-thirds of the country but contains less than 10 percent 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 NBA 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-Qaida for real.”

Cynthia Cotts contributed to this report. Design and production by David Sleight and Emily Martinez.

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Ginger Thompson is a senior reporter for ProPublica. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Thompson was previously a national and foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

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