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US Official:  al-Qaida, Drug Traffickers May Establish Ties - 2004-03-02

U.S. officials working to combat the international drug trade are warning of possible future links between al-Qaida and drug traffickers in Colombia and Mexico.

Harold Wankel, the assistant administrator for intelligence at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, says U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that al-Qaida terrorists will also turn to international drug trafficking and Colombian organized crime to transport funds, people, and banned weapons.

"If al-Qaida comes to South America and they need to get something done in the United States that requires movement, whether it is movement of commodity or movement of people, they need not set up infrastructure, they need not set up an operation capable of doing that," he said. "They need to get x-number of dollars and go to the people who are the professionals, the people that are the best at it, and that is the Colombian and Mexican organized criminal groups that are closely aligned these days."

Mr. Wankel says al-Qaida sympathizers in Latin America could turn to the drug trafficking network as the international crackdown on al-Qaida's finances dries up funds.

Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno, says Colombian authorities, are monitoring possible collaboration between Muslim extremists and drug cartels.

"There is always going to be an opportunity for any one group to try to develop that. We have very respectable people from Arab communities in our country who have legitimate businesses," he said. "There are other people in the illegal business of smuggling products into our country and they could be, at one point, a link to it. We have not seen it, so far. We monitor it constantly, but yes, this something that could develop."

U.S. drug enforcement officials say FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is the only terrorist group with clear links to international drug traffickers.

Drug money has helped sustain FARC militants in their three-decade long struggle against the Colombian government, which has included deadly bombings, kidnappings, murders and hijackings.

U.S. drug enforcement officials say the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, along with Afghanistan's former Taleban movement, have profited from drug dealing, but it is unclear whether al-Qaida has benefited from drug funds.

The officials made their remarks during a panel discussion hosted by ABC News in New York.