World News

05.23.14

Is Synthetic Weed Feuling Yemen’s Terrorism?

Behind those packs of 'Scooby Snax' is an intricate drug-trafficking network that sent $40 million to Yemen. The head of U.S. counter-narcoterrorism operations weighs in on where it might be going.

What is this scale for? Faisal Elnaha, the Yemeni manager of an Alabama Texaco remembers a DEA agent demanding on the morning of May 7.

Rummaging wildly through the rundown gas station he’d been managing for 10 years, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration flung questions at the 36-year-old like candy. Unbeknownst to Elnaha at the time, his modest store had just become the newest target in the second phase of a nationwide drug takedown called Project Synergy—the specific raid in Birmingham had been given the code name Operation Red Tide. Poring over spices, small candy, and gum, the agents’ search for synthetic drugs was just beginning.

“That scale was for letters!” Elnaha says with audible anguish on the phone two weeks later, now out of a job and unable to take care of his sick mother. “They found a lot of stuff [at] places, but not here. Not even tiny things, not nothing,” he says. But if the authorities got Elnaha’s store wrong, as he claims, they weren’t far off. Just a few blocks down on Sixth Avenue in Birmingham, they hit the jackpot.

At a super storage warehouse lined with red steel doors, the agents allegedly uncovered hundreds of thousands of rainbow-clad bags bearing the inscription “Scooby Snax”—a code for “fake marijuana” or “spice.” But it was the $30 million to $40 million in profit they traced, and the receiving end of the money most of all, that was most alarming: Yemen.

As local news regurgitated pictures of Elnaha’s Texaco, shrouded in yellow caution tape, headlines reflected what the pictures implied: We caught the bad guy. The more terrifying truth, one that few told, isn’t that he’s the wrong guy—but that there isn’t just one. Or even two—but hundreds. The intricate and immensely lucrative drug trafficking in Alabama relied on a variety of places, from smoke shops to local delis, to sell their Scooby Snax. Only in the back of stores, and only if the customer got the name exactly right. A semi-sophisticated network of Yemeni comrades secretly raking in tens of millions of dollars and sending every penny to their homeland.

They aren’t the only ones.

By day’s end on May 7, 45 DEA agencies across 29 states had arrested more than 150 alleged participants in dangerous global synthetic designer drug trades that are showering four Middle Eastern countries—Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—in cash. Armed with 200-plus search warrants, the agents joined forces with state and local government to wage war on the international drug trade’s key suspects—a large number of them, this time, in Alabama. Emptying shelves, storage rooms, basements, and boxes, they uncovered hundreds of thousands of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs and more than $20 million in cash.

News stories in the days following broadcast the DEA’s successful nationwide raid, but glossed over the darker implications of their breakthrough. A dangerous synthetic drug trend is fueling an epidemic among American youth. Is it also funding terrorism?  

Derek Maltz, director of the Special Operations Division of the DEA, says yes—without actually saying it. “Millions of dollars flowing into Yemen? They’re not buying Girl Scout cookies,” he says, a thick New Yorker accent muddying the words. A law enforcement veteran who lost a brother in Afghanistan, Maltz has been fighting developments like this one for almost a decade. No one understands the nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking—narcoterrorism—like he does. Stopping transnational criminal operations that are relying on drug money is what Maltz does best.

Something he proved to the stunned faces of the Senate at a subcommittee hearing in 2011. “I wish you could’ve seen it,” he says, describing the dropped jaws of the congressmen present. Much of what he revealed to Congress three years ago is still relevant. “There’s a significant, long history between drug trafficking and terror organizations,” he says. “You have al Qaeda, al Shabab, Hezbollah... so many others. They don’t accept American Express—they want suitcases full of cash.”

As of this year, more than 50 percent of the State Department’s designated FTOs (foreign terrorist organizations) are registered with the drug trade. A distinction signifying that they’ve been known to use drug money for explosives, training, travel, and other forms of corruption—a practice that’s increased due to the Obama administration’s success at cutting off state-sponsored funding. “They’ve seen their state funding dry up, so they look for other means to raise revenue,” says Maltz. The international drug trade, generating $400 billion annually, according the U.N. world drug report, is the most lucrative illicit business in the world.

“When you see a designer synthetic drug industry as lucrative as this in the U.S., it would only be natural that it would be a huge target for those trying to finance their terrorists.”

“Terrorists are increasingly turning to crime and criminal networks for their funding,” reads a 2011 letter from President Obama on a page titled “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime” from Whitehouse.gov. When Obama penned the letter, he couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of that criminal activity nationwide that his own agencies would be uncovering three years later. The increase, beyond disappearing state funds, fueled by the rise of synthetic drugs in the United States—and the tens of millions of dollars that come with it.

A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime titled “Global Synthetic Drugs Assessmentreleased on May 20 reveals 348 new “legal highs”—an “unprecedented expansion” of the synthetic drug market. In 2011 alone (the most recent year for which there is data), there were nearly 39,000 trips to the emergency room for K2, and more than 7,000 calls to poison control centers in the U.S. The side effects from the dangerous cocktails of synthetics range from psychosis to death. Almost daily, a news report will surface of a young teen who acted erratically while using fake pot. On Thursday, the focus was a 20-year-old in Detroit who hanged himself after ingesting Spice that he bought at a gas station.

“It’s killing our citizens. It’s causing people to have seizures, go into psychosis. Want to burn themselves and then not understanding why their hand is on the flame,” says Maltz, citing a case in which a 26-year-old tried to light himself on fire while on K2. “For terrorists, the synthetic drug market is a two-for-one deal: Poison gets distributed in the West, and they make millions in the process.”

Despite all the warning signs, Americans are still buying “fake pot” in record numbers, and the world is noticing.

“When you see a designer synthetic drug industry as lucrative as this in the U.S., it would only be natural that it would be a huge target for those trying to finance their terrorists,” Maltz says of the new trend. “We just put a huge bull’s-eye on our back.”

It’s one he’s determined to erase. Doing so takes the combined effort of 29 agencies—of which the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the DEA is just one among others like Homeland Security, FBI, NYPD, and ICE. The leader of this multiagency project is an even smaller division of the DEA, called the Counter-Narcoterrorism Operations Center (CNTOC). Formed following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it’s a center through which Maltz can coordinate and synchronize investigations around the world. Using undercover agents, wiretaps, and informants, the 29 agencies work to target, investigate, and arrest those involved in financing terror. While the attorney general is technically “the boss,” it’s Maltz who ensures one agency isn’t stepping on another’s toes.

His position isn’t necessarily an enviable one. There are more than 20 terrorist organizations worldwide that are using the international drug trade for revenue. On May 7, in the second phase of an even larger project, Maltz and his team were carrying out investigations on 66 cases they’d opened nationwide. If anyone knows a terrorism link when they see it—it’s this guy. “This isn’t the kind of money you send back to your struggling family in the homeland: We’re talking eight-figure amounts.”

The well-established world of narcoterrorism, while largely missing from public discourse, contains some recognizable players—all with varying appetites in the drug world. For the Taliban and Afghanistan, it’s heroin; for FARC in Colombia, cocaine. In North Korea, methamphetamine pays the criminal organizations’ bills; in West Africa, for al Shabab, it’s khat. The world’s biggest terror organizations, it seems, are only as good as the drugs they’re selling.

Or the fake products they use to hide them.

The key to successful drug trafficking, says Maltz, is picking an airtight trade business (think Walter White’s A1A car wash) to conceal it. From used-car shops to shoe stores, Thai restaurants to pharmacies, they’re different means to the same solution: a way to get money to the bank. It’s here, through reports of suspicious transactions (which banks are required to make), that the DEA often finds their targets. “We’ll see money being sent via the system through a business in China… They’ll say, ‘We want to buy a million dollars worth of sneakers.’ What’s wrong with that?” he explains. “It’s drug money.”

With 5,000 global agents in the DEA alone, including 90 offices in 70 countries, Maltz’s team is well equipped to tackle million-dollar (or as he calls them “gazillion-dollar”) drug rings. “We have investigative groups that we deploy around the world. If there’s a drug trafficker in Africa, we’ll get someone there immediately,” he says. The proof is in the extensive list of cases the DEA has outlined in an official document on narcoterrorism. “If you can land el Chapo, you can land anyone,” he says of a recent takedown.

While it’s too soon to confirm that the money was streaming from Alabama to Yemen for terrorism purposes, Maltz has his guesses. “We’re seeing links everywhere, very often and very direct,” he says. Narcoterrorism, although not a new phenomenon, is now so pervasive that even a veteran like himself is getting worried. “I’ll be the first to admit that synthetics have been around for awhile. But our concept of the magnitude of the problem, even in the last few weeks, it’s increased,” he says. “And at the end of the day these drug dollars are going to places where they don’t like us very much. That’s not good.”

But without a solid understanding of the problem from the American public, getting narcoterrorism the attention it deserves from the administration proves difficult.

“Most people talk about the drug issue as a health issue, a parenting issue, an addiction issue. But the truth is, it’s really a national-security issue,” says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne, echoing Maltz’s frustration. “People just don’t ask the question. You see all of this stuff in Africa, the Middle East, powerful criminal and terror groups. And no one is ever asking: Where are they getting their money?” he says. “It’s one of the most under-told stories in the world.” A large part of this, according to Payne, is the difficulty of convincing people that it’s a real threat. “There’s no doubt there’s a connection—we have the cases to prove it,” he says. “We have A, we have B, we have C. Everyone kind of knows what D is.”

But in the absence of a robust public discourse, both Maltz and Payne worry that an understanding from the American public will come too late. “The longer the U.S. government sits and debates this and looks for the smoking gun, the more difficult this is going to become,” says Maltz. “We’re waiting for bad things to happen.”

How soon—if at all—Maltz will be able to prove a connection between the $40 million in Yemen and terrorist activity is impossible to say. But if the public is smart enough to draw their own conclusions, he says, it won’t matter. “You have to collect all the dots to connect all the dots. You can’t collect it all from Yemen, there are some pieces missing. But just picture a puzzle on the ground; say a puzzle of the Trade Center. Picture it missing 20 pieces, from a 1,000-piece puzzle. Would you be able to see that it’s the World Trade Center?” he pauses.

“We don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, but we can still see what it is.”