WASHINGTON -- The Navy has seized a boat carrying nearly 2 tons of hashish in the Persian Gulf, US officials said yesterday, in what could be some of the first hard evidence linking Al Qaeda to drug smuggling.
The guided missile destroyer USS Decatur intercepted the 40-foot boat on Monday. Aboard were a dozen men, three of them believed to have Al Qaeda connections, and 3,780 pounds of hashish, the Navy said yesterday.
"This is the first empirical evidence I've seen that conclusively links Al Qaeda with the drug trade," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at RAND, a think tank that often does Pentagon work.
The Decatur seized the boat, a wooden vessel called a dhow, near the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow part of the Persian Gulf where it opens into the Arabian Sea. The area is a known smuggling route for Al Qaeda, the Navy said.
The drugs are worth between $8 million and $10 million, according to the Navy.
Military officials would not say why they believed the boat, its cargo, and some of its crew were linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The boat remained under the Decatur's control, and it had not been determined what to do with the men on board.
Terrorism specialists and government officials have long believed that Al Qaeda gains money through criminal enterprises including the drug trade. A United Nations panel reported last month, for example, that Al Qaeda had financed some of its operations through drug trafficking.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bin Laden had been sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban, which had clear links to the heroin trade through Afghanistan's huge opium poppy crops. Smaller groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as Ansar Al Islam in Iraq and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, also have been accused of involvement in the drug trade.
But Hoffman said Monday's seizure was the first indication that Al Qaeda was smuggling hashish, a drug made from the resin of marijuana plants that has a long history in the Middle East.
Smuggling drugs is attractive to Al Qaeda because of huge profits, said Jimmy Gurule, a former Treasury Department official involved in tracking terrorist financing.
"One of the things we learned over the past two years about Al Qaeda is it's a very adaptable organization with respect not only to its terrorist activities but also its mechanisms for raising money," said Gurule, a law professor at Notre Dame.
It's impossible to tell how deeply Al Qaeda is involved in the drug trade, Hoffman said, because the outfit has become skilled at hiding its money trail.
"Hardly anyone has a good handle on their finances," he said.
Congressional investigators said last week that authorities at both the Treasury and Justice departments were struggling to get a grip on how terrorists may be using alternative means -- such as trafficking in gold and diamonds or drugs -- to raise and move financial assets.
Terrorist financiers have beenseeking ways to move and conceal money as governments have taken steps to prevent them from using the traditional banking system.
The Decatur is part of the Navy's effort to crack down on smuggling of drugs, weapons, oil, and terrorists in the Persian Gulf.
The US military also plans to sponsor a multinational exercise in the Arabian Sea next month to practice seizing a merchant ship carrying weapons of mass destruction. The scenario mimics the seizure of a shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea last year, which the United States eventually had to release to the buyer, Yemen.