WASHINGTON, September 2 (AP) Federal investigators say an illegal drug operation in the Midwest, run by men of Middle Eastern descent, funneled proceeds to Middle East terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
Since the ring was smashed eight months ago, there has been “increasing intelligence information from the investigation that for the first time, alleged drug sales in the United States are going in part to support terrorist organizations in the Middle East,” said Asa Hutchinson, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Officials of the agency said the ring’s members, most indicted on drug charges after their arrest in January, had smuggled large quantities of the chemical pseudoephedrine from Canada into the Midwest. Pseudoephedrine, which is used in some popular cold and allergy medications, is an essential ingredient in methamphetamine, a powerful and increasingly popular drug. The authorities say the ring was reselling pseudoephedrine to Mexican-based drug operations in the Western United States that used it to produce methamphetamine.
Officials said that the smuggled pseudoephedrine had been routed through Chicago and Detroit, and that the operation involved several men with ties to Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon and other Middle East countries.
Some of the proceeds from the resale to the Mexican-based traffickers were directed to accounts in the Middle East that the authorities have begun to connect to Hezbollah, officials of the drug agency said. Officials named Lebanon and Yemen as two countries where the money had been traced. They said there was no evidence that any of the money was connected to the September 11 attacks.
Drug agency officials said that while the pseudoephedrine sales had amounted to millions of dollars, they did not know exactly how much of it had been funneled to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups.
“A significant portion of some of the sales are sent to the Middle East to benefit terrorist organizations,” Mr. Hutchinson said.
The ring was broken up on January 10 as a result of a sweeping investigation that has smashed several major methamphetamine operations in the last two years. Arrests were made on that day in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Fresno and Carlsbad, Calif.
Those raids have resulted in charges against 136 people and the seizure of nearly 36 tons of pseudoephedrine, 179 pounds of methamphetamine, $4.5 million in cash, eight real estate properties and 160 cars used by drug gangs.
The evidence of the terror ties emerged only after the arrests. The authorities said it was possible that some defendants charged with drug violations could face additional charges.
Mr. Hutchinson has been warning for months that illegal drug money provides a compelling opportunity for terrorist groups to siphon support from the United States, but the investigation has provided the first evidence of a direct flow of money.
“The money mechanisms being used to aid terrorism are limited only by your imagination,” one senior law enforcement official said. “There is a significant amount of money moved out of the United States attributed to fraud that goes to terrorism.”
The early evidence suggests, the official said, that groups including Hamas and Hezbollah benefit far more than does Al Qaeda from money flowing out of the United States. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity, because many of the details, resulting from a grand jury investigation, remain sealed.
Under a law that prohibits providing “material support and resources” to known terrorist organizations, the Bush administration has been stepping up efforts to stem the movement of money and other assets from sympathizers in the United States to foreign terrorist groups.
Federal agents say they have uncovered a broad effort involving legal immigrants or visitors to use credit card thefts, illegal cigarette sales, charitable funds and cash smuggled in airline luggage to enrich anti-American and anti-Israeli terror groups.