Pubdate: Mon, 16 Dec 2013
Source: News-Item, The (PA)
Copyright: 2013 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Eric Dexheimer, Austin American-Statesman


Chewable Narcotic Plant Grown and Used in Somalia, Illegal in US

AUSTIN, Texas (MCT)- Eighteen months ago, a Texas Department of 
Public Safety trooper making a routine traffic stop of two men 
driving on a highway northeast of Houston noticed both were chewing 
on a wad of green leaves. His subsequent search of the car launched a 
yearlong investigation involving local, state and national 
lawenforcement agencies that has so far resulted in more than a 
halfdozen arrests in the Houston area.

In response, Muslim civil rights groups are questioning whether the 
Austinbased state agency has crossed a line by unfairly portraying 
the defendants as terrorists.

The oval-shaped leaves were khat, according to police reports, a 
plant grown and used primarily by residents of countries in or around 
the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen. It is 
used there openly and socially, mostly chewed or made into tea.

Although the chemicals in the plant are illegal in the United States, 
drug officials said prosecutions here are uncommon. In reports and 
court filings, however, the DPS, which is leading the investigation, 
has suggested the current operation is of high importance because 
proceeds from khat sales have been linked to terrorist groups.

"Texas is a regional center for the trafficking of the illegal drug 
known as khat, a chewable narcotic plant grown in the Horn of Africa 
whose sale abroad is suspected to benefit Africa-based terrorist 
organizations such as al-Shabaab," the agency's Public Safety Threat 
Overview2013 declared.

There is wide disagreement over how strong the link is, however, or 
even if there is one at all.

Likely link

The DPS threat assessment claim is based in part on congressional 
testimony given more than a decade ago by a then-FBI assistant 
director, who briefly mentioned khat in a longer report about drug 
trafficking and terrorism, stating "it is likely" khat proceeds "pass 
through the hands of suspected (Islamic militants) and other persons 
with possible ties to terrorist groups." That same FBI official, 
Steven McCraw, is now the DPS director.

The United Nations has issued several reports on a suspected link 
between khat proceeds and terrorists, warlords and pirates in Somalia 
and Kenya, where the plant is legal and a valuable cash crop. Those 
reports typically note the same groups seek to profit off many other 
legal businesses, through taxation or extortion.

In England, where khat is currently legal (it is scheduled to become 
illegal next year), lawmakers recently asked drug researchers to 
review issues surrounding the plant and make recommendations. In its 
report, issued this past January, the Independent Advisory Council on 
the Misuse of Drugs stated it couldn't establish any link between 
khat and international terrorism.

"ACMD has not been provided with any evidence of Al Shabaab or any 
other terrorist groups' involvement in khat export/sale, despite 
repeated requests for this information from a number of national and 
international official sources, including various Government bodies," 
it concluded.

The evidence directly connecting the 18-month-and-counting Houston 
khat investigation to terrorism funding is also unclear. DPS 
spokesman Tom-Vinger said he couldn't comment other than pointing to 
the agency's most recent threat assessment. He said the investigation 
hasn't yet yielded any terrorism-related criminal charges.

But an attorney representing four of the defendants said the Harris 
County prosecutor didn't mince words with him. "Almost the very first 
words out of his mouth were, 'You knowyour clients are terrorists, 
rightUKP' " defense attorney Mark Correro recalled.

Aspokesman for the district attorney's office said the prosecutor was 
unavailable for an interview.

Khat seizures

Islamic civil rights groups, meanwhile, have begun looking into the 
DPS khat investigation. While the Council on American Islamic 
Relations condemns illegal drug use, "Initial vague references to 
terrorism usually don't pan out in court," said Ibrahim Hooper, 
national spokesman for the civil liberties advocacy group. "But the 
damage is done to Muslims."

Nationwide, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized about 138,500 
pounds of khat in 2012, about 15,000 fewer pounds than the year 
before. Locally, drug officials say khat cases have been scarce and a 
low priority. A spokeswoman for the DEA's Houston office said she 
knew of none recently.

"It's very, very rare for us to see," added David Patino, a spokesman 
for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Houston office, which also 
covers Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Over the past two years, 
Patino said his office has confiscated less than 2 pounds of khat.

Many of the details surrounding the recent DPS investigations and 
khat arrests are hidden; the agency has requested that court 
documents be sealed because of the ongoing investigation.

Correro declined to make his clients available for an interview, but 
he said all are Ethiopians who are in the country legally, work as 
cab drivers or in construction and use khat socially. The amount of 
the plant confiscated from each ranged from a few ounces to 5 pounds, he said.

The DPS says its investigation has yielded much bigger results than 
those described in public records. Vinger said the operation has led 
to the seizure of 1,000 pounds of khat. Maj. George Rhyne, who 
oversees the DPS unit heading up the khat team, said more than 800 
pounds of that total were confiscated elsewhere and "likely destined 
for delivery to the Houston area."

"Not all drug seizures are immediately tied to arrests, especially in 
long-term, ongoing investigations," Vinger added in an email.

A person who has viewed the sealed court documents said one way the 
DPS appeared to be linking the local khat cases to terrorism was 
through money transfers from some of the investigation's targets to a 
lengthy list of overseas destinations including Ethiopia, but also 
China, Egypt and Pakistan, among others.

Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who hadn't seen 
the document, said the tie sounded weak. "It's a bit vague-sending 
money to a Muslim country that has been associated with terrorism."

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman said he couldn't find any khat 
cases that had yielded terrorism charges.

Past arrests have included money laundering charges based on 
transfers "to Somalia or other countries where khat originates from," 
Andrew Ames of the department's National Security Division wrote in 
an email. But "I am not aware of a case that alleges where that money goes."

"Our concern is always when you start hearing references to 
terrorism," said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Islamic 
council's Texas branch, who said he has interviewed several of the 
Houston defendants after the khat cases were brought to his 
attention. "Our concern is that it's not just a witch hunt."
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