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Best of Slow Journalism: the narco-terror trap

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

In the wake of 9/11, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned the US government that the drug trade is responsible for pumping money into terrorist organisations. A traumatised nation took heed, and over the next decade the DEA underwent a massive expansion in reach and funding. In this arresting piece co-published by ProPublica and The New Yorker, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Ginger Thompson questions whether narcotics and terrorism really are intertwined, or if the DEA’s claim to such connections was a scaremongering technique designed to place the agency in the limelight.

This narrative brings us to Mali, home to armed groups and unregulated trade markets, and one of the countries on the DEA’s narco-terrorist hit list. Thompson artfully combines technical description of the agency’s work and funding structures with the personal stories of Harouna Touré and Idriss Abdelrahman, two Malian men who fell into a trap the DEA set for them. Enticed by informants posing as drug traffickers and promising them millions of dollars, Touré and Abdelrahman falsely claimed allegiance to al-Qaida and agreed to transport cocaine across the Sahara. Before they knew it, they were locked up in a New York prison and about to be put on trial for narco-terrorism. “There were a lot of people, a lot of cameras, a lot of papers, a lot of talking, and no air,” Touré later said of the day the pair arrived in New York for their arraignment. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe.” According to Thompson, “they didn’t understand what a cocaine deal in West Africa had to do with the United States, much less with terrorism.”

‘The Narco-terror Trap’ lays bare the cracks in a powerful US agency, and questions whether the DEA prevents alliances between narcotics and terrorist groups or helps bring them about by “using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco­terrorism conspiracies.” Informative and analytical, the piece shows the grim pressure on an agency with a nation’s safety in their hands, as well as the voiceless people who fall prey to it and are charged under US laws that bear no resemblance to their own justice system. Thompson pulls off a nuanced voice, humanising both sides of the argument and leaving us to draw our own conclusions. Read the full piece here.

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