July 26, 2006

Fears rise in use, smuggling of the drug khat

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Authorities in six states on Wednesday
arrested 44 suspected members of an international drug ring
that smuggled more than 25 tons of the stimulant khat worth
more than $10 million from Africa to U.S. cities.

The arrests resulted from what authorities called the
largest investigation of khat trafficking in U.S. history and
coincided with fears the drug was growing in U.S. popularity
and becoming a source of funding for Somali warlords.

"We are focused in on khat distribution at its infancy in
the hope to prevent that from becoming a mainstream drug
trend," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent John
Gilbride told a news conference.

Khat is a shrub typically grown in Ethiopia and Kenya and
commonly chewed by people throughout the Middle East. The DEA
considers it highly addictive hallucinogen.

The ring used New York as distribution hub that transported
khat to Portland, Maine, San Diego, Seattle and other cities,
the DEA said, adding that khat sold for $400 to $600 per
kilogram (2.2 pounds). Arrests were made in New York,
Minnesota, Ohio, Massachusetts, California and Washington.

"Khat has been used outside its traditional immigrant
populations within the United States but it has not taken off
like the use of other drugs: ecstasy, cocaine and the like,"
Gilbride said.

In an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court, 44
suspected members of the organization were charged with khat
importation and distribution conspiracy as well as money
laundering. Thirty people were arrested in five U.S. cities and
14 remain fugitives.

In a case stemming from the New York investigation, a grand
jury in Seattle on Wednesday indicted 18 people on suspicion of
khat importation, and 14 suspects were arrested, a spokeswoman
for the U.S. Attorney's office in Seattle said.

The drug was distributed through Somalia to New York via
London hidden in suitcases, by express mail couriers, and
through U.N. diplomatic pouches by one of the organization's
leaders who was a U.N. mail room employee, authorities said.

Cash proceeds were laundered through bank accounts in Dubai
to benefit suppliers in Europe and Africa, the indictment said.

The investigation was continuing to find the "ultimate
destiny of the funds," which intelligence suggested was based
in "countries in east Africa which are a hotbed for Sunni
extremism and a wellspring for terrorists associated with al
Qaeda," FBI assistant director Mark Mershon said.

Khat, also spelled "qat" or "chat," is illegal in the
United States but legal in parts of Europe, East Africa and
parts of the Arabian Peninsula, according to the DEA Web site.