Monday, February 08, 2010
Europe: Khat smuggling finances al-Shabaab
Update: Small fixes.
Muhammed was just a small fish, going across the Øresund (the Sound). He would get 2,500 Danish kroner to fetch a sports bag in Tårnby, get on a train in Kastrup, drive over the Øresund Bridge and deliver it in Malmö. 2,500 kroner for a couple of hours work was tempting. Eseopcially on an evening when Muhammed intended to go into town, but was broke. So he said yes. The trip across the Øresund came through a man, whom Muhammed knew from the Somali community in Malmö. The man drove Muhammed and two other men from the community over the bridge and into Denmark.
They parked near Tårnby and waited. Shortly afterward another car parked next to them, and three large sports bags were taken out of the trunk from one to the other. Muhammed and two other men were then driven to Kastrup airport and each left with their own bag and money for a train ticket.
Every week many ‘small fish’ like Muhammed cross Denmark’s borders. They are couriers in a supply chain that stretches from the Horn of Africa, via plane to the Netherlands, through German and further to Scandinavia. The couriers smuggle khat – a shrub whose green leaves are chewed and the juice swallowed in order to get a euphoric and stimulating effect. A lot of African Salad – as khat is called by the Somali high-level consumers of the substance – is chewed in order to get stoned. Up to a kilo a day.
At the same time, khat leaves must be chewed 3-4 days after they’re harvested in East Africa in order for the effect to be felt. Therefore there must be a steady stream of fresh khat in order to keep the Somali community in Denmark, Norway and South Sweden chewing. And therefore large amounts of khat are smuggled into Denmark. About a ton a day, according to the south Jutland police, who are responsible for border checks at Padborg. 365 ton a year, for an estimated street-value of about 73 million kroner. Last year the police managed to confiscate around 8 tons of khat.
If both police claims are true, it doesn’t take a lot to see that most of the fish slip through the police net.
Muhammed felt that things were going well. From the time he stepped onto a train in Kastrup, the whole way over Øresund, and until he hailed a taxi in Malmö to drive to the address where the bag should be delivered. But when he stepped out of the taxi, two men stepped out of a parked car and showed him their police badges. Muhammed was caught in the net together with his two fellow smugglers and the 70kg of khat they brought across the Øresund in the bags. Unlike Denmark, it’s punished severely there. The Malmö court didn’t believe Muhammed’s explanation that he was sure the sports bag had used clothing for Africa. He got ten months in prison, according to the court records.
Muhammed served six months and was released. That is what he says when we meet him at a cafe on Stortorget in Malmö. He wants to tell of his carrier as a khat smuggler, but anonymously. He fears punishment from those responsible, if he snitches. He will therefore only say his name, and that he has lived in Sweden, to which he came from Somalia, since the early 1990s. He’s more eager to recount what he heard in prison. A story that completely agrees with what some Western intelligence services warn about. Through the other imprisoned khat smugglers, Muhammed found out that he had been working for a group of terrorists.
According to Muhammed, khat smuggling is organized by backers from the Somali communities in Amsterdam, Odense, Copenhagen and Malmö. They take care to hire couriers, who bring the khat via rental cars or train. And they pay the small fish to bring the packages. To Aarhus, where the khat can be gotten in Bazar Vest, for example. Or to Copenhagen, where it’s open sold from the trunks of cars in the area around Nørrebro Station, where many Danish-Somalis live. And some khat is sent on to Sweden and Norway, where the Øresund Bridge is the key component in the supply chain. Of the 10.3 ton khat which Swedish customs officials seized in 2009, 9.4 ton were caught in Malmö after being smuggled via the bridge from Denmark. The backers earn large sums of money on the khat, which rises in value for every border it crosses. While a bundle of half a kilo khat costs 2-3 euros in Amsterdam (15-20 kroner), it costs 60-70 kroner in Denmark, and 100 kroner in Sweden. They send the profits to Somalia, said Muhammed, where some of the money ends up supporting the al-Shabaab Islamist organization.
“These backers are among the most fanatic supporters. They call on people to collect for al-Shabaab, and they transfer the money themselves to the group. This happens through money transfers which bypass the established bank system. It takes half an hour to send money from Malmö to Mogadishu, and nobody can track them,” says Muhammed.
There’s a lot showing that Muahmmed is right. According to Berlingske Tidende’s data, several Western intelligence agencies – including the Danish PET – see a link between khat trade and al-Shabbab. The intelligence services estimate that khat is not the main source of funding. But that, together with smuggling illegal fake goods, other crimes and collections in mosques in Somali communities in Western countries, helps support and finance al-Shabaab’s activities.
Al-Shabaab is considered a terrorist organization by the West, and a growing concern. The group’s aim is an Islamic state with the strict interpretation of Islam, Sharia, as law. The group’s founders have been responsible for various Islamist groups in Somalia since 1991, and al-Shabaab is anti-USA, anti-UN, anti-African Union and generally against all values that smell of the West. Not unlike al-Qaeda, which several leading al-Shabaab members have worked closely with. For the same reason al-Shabaab was added to the US list of terrorist organizations in 2008. Paradoxically, the group, in line with strict Islamism, banned all drugs, including khat. But this allegedly doesn’t prevent al-Shabaab from earning money from the sale of the substance.
In aggressive battle videos on the internet the group has appealed to Somali men to join the fight. Many have responded, and from countries like the US, Canada, England, Sweden and, last but not least, Denmark, young Somali men have traveled to their homeland to fight for al-Shabaab. In Denmark two cases have taught us to spell al-Shabaab: In December a 24 year old Danish-Somali from Rødovre went to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and set off a suicide bomb, which killed 23 people and wounded 40. He allegedly sacrificed his life for al-Shabaab’s cause. On New Year’s Day an attack followed on Danish soil.
Kurt Westergaard was attacked in his own, because he drew the most controversial cartoon of the prophet Muhammed. A 28 year old men of Somali background, MMG, attacked Westergaard’s home with an axe, but police arrived before the attacker could reach Kurt Westergaard in his security room in the bathroom.
PET (Danish Police Intelligence Service) then issues an explanation as to why the terrorist attack on Kurt Westergaard – one of the country’s most obvious terror targets – came as a surprise. It turned out from that, that PET had been following MMG for a long time, because they thought he had close links to the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda heads in East Africa.
In the wake of those two incidents, the heads of Somali groups and associations in Copenhagen and Aarhus came out with warnings.
They see how al-Shabaab’s propaganda is taking hold among young men who were born and raised in Denmark, but who feel Somali. They see how especially on the internet and in gatherings in the community, there are calls to support al-Shabaab. And they see how countless Somali families are ruined, because the family father is too dependent on khat, which is also helping to support al-Shabaab.
“Khat is the Somali’s greatest curse. It’s the cause of many divorces and ruined families, because the husband uses all the family’s money on khat. It’s very easy to obtain in Copenhagen, all to easy,” says Ahmed Dualeh, spokesperson for the Somali Union in Denmark and one of the those who had warned against al-Shabaab’s hold on young Danish-Somalis. He and other moderate voices say that the movement should be fought offensively, otherwise more youth would end up as bomb-men or axe-men. Not least by curbing economic support to the group. Because without money, there’s no al-Shabaab and no terror.
Several European intelligence agencies link khat with al-Shabaab. The same it happening on the other side of the Atlantic. The Canadian security service released a report to the National Post two years ago, which concluded that “some of the proceeds from the global khat trade possibly finance terrorism.” And the American FBI warned in a Senate hearing that terrorist organizations all over the world are financed by drug smuggling, among other things. At the hearing the deputy director of the FBI, Steven C. McCraw, said that the al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) group, the forerunner of al-Shabaab, was suspected of being responsible for khat smuggling to the US.
“Proceeds from the East African khat sales are probably transferred to Middle-Eastern banks via Hawala banks and money transfer firms. This money probably passes through the hands of suspected AIAI members and other people with possible ties to terror groups,” Steven C. McCraw said at the hearing.
The FBI has already cracked down and arrested several suspected backers of khat smuggling in the US. But it’s proved very difficult for the authorities to prove teh crime, also because the money was transferred via so-called hawala-banks. Hawala-banks consist of a broad network of smaller money changers, who can transfer money quickly and without a trace from one person in Europe to another in Africa or the Middle East. It’s the biggest problem of the intelligence agencies in the fight against khat smugglers, says terrorist researchers Lorenzo Vidino of Harvard University’s Belfer Center.
“Several intelligence agencies focus on khat smuggling and the link to terrorism, but it’s difficult to prove. How does one prove that the money from the small smugglers actually ends up by al-Shabaab? There have been attempts to bring up a number of cases, but they fall apart, because the money goes through the hawala system, which is virtually impossible to gather evidence for in a court case. As with all forms of terror financing, it’s very difficult,” says Lorenzo Vidino.
Not only is it difficult ofr the police to trace where the money transfer from Nørrebro to Somalia ends up. It makes it also extra diffiuclt that khat is legal in several European countries. In the Netherlands and the UK, for example, it’s legal to bring in khat. This means that every day several tons of khat are flown in from Kenya to Amsterdam and London. And from there, the khat is sent via courier to many European neighboring coutnries where khat is not legal. Or across the Atlantic where the police in the US and Canada have trouble curbing the smuggling.
When the police and intelligence services manage to crack down on khat smuggling, it’s often the small fish, the couriers, who are court and get punished. Like Muhammed, who let himself be tempted by 2,500 kroner and got ten months in prison. He served his sentence and is a free man today. But Muhammed can’t free himself of the thought that he supported al-Shabaab through his smuggling. He therefore strongly warns against the organization.
“Al-Shabaab has too many supporters among the young Somalis in Malmö and Copenhagen. The axe-man’s attack had maybe gotten more to turn against the organization, but many still back it. If you want to stop al-Shabaab, you should break their economic food chain. And one of the things you should stop is the smuggling, you must stop the khat,” says Mohammed.
Before we say goodbye to each other in the cafe in Malmö, we must promise him one more time, that he will remain anonymous. He seemed nervous to talk to us and says: “Al-Shabaab can’t suffer people who snitch. You get threats, and they say that they can find people, regardless of where they live.”
Muhammed is a fictional name, but Berlingske Tidende known the drug smuggler’s true identity.