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Posted 4/10/11


America stings foreign arms and drug traffickers with a powerful narco-terror law

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  By all accounts Victor Bout was a self-made man.  And when the Soviet Union fell the energetic Russian entrepreneur spied a great opportunity.  The dissolution of the USSR had left vast pools of armaments scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  None of the newly liberated lands had the resources or interest to continue fielding large armies.  With everyone’s attention focused on reconstruction, it was the perfect time for a sharp-witted, fearless man to profitably dispose of all the lethal junk laying around.  Fortunately, many of those in power were corrupt holdovers from Communist days.  Perfect!

     Bout was soon one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers, supplying warring parties of whatever stripe with everything from pallets of ammunition to assault helicopters.  Gunships and missile launchers to Liberia?  No problem.  Aircraft to the Taliban?  No problem.  Surface-to-air missiles to the Middle East?  No problem.  And when the heat was on, like in 2002, when Belgium issued an arrest warrant charging him with money laundering, Bout scrambled back to Russia, where his connections – and perhaps his fortune – made him untouchable.

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     Witnesses at a May 2003 Senate hearing testified that many terrorist groups got money to buy weapons by trafficking in drugs.  America frequently figured as a seller of the former and buyer of the latter.  Examples given included the 2002 arrests, in Houston and San Diego, of representatives of South American and Middle-East terrorist organizations who came to America to buy everything up to and including anti-aircraft missiles, offering tens of millions in cash and drugs in exchange.

     Until 2005 there was no authority to snatch foreigners for narcoterror plots conceived and executed outside the U.S.  That’s one of the oversights that the Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 sought to rectify.  Title 21, United States Code, section 960a, enacted in March 2006, makes it illegal to traffic in drugs, or to attempt or conspire to do so, with the intent to provide “anything of pecuniary value” to terrorists.  Subsection (b) extends U.S. jurisdiction to proposed drug deals or acts of terrorism that would violate American law, affect interstate or foreign commerce, or injure Americans or American organizations based overseas.  Jurisdiction also attaches whenever one of the perpetrators is American or if “after the conduct required for the offense occurs an offender is brought into or found in the United States, even if the conduct required for the offense occurs outside the United States.”

     In other words, should someone get hauled back to the U.S., jurisdiction is automatic.  That’s a real long arm of the law!

     In October 2006 Colombian nationals Jose Maria Corredor-Ibague and Carolina Yanave-Rojas (aka Edilma Morales Loaiza) became the first to be charged under 960a.  According to the indictment the defendants manufactured large batches of cocaine and delivered their product to customers in nearby countries by plane.  Ultimately the drugs were destined for South America, Europe and the U.S.  Earnings in the form of cash, weapons and communications equipment went to the FARC, a designated terrorist organization.  Corredor-Ibague and Yanave-Rojas were extradited to the U.S. in 2008.  A 2009 journal article mentioned three other 960a cases made during that period.  There was Colombian paramilitary Jimenez-Naranjo, who sold cocaine to help support a 9,000-man army, Khan Mohammed, a terrorist planner and Taliban associate who trafficked in opium, and Haji Juma Khan, another Taliban associate who helped fund the group’s activities by producing and marketing heroin.

     Capturing wily narcoterrorists isn’t always simple.  In 2005 Haji Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban associate and “global heroin trafficker” was lured to the U.S. by American government contractors, supposedly to instruct Government agents in the fine arts of financing terrorism.  His teaching career lasted all of eleven days, when he was arrested and indicted for narcoterrorism.  Whether Noorzai’s claim that he never sent drugs to the U.S. is accurate we can’t say, but it’s true that the contractors had promised him a safe passage home, a fact that troubled both the judge (he called the circumstances of the arrest “unusual to say the least”) and jurors.  Noorzai was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

     Noorzai will probably be the last foreign drug kingpin to accept a consulting gig in the U.S.  Most 960a narcoterror stings now take place in their entirety overseas.  DEA has staged them so that they conclude in a country with whom the U.S. has an extradition treaty and friendly relations.  In 2007 DEA informers enticed noted Syrian arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar and associate Luis Godoy to meet with them in Spain.  Fooled into thinking that the snitches were FARC terrorists, Al-Kassar agreed to supply surface-to-air missiles, supposedly to shoot down American helicopters, as well as large quantities of grenades, assault rifles and military-grade explosives.

     Al-Kassar,  Godoy and an associate were extradited to the U.S., indicted on narcoterrorism charges and convicted.  Al-Kassar got thirty years and Godoy twenty-five, in effect life sentences as both men were in their sixties.

     It’s hard to work up sympathy for drug and gun traffickers.  Sometimes, though, lesser figures get trapped in the wake.  Tareq Mousa al-Ghazi, who was charged along with al-Kassar and Godoy, protested that all he did was introduce the informers to al-Kassar.  “Here, the government itself created the associations, agreements and crimes that it has prosecuted,” said al-Ghazi’s lawyer.  “Absent the D.E.A.’s involvement, nothing in the indictment would ever have happened.”  Obviously, the Justice Department disagrees.  “It’s hard to imagine,” said a prosecutor, “that it would shock the conscience for the government to proactively investigate those outside the country who they believe are ready and willing to harm Americans and to harm American interests.”

     So what happened to Victor Bout?  In March 2008, at the end of an investigation that included clandestine meetings in the Netherlands Antilles, Denmark and Romania, authorities in Thailand arrested the notorious arms trafficker and an associate, Andrew Smulian, for offering to sell weapons to the FARC; actually, to DEA informers who were pretending to be members of FARC.  Bout and Smulian were extradited to the U.S. in November 2010.  Smuliam pled guilty and is cooperating with authorities.  Bout faces two indictments.  One charges a narcoterrorism conspiracy.  A more recent indictment alleges that Bout and American co-conspirator Richard Chichakli laundered money and violated international prohibitions against funneling arms to Africa.

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     It’s hard to work up much sympathy for these characters.  Still, a pair of law review articles suggest that unless targets are carefully selected, 960a may allow U.S. authorities to cast too wide a net, snaring foreigners whose conduct does not threaten U.S. interests (click here and here.)  Indeed, 960a is so loosely worded that a terror nexus could be established by simply getting a target to say they hate Americans, or by having informers pretend to be terrorists intent on destroying America.

     That, claims Bout, is exactly his predicament.  Now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can read his side of things.  Be sure you have plenty of hankies, then click here for his home page.  Yes – the man has a website.  And no, we’re not kidding!

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Posted 3/4/11


Did a Saudi student come to America with murder in his heart?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  On February 24 FBI agents in Lubbock, Texas arrested Ali-M Aldawsari for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, a crime that could land him in prison for life.  Described by an FBI agent as a “guy [who] apparently had the intent and knew how to go about it,” the twenty-year old college student from Saudi Arabia was reportedly a lone wolf who had been set on wreaking havoc on the Great Satan since his high school days.

     Whether that’s true we’ll get to in a moment.  But first let’s make it clear that this wasn’t another of the FBI’s rope-a-dope deals.  No informer had enticed Aldawsari to prove his manly creds by doing Jihad.  No FBI undercover agent had offered to provide the bomb and a vehicle in which to plant it.  Indeed, had it not been for the intervention of an alert trucking company worker, a plot described as “the only [current] case of its type in terms of insider threat in this country” would likely still be in progress.  (DHS claims that they had already alerted the FBI about suspicious bank transfers by Aldawsari, but such warnings are common.)

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     According to the criminal complaint and other sources, Aldawsari arrived in the U.S. in 2008 on a student visa.  After studying English at Vanderbilt he enrolled at Texas Technical University in Lubbock with a major in chemical engineering.  Academic problems apparently led to his premature departure in 2010, but he kept his visa in effect by transferring to a local two-year institution, South Plains College, where he studied business.

     Aldawsari didn’t pop up on the FBI’s radar until January 2011, when he ordered phenol over the Internet from a North Carolina supplier.  Among other things, phenol is one of the three ingredients of a powerful explosive, picric acid.  Company policy was to ship phenol only to a commercial address, so Aldawsari asked that it be sent to a freight line terminal, where he would pick it up.  (It turned out that he had previously received nitric acid, another component of picric acid, in this way.)  This time, though, a freight line employee got suspicious and refused delivery.  Not only that, he called the cops, who in turn alerted the FBI.

     That’s when the real investigation began.  At the FBI’s request, the chemical distributor called Aldawsari to ask why he wanted phenol.  The youth said he was with Texas Tech and needed it for research.  He later told an FBI agent posing as an employee that he wanted to develop an odorless cleaning fluid so that he could get into a bigger university.  What he didn’t say was that he had already left TTU.  Aldawsari subsequently canceled his order, telling the supplier that he had another source.

     By mid-February 2011 the FBI knew a lot about Aldawsari.  Aside from obtaining chemicals under pretext, he had started posting Jihadist rants on the Internet.  FBI agents monitoring his e-mails under court order discovered that Aldawsari was researching possible terrorist targets, including dams and reservoirs.  He had e-mailed himself highly detailed instructions for making picric acid and was buying items such as glass beakers, a soldering gun and even a Hazmat suit online.  Agents who surreptitiously searched his apartment found the suit as well as the shipping containers for nitric acid.  More chillingly, they also found three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid, the third component of picric acid.

     And that wasn’t all.  Agents discovered a diary, written in Arabic, that laid out his scheme and purpose in considerable detail.  It all began, he wrote, when he was a teen:

     I excelled in my studies in high school in order to take advantage of an opportunity for a scholarship to America....And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives, and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.

     Aldawsari set out a “synopsis of important steps.”  Among these were obtaining a forged U.S. birth certificate, applying for a passport, getting different driver licenses, traveling to New York, renting several cars, equipping each with a remotely-detonated bomb, strategically placing the vehicles during rush hour, and then finding a safe place from which to unleash his destruction.

     In 2009 Najibullah Zazi and two friends hatched a plot to bomb New York City subways.  But they didn’t manage to produce any explosives before the Feds closed in.   Last year Faisal Shahzad went them one better, actually crafting a makeshift bomb and planting it in a vehicle he parked at Times Square.  Alas, the device fizzled out, as did Shahzad’s attempt to flee the U.S.  So now there’s another lonely sad-sack with chemicals, a Hazmat suit and a wildly ambitious to-do list.  We say “lonely” because soon after landing in the U.S. Aldawsari blogged that he was in love with an English tutor.  “She is gorgeous that I can’t forget her just right away… I am asking Allah the great to convert her to Islam and marry me.”

     If one can believe what Aldawsari posted during his first two years in the U.S., he appeared to be a fervent admirer of all things American; after all, what red-blooded boy wouldn’t dream of working at Google?  His radicalism didn’t surface until he was leaving Texas Tech.  Perhaps it was a failed academic career rather than any preconceived notions of Jihad that prompted what The Tennessean called Aldawari’s “radical change in tone.”  Aldawsari wasn’t here on his own dime but on a full scholarship from a Saudi industrial concern, so one can appreciate the embarrassment he must have suffered when it became necessary to explain to his family and sponsors that a prestigious degree was out of reach.

     Aldawsari, Zazi and Shahzad don’t look anything like committed terrorists, say, the 9/11 hijackers.  Looking for fame, fortune and, perhaps, a buxom blond spouse they found themselves struggling in a competitive environment where only the fit prosper.   It’s hardly a stretch to think of them as ordinary losers who sought to polish their tattered self-image by turning to Islamic radicalism.   Really, they’re little different from the disaffected wannabes whom the Feds gave been roping in for years.  Looking back in time, they’re also not unlike those hate-filled domestic fanatics (Timothy McVeigh comes to mind) who railed against a system that was passing them by.

     Aldawsari was clearly delusional – just look at his “synopsis.”  Whether or not he was capable of carrying through on his plot, though, three gallons of concentrated sulfuric acid can make anyone dangerous.  So it’s a good thing that he was stopped.  We note with satisfaction that the FBI moved in quickly and used special terrorism statutes and investigative tools to excellent effect.  As we’ve pointed out, giving law enforcement expanded authority to intercept communications and conduct secret searches in cases of suspected terrorism doesn’t threaten privacy – considering the far more intrusive alternatives, it can help preserve it.

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     Yet one glaring weakness remains.  We’re grateful that police were notified when Aldawsari tried to acquire a potentially dangerous chemical in an irregular way.  But whether authorities should be alerted in such cases shouldn’t be left to citizen discretion.  After all, the other components did get through.  Our lackadaisical approach towards regulating the distribution of hazardous substances has long been a serious problem.  If we’re really serious about preventing terrorism, here’s hoping that this episode serves as a wake-up call.

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Sometimes There is no Second Chance     Flying Under the Radar    Rope a Dope     Dopes, Not Roped

Making Terrorists, Part II

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